As a Belarusian joke goes: There are tours to Belarus organised for the Russians to see what they will have after the presidential elections on 4 March.
Putin will be elected, but of course situation in Russia is and will be different. Even the demonstrations show how different we are.
In Russia rallies are tolerated.
And there are so many creative and witty posters. People mock at the regime and its corrupt nature: “Don’t shake the boat, our rat is sick”, “Veggies are good for the regime”, “Putin cheats at maths”, “Passive intellectuals are here today as well”, “They killed elections! You, bastards!” etc, etc.
And I thought: why have I never written anything funny when joining a rally?
It’s been 17 years, it’s bitter not witty.
There’s nothing funny about any new scandal, every other broken life of an expelled student or a sacked trade union activist.
It’s not in Russia that a dissident receives two weeks imprisonment for placing toys with slogans against the regime or two years for hanging out a white-red-white flag that is not forbidden.
It’s not in Russia that terrorists are arrested a day after the bombing and the death cases of the journalists or politicians stay unsolved.
Not in Russia the results of the national Eurovision contest are declared rigged and revoked personally by the president after the scandal in the internet forums.
It’s not Russia that in response to EU sanctions raises the level of repression against its own people.
It’s not Russia that forces the EU to recall all ambassadors. Smiling and giving its best bark that is still worse than its bite, in a row that it can not afford and is bound to lose…
The knowledgeable ones here are unhappy as they also know how few they are, and how many are not interested to be informed.
Right, Russia also has those who care and those who don’t. But none of the parts is that disillusioned, hard-boiled, taken through the 17 years of mincing machine, with its ups and downs, being proven wrong, proven right but meaningless.
This is Belarus, baby.
“They killed our hope! F*ck you, bastards”…
“No, Rakhlei. No long introductions. Just a simple answer: Are you for the sanctions or against?”
Oh oh. Now it’s getting deadly serious. If you support the idea of any kind of a dialogue or contacts between the West and the regime in Belarus, they will never ever be your friends again. You will have to drink your vodka on your own.
There’s currently a lack of everything in Belarus. Of warm weather, but also of optimism, good news, solidarity, the ability to listen and compromise.
There are those who believe that only tougher restrictive measures from the West could influence the situation in Belarus. As external democratisation efforts could only be effective if the authorities support, not hamper them, sanctions are the only way to influence the regime from outside the country.
And Belarusians need help as they don’t have any instruments to make themselves heard. Moreover, it’s immoral to hold any negotiations with those who beat up dissidents and torture opposition activists in jail.
There’s also an alternative point of view. That the sanctions the EU is able to adopt are of a symbolic nature, unpleasant for the authorities, but largely ineffective. And they won’t get tougher than the imposed travel ban and targeted restrictions against certain companies which support the regime. Moreover, if only the regime can trigger changes, let’s talk to them as well. Future democracy would also need democrats and they can’t mature overnight.
Two more political prisoners (Sannikau and Bandarenka) are rumoured to be released mid-February – would that be thanks to the restrictions or to negotiations? Oh, a slave trade, you say? You would prefer them to die in jail?
I know. It’s very difficult not to get overemotional and frustrated about fruitless negotiations in the situation of constant pressure and stable decline. But a pragmatic, result-oriented position on the necessary effectiveness of the restrictions is also important.
There is no other winning strategy than a long-term one, being very well aware of the risks and staying very well informed. Only a clear, consistent, conditionalised and – reasonable position can be persuasive.
One has to have the big picture in mind and take all the possible steps to achieve one’s ultimate goals. Even if these steps might seem too, too small for now.
So, I am against simple answers to complicated questions.
On 19 December 2010 Alexander Lukashenka claimed victory in a presidential election that, according to domestic and international monitors, was marred by irregularities and falsifications. This re-election saw the largest protests in Belarus in a decade and was followed by an unprecedented wave of repressions again political opponents and civil society, as well as a complete freeze in relations with the West, and by the deepest economic crisis since Belarusian independence. Speed and scale of these developments came to the surprise of even the most astute experts of Belarus.
79.6 percent was the official count of votes supporting Lukashenka. By contrast, independent polls saw him score merely 51.1 percent. According to them, 20.5 percent is the share of Belarusian citizens that would cast their vote for him today.
