Posts Tagged Belarus EU sanctions

(im)Prove

Improvement becomes a philosophical matter, when it is about less repression in a country that barely has any political activity left to repress.

Belarus has seen no sign of change.

Wait. Signs, yes. Signs that Minsk wants to improve its relations with the West. Foreign minister Makey met foreign diplomats and some of his counterparts to announce that Minsk is seeking to rebuild its ties with united Europe.

There are signs that there can be change. But no changes so far. No ground-breaking economic or social reforms, political prisoners are still in prison, dissidents still in the underground.

Months ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit in November, Lithuania is trying to make sure it is going to be a success: several important agreements (with Ukraine and Moldova) are to be signed and European political heavyweights will come together in Vilnius to celebrate EU politics on Eastern Europe.

Belarus is, of course, not the top of potential success stories on the agenda, Ukraine is far more important.

But to have political prisoners released and lay the ground to start a dialogue of any kind at all would be good. At any time. Even if it is tied to the EU political calendar. Or the decision of Minsk to balance its dependence on Russian support (as Moscow is pressing to privatise key assets to its investors).

But it is not that much about the exigency of improvements. Which are being sought and found.

As the EU offers Minsk a formula of “more for more and less for less.” The strategy of Minsk, as Belarusian experts put it, is “less for nothing.”

Both Minsk and Brussels have always had conditions to resume dialogue. And have resumed it several times. And broke it up again. I am afraid the point of the whole rapprochement is lost.

So… What is the goal? Does the EU want to have a dialogue with Belarusian authorities? Does it aim at profiting from intensifying co-operation?

If the objective is improvement of the political situation and legal framework in Belarus, there is definitely a need of a clear roadmap for both sides to follow, with a list of steps, concessions and such. Otherwise this stumbling block will be endlessly moved around.

You want to improve it? Prove it.

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Not Russia

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”…

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Autocrat Autumn

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.

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Happy? New? Yeah…

There’s nothing else you can talk about in Belarus these days. After the presidential election on 19 December people woke up in a different country. New year 2011 has brought a new reality to Belarus.

Probably, you didn’t hear?

A short retrospective, as I feel the need to explain myself, the same as German and Polish FMs Westerwelle and Sikorski – the architects of the EU-Belarus “critical” political dialogue. I’ve been trying to show it’s not that bad. Well, now it is.

Two weeks ago the authorities dispersed an anti-Lukashenka demonstration with extreme violence. About 700 people were detained, and not just protesters. People who were simply leaving bars or cinemas in Minsk city centre were also among those put under arrest for 10 to 15 days or fined. It’s as if someone wanted to make sure that the number of those detained was impressive enough. The detention reports were identical: everybody, apparently, was arrested at 10.30pm local time at the Nezavisimosti square, where an unauthorised demonstration took place and where they shouted anti-state (!) slogans – inter alia – “Long live Belarus.”

In the two weeks that followed, the crackdown has continued but in a more targeted way. The homes of the relatives of those arrested were searched, as well as the flats and offices of human rights defenders, opposition activists and journalists.

There’s also a (growing?) list of 27 people who could be charged with organising mass riots (facing between 5 and 15 years’ jail) and participating in them (3-8 years).

The list features seven former presidential rivals of Alyaksandr Lukashenka – Ryhor Kastusyow, Alyaksey Mikhalevich, Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, Vital Rymashewski, Andrey Sannikaw, Mikalay Statkevich and Dzmitry Uss.

All of them, except for Kastusyow and Uss, are being held in the KGB detention centre, even though the charges were brought by the Minsk city police. The news is coming out from the lawyers of those charged. There is no official information as this stage. Rymashewski was suddenly released today on his own recognisance (3 January). More people are expected to be released on the condition that they will not leave Minsk during the investigation.

Among the 27 on the list and in the KGB cells are the presidential candidates’ aides, journalists and opposition activists, but not the dozen or so people who broke the windows of a government building on 19 December. The attack on the building was a signal for the police to brutally disperse the whole unarmed crowd. They dozen assailants can be clearly seen on videos posted on the internet. Where are these still-unknown heroes? The minister of interior, Kulyashow, has promised to identify each and every one who was involved.

Meanwhile, the president-elect decided not to wait for the inauguration and appointed a new government (same faces, different positions). On 31 December Belarusian authorities sent another signal to the Western front: they found no objective reason to prolong the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk (“We don’t need no education”).

Every action has a reaction.

I can hardly believe the massive wave of solidarity this has provoked: Social networks put aside their holidays, people have been raising money to pay the fines, discussing how they could help. The Guardian-Angel programme published the list of people arrested for 10-15 days and suggested ways to help: choose a person to supply with toilet paper, drinking water, warm clothes and so on, come to pick him/her up with a car when they are released.

Blogs and forums have analysed pictures and videos from the demonstration, compared official reports and independent media. Newspapers got phone-calls with stories such as: “Who can I tell that my mum took a taxi from the restaurant and was snatched out of it when it stopped at the traffic lights? She is arrested as a demonstration participant”.

The comment of the president-elect – that Christmas in Belarus was celebrated this year in a unique, unprecedented atmosphere – is indeed true.

This country, situated between the EU and Russia, has contained had a dividing line. Now the nation is more polarised than ever, mostly along age lines, not geographically, but geopolitically and, above all, emotionally. In his New Year’s address Lukashenka spoke of “the absolute majority” and “the minority.”

What’s going on? How far is Moscow involved? Is it the intention of Minsk to stop all cooperation with the West and put up with the opposition? Just like that? All of a sudden? That’s what “the minority” can’t stop talking about and finds no answers.

But the question that bothers me the most: what were the police guys thinking when they beat and kicked their own countrymen – people who were armed only with slogans?

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