And here are some more figures:
189 percent is the rate, at which the Belarusian rouble devalued this year.
113.6 is the current figure for base inflation. Food prices have risen by 127.4 percent, those of services by 72.4 percent.
45 percent is the current refinancing rate, the highest in the world. This rate compares to 10.5 at the beginning of the year.
70 percent of GDP is the estimated size of Belarus’ external debt by the end of 2011. And it is not supposed to exceed 55 percent of GDP under the country’s national security strategy.
$177 is the difference between wages in December 2010 and October 2011, as average incomes dropped from $530 to $353.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have migrated to Russia and Ukraine for work; the worst-case scenario expects 1 million people to leave for work.
11 price rises have driven up the costs of gasoline in 2011, provoking several mass protests by automobilists.
$270 per one thousand cubic meters has been the price Belarus paid this year for Russian gas. In 2012, the price will drop to $165.50, while Ukraine is ready to pay $416.
100 percent is the ownership by Gazprom of Belarusian pipeline operator Beltransgaz. Having just purchased the remaining 50 percent for $2.5 billion, Russia now for the first time owns a pipeline outside its territory. Gazprom promised a threefold wage growth to its new employees.
$7.3 billion is the total of Russian subsidies to Belarus, as per Moscow’s calculations, in 2011 and 2012. Besides reductions in gas prices and the purchase of Beltransgaz, Sberbank has provided a $1 billion loan to potash giant Belaruskali.
A single currency is to be introduced in 2012, according to the hopes of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
…a year has never been that long for the Belarusians.
Twenty years ago the Soviet empire broke into independent pieces. It’s a very good moment for Putin – who considered the break-up “a geopolitical catastrophe” – to launch his Eurasian Union to relieve its phantom pains of the new post-Soviet states.
The Eurasian Union is presented as a purely economic integration project to unite the markets of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, to begin with.
But there is nothing as political as an economic integration project with Russia. As Putin once put it: wars for land are pointless today, as you can just buy it.
The Union can look to its predecessors. The pilot version – the Union State of Belarus and Russia – got stuck somewhere between oblivion and non-existence. There is also the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Community, Eurasian Economic Community of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia and – last but not least – the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
The Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions start and end with the immediate neighbourhood and have a strongly nostalgic flavour. The Eurasian Union looks like a set of crutches for three authoritarian regimes with different (and to some extent incompatible) economies to cling together for survival.
Russia’s main export is gas and oil. Its import is everything else. The most significant part of the Belarusian budget is exports of processed Russian oil. Russia is an important market for Belarusian products, but no Russian oil means no state budget. But considering popular protests around Belarus and Russia, economic stability is more than ever a necessity in these countries.
Twenty years have gone by and Belarus’ choice between the EU and the EU (the Eurasian Union) is not political but purely geographical as it still borders on three EU member states and Russia.
Brussels expects Belarus to embrace democracy before any integration can go ahead. The regime in Minsk has ignored Brussels’ unilateral offer to liberalise visas. Politically, the offer from Moscow looks unbeatable as it contains no uncomfortable conditions on structural reforms, liberalisation and respect of democratic values.
But the latest-model union means for Belarus an even tighter hug by the Russian bear. The common market excludes access to Russian gas and oil. And the formula for gas prices is always open to re-calculation and re-negotiation, depending heavily on the good political will of Moscow.
So the Eurasian Union, another integration project with Russia: It’s like a bad dream, not even a nightmare, because it’s all too familiar.
For the Belarusians and Russians the authorities are something like the weather. One can endlessly complain about the heat, but one knows for sure there is nothing to be done to turn it down. The rain can’t be prevented. The snow won’t be warmed. So, people are silent.
It’s not my metaphor but I find it is apt when it comes to questions about the general dissatisfaction and the lack of nationwide strikes or protests. So long as people can make ends meet economically, they won’t take to streets. Moreover, how can you demand anything when there are no instruments for you to influence those who make decisions? The only decisive argument here is mass demonstrations.
The silent protests in Belarus this summer were easier: Whether you prefer controlled or market economy, the current president or the opposition, you can clap together. No rally with loudspeakers could have united all those people as they have different problems and see different ways to solve them. And even this form of protest was successfully stifled with the method “arrest everyone in the vicinity.”
The economy in Belarus is going badly; the next wave of inflation is coming. People are anxious, lose their trust in the government and the measures it takes, try to predict the price rises. Nor is it easy politically, as there are new laws to prevent silent actions and financial help from abroad, the powers of the law enforcement officers are being broadened. But Belarusians have the will to survive anything.
The classical (Lenin’s) definition of the revolutionary situation is when the “tops” can’t govern the way they used to and “bottoms” do not want to live the same way anymore. Only desperate people create revolutions. Only when it rains, it pours. And now it’s still difficult to forecast: If and when it’s going to rain.
Autocratic regimes often hit the ground running.
The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 was hailed by intellectuals as a socialist and a social coup. Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and Cuba’s Fidel were also promising revolutionaries at one time.
But any great idea can fail in its implementation. If there are x ways to get from starting point a to point b, the choices need to be examined and debated, but this is impossible in autocratic regimes. There are no roads in the authoritarian jungle. The socialist revolution and the road to Communism were followed by almost a century of passionate struggle against individualism. The fist of Soviet autocracy crushed free spirits. It is the same story with Cuba and Libya.
Where are these countries going? Against the flow? Going their own, unique way, not giving a damn about America or EU? But who do they listen to? An inner circle of wise counsellors? Righto – the masses are already inert and can be easily ignored.
Authority is inherently so dangerous and prone to corruption that no system can stay healthy without division of power, elections and rotation of leaders. The problem is that any change is a challenge for autocrats. For them, a one-man protest could have a butterfly effect and bring everything crashing down.
But let us come back to Europe.
Belarusian leader Lukashenka won the first presidential elections in the country when it became independent and broke away from Soviet rule. He wanted to end corruption and to improve the economy. Seventeen years later his regime is heading into a cul-de-sac. “Cul” means “arse” in French and “sac” is “bag” – they literally describe the situation.
Inflation in Belarus in the first seven months of 2011 was between five and 103 times higher than elsewhere in post-Soviet countries. In 2011 consumer prices have gone up by 41%. A shortage of foreign currency prompted mass sales of Belarusian products to Poland and to Russia in order to get hold of Polish zlotys and Russian roubles. There are shortages in the shops. Now people go to queue up in the morning to get meat. Meanwhile, the upward leap in prices saw Belarusians stockpile sugar, cereal an sunflower oil. They say, it’s temporary that there’s not enough meat sold in Belarus. Well, was economic stability temporary as well?
And what does this panic show? It reveals the lack of trust and lack of empathy of ordinary people toward the leadership. People need an alternative and they cannot find one. It’s natural – an autocratic regime presupposes no alternative. As we say in Minsk, there’s no grass where the tanks drive. But discontent and distrust do not automatically bring autumn to the patriarchs. There’s panic about failing economy in Belarus, but no mass protests, no walkouts.
EU is now thinking to revive the conditional dialogue with the regime to help the country out. That would be the right thing to do for your neighbour, even if stabilising the country means stabilising the regime. When negotiating, one can trade help for necessary changes.
The colossi are heavy and not easy to move. But they are bound to fall in the end. Sometimes after 42 years, sometimes more quickly.
The act of terrorism in Minsk on 11 April is an attempt to destroy the myth that Belarus is an ‘island of stability and security,’ as the Belarusians describe it.
The country has neither religious nor nationalist internal conflicts and no external enemies. The explosion comes shortly after presidential elections in December, which saw law enforcement bodies hailed for preventing what they called a coup d’etat prepared by the opposition and Western countries. So how was the blast in the very centre of the capital possible?
The bomb attack occurred in the Minsk metro during Monday’s evening rush hour. Thirteen people are dead, 200 were injured. It’s a huge tragedy for a peaceful country of 10 million people which has not taken part in any wars since it gained independence in 1991. A far more striking loss than the disappearances of several opposition politicians and a journalist in 1999 and 2000.
On 13 April – the official day of mourning – President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that the case has been solved and the bombing suspects have confessed.
The main suspects are two ordinary 25-year-old men, a lathe operator and an electrician. They also confessed to two earlier bombings – in September 2005 in Vitsyebsk and on Independence Day in Minsk on 3 July 2008 – basically, the only other bomb attacks of note during Lukashenka’s rule. Nobody was killed in the earlier blasts, which had remained unsolved.
There has been a lot of speculation on who might have wanted to ‘destabilise the country’ at a time when it is already struggling with a complicated economic problem.
Moscow? But Minsk has pinned its hope on a loan from Russia and it will be hard for the Kremlin to seek tough conditions in the aftermath of the tragedy. In fact, the latest news from Moscow is that talks on a $1 billion loan could be completed within a month. Also, that a second anti-crisis loan of $2 billion will be considered in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Community.
The opposition? After the presidential elections opposition leaders and their aides are either in prison or under house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of organising or participating in mass protests.
Islamist groups? Organised crime? Could it be an internal power struggle between apparatchiks? The fight against Lukashenka?
For sure, the explosion has caused discomfort for the government: the first reactions on Belarusian websites blamed Lukashenka himself. He visited the site just two and a half hours after the attack with his seven-year-old son (!) and urged police to catch the bombers as soon as possible.
In theory, he could benefit from distracting people from the economic crisis and use the event as a pretext to strangle what remains of the opposition. But in practice? It doesn’t make much sense. How can you distract someone from his daily routine? And destroy what is already almost nonexistent? And more trials will follow anyway.
For its part, the UN Security Council condemned the explosion as an “apparent” act of terrorism on face value. It apparently saw “a more than even chance that the government was behind this”.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka is indignant over the suggestions he may have been involved. He said that peace and security are the “brand” of Belarus and that the case has been solved very quickly. He added: “Am I an idiot to be the one to claim the crime is cleared?” The terrorists loved chemistry and hated people.
The President has linked the post-election protests, the current economic problems and the bombing as a joint-up conspiracy to undermine the stability in the country, saying that the opposition is acting in collusion with Western governments and could be responsible.
Lukashenka promised to stabilise the economic situation in a matter of days, or a week. He asked people “not to be mad at him” and promised that the worst has already passed.
One of the Russian yellow newspapers published the names of the three suspects, all of whom are simple guys from Vitsyebsk who worked at the Vitsyebsk Tractor Parts Factory. An opposition activist who happened to serve in the army together with one of the suspects confirmed that the guy was a real fan of chemistry.
No formal charges have yet been brought against the men, but it’s pretty clear what awaits them: Belarus is the only country in Europe which still executes people. They could be trialed as quickly as they were arrested. The official discourse – that the country is in a state of war – is also alarming as for instance, the people spreading ‘slanderous accusations’ about the events could face criminal charges.
Unreal as it may seem, the situation in the country might soon stabilise: the government is likely to get the loans it needs and to privatise some of the biggest enterprises. Devaluation will be a tough but necessary step, foreign currency will flow back, those found guilty of the bombing will face capital punishment.
What will remain is a deep fissure in the fabric of society, recognised even by the President himself: between those who believe anything the authorities say or do and those who find it difficult to believe anything.
How many people believe that the hastily arrested are the terrorists? How many will trust the verdict?
How many will be happy with economic measures to curb the crisis? How many regret their vote in December?
The question is – can such a country be considered genuinely stable?
P.P: As the post was published, shocking news came. There was an explosion in the busiest Minsk underground station Oktyabrskaya, in the very centre of the city, near the Presidential Administration. 11 dead, 126 injured.. The explosion is classified as a terroristic act. The second one after the bombing in July’2008.. and the first one which took human lives.. Lukashenka personally examined the scene and urged to search the county and arrest anyone who has explosives.
The two main weapons of the Belarusian authorities are fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency… Well, the three weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and fanatical devotion to the social model of market economy… Anyhow, not the rule of law, but the law of their rules, which are not always logical.
The current economic and political self-portrait of Belarus is full of the brightest shades of the darkest colours. Since presidential elections in December 2010, the future of the country has been changing. On 12 April EU ministers will discuss potential economic sanctions against Belarusian authorities. No sweat: they already introduced economic sanctions against themselves.
The country faces a crisis in terms of hard currency: trading in foreign currency has been restricted and no flexibility in the exchange rate is allowed. It’s very difficult to buy dollars or euros, which makes foreign travel difficult, handicaps the private sector and could end-up bringing the biggest state factories to a standstill.
Belarusians have hurried to empty their bank accounts to buy foreign currency as well as anything that can be traded (gold) or might get a lot more expensive (sugar, buckwheat, sunflower oil).
Belarus lives beyond its means. Foreign debt skyrocketed from zero in 2006 to $10.6 billion dollars in March 2011. The government has ruled out a devaluation, which the IMF believes is a vital step.
It looks like Moscow is in control. It promised loans ($3 billion) but is in no hurry to pay them. First the Kremlin gave Minsk 10 days (!) to bring forward a plan for economic reforms. Now this document is being studied. Is Moscow expecting Belarus to give it carte blanche to buy the family silver (Belarusian chemical and machinery plants, oil refineries)? Russian businessmen have wanted this for a long time but could not get access.
Meanwhile, Russia is to raise its gas price for Belarus. It used to be $187 dollar per 1.000 cubic metres in 2010, $223 at the beginning of 2011 and will now be $244.7.
One sign that Belarusian authorities are once again putting their hope in the West is the release of a number of detainees from KGB detention centres considered by the EU to be political prisoners. Their charges have not been dropped but10 of them now face three instead of 15 years in jail. The official story is that this is the result of the investigations.
The two main sources of stability for Belarusian authorities have always been cheap Russian gas (for whatever reasons) and the trust of the wider public (for whatsoever reasons). The lack of the first asset shows the instability of the latter. And this at least is logical.
It’s been the talk of the town for a while and finally EU countries have come up with a verdict: fresh sanctions against Belarus. Two days before the official EU decision on Monday (31 January), seven opposition activists were released from the KGB detention centre in Minsk and put under house arrest, including one formal presidential candidate: Vladimir Neklyaev.
So why the sanctions? Since the evening of election day on 19 December Blearusian civil society has faced an unprecedented level of pressure.
Political activists, journalists, human rights defenders are being taken for questioning and arrested, their offices and flats are being searched. Three out of 10 presidential candidates are still in KGB detention centre, five ex-candidates and 37 people in total face harges of organising mass protests and could spend up to 15 years in prison.
Most of them haven’t met their lawyers since 29 December. All 37 have been recognised by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.
What could the EU do? Ban officials from entering EU countries; freeze their assets and property in EU countries; embargo products of Belarusian state companies.
What would it bring? Only the embargo option has an impact beyond the political. There are calculations that the Belarusian economy would collapse in a matter of months if Europe stops buying Belarusian oil products and potash fertilisers. On the other hand, any restrictions from the West would inevitably push Belarus eastwards – into Russia’s loving arms.
What do Belarusians want? Belarusians hope that imprisoned activists are released. They also hope for “positive sanctions” – more freedom to travel; enhanced and non-bureaucratic co-operation with NGOs and political parties; a long-term perspective for institution-building and social development. And they want no more Russia.
What’s it all about? Is the ultimate goal regime change? The democratisation of Belarus? If the latter, the EU should proceed with restricted political dialogue with the political elite and an extended dialogue with the population at large. I do hope they consider carefully the means, not just the end.
As the last month has shown, it’s very unlikely that the BY government has the potential to carry out structural democratic reforms and to open up. At the same time, the uninformed wider public in Belarus has no way to articulate its will, no public sphere in which to imagine a new path of development. We need external help to help ourselves.
If supermarkets have for decades only sold apples, why would you suddenly demand pineapples, which are anyway believed to be “the worst form [of fruit?], except for all the others that have been tried?”
I know, the matter is a lot more complicated than I have pictured here. For informed Belarusians it’s been a very, VERY exhausting month. Every day has brought ups and downs and ups and then downs again. There is no signs the madness will end shortly, or that the EU sanctions will really help.
The prisoner release on the eve of the EU foreign ministers’ meeting is the traditional Belarusian political tango: two steps backward and one step forward. Will the EU be deceived again?
If nothing else, Belarus is a wonderful stress test for EU foreign policy, and its influence on events in the Union’s most direct of neighbours.