Posts Tagged Belarus-EU
It sounds familiar in 2013: Belarus is aiming high. It plans to have 8.5 percent GDP growth and it has unveiled a big-hearted programme on modernisation, social housing, wage growth and debt repayment. After another period of turning its back on the West, it also says it wants to get back to the negotiating table.
But time is a river, you cannot really step into the same water twice. Yes, the average wage is back to $500/month. Meanwhile, prices keep growing. Stable, but low is the President’s popularity rate, at just 30 percent.
So who can help with a bit of cash to keep ambitious plans alive? It is Russia and/or the West.
Moscow already owns the gas pipelines that run through Belarus. It does want to see more extensive privatisation. But with oil prices going down, its support is also dwindling, be it in the form of Russian oil which Belarus refines and sells on, cheap gas, loans or, more simply, in terms of Russian demand for Belarusian exports.
The EU is a rich neighbor. It also has the means to help modernise industry and to bring private sector investment. But it wants Belarus to free political prisoners and to see economic and political reform.
So today it is cheaper to come to terms with the West. You release the inmates and you pick up the discourse of yes-we-want-to-be-your-democratic-friend.
The Russians want the family jewels, and you can only sell those once.
However, the EU might be less easy to fool after the violent post-election crackdown in December 2010 than it used to be. Lukashenko can put on his poker face. But he has already showed his cards.
Let’s wait and see who outwit the others.
The game is: promise more and give less. Complain about the iron fist of Russia but reap the benefits of its Eurasian Union project. Release dissidents and arrest new ones. Rinse and repeat.
Oh, this wonderful fatigue… Problems that can’t be resolved in a limited span of time annoy ad infinitum, don’t they?
Eastern Europeans from their big and small Russias are too elusive to grasp. They have alternating periods of colorful revolutions, flawless democracy and authoritarian rule.
I understand the EU attitude. There are too many national and local problems, with politicians stuck within election cycles, between voters’ pressure and populism, foreign policy being domestic policy-making.
There are very different parties assuming power and bureaucrats merrily-going-round due to rotation.
There is anaemic, drowsy strategic planning and no painstaking decisions as to the countries outside the EU.
As if EU doesn’t have any neighbours any more.
One of the recent episodes of South Park shows Americans supporting the fight of farmers in Belarus. Or was that about cosmonauts in Armenia?
Whatever. Politicians have to act anyway.
And if you have five minutes to spare, please join the fight. Ukrainian stamp collectors need you.
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.
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.
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.
You could pretty well imagine how it feels today to be a Belarusian.
Think of your influential neighbouring country, one that is very close culturally as well as politically. After a government green light, the media starts a propaganda campaign against your president, who has always been its friend. According to the reports he is corrupt and authoritarian, controlling cash flows and killing his challengers.
This campaign to oust him has to do neither with investigative journalism nor with the sleaze itself. It’s just a means to discredit a head of state. The two governments are all too close and in fact pretty similar – telling the entire story behind its previous support could be far too revealing for the accusing side.
The neighbouring leadership has even threatened to publish a transcript of talks behind the closed doors, where other presidents were present. That’s an unacceptable step in terms of diplomacy and international relations. But your mighty neighbour doesn’t care.
And it’s not very pleasant, whatever your attitude to your president.
After the recent gas and media wars between Belarus and Russia, sociologists speak of a new geopolitical trend. Since May 2004 and EU enlargement the number of pro-Russian Belarusians is bigger than that of the pro-European side. For the first time after six years the statistics balance out again, heralding the comeback of traditional, bivectoral geopolitical preferences.
It shows that you can hardly beat Lukashenka on his own territory. Even if you are Russia. Belarusians watch filtered Russian TV and have only a few of Russian newspapers to buy. The majority of those who find Russian reports on the Internet are too critical and too knowledgeable to believe the recent TV documentary series and the reports describing Lukashenka on his knees, in despair, being ready to beg for forgiveness and to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia within a matter of hours. This campaign is aimed at the Russians. And at Monsieur Lukashenka, of course.
Strange as it may seem, the people of Belarus are uniting around Lukashenka, as he is the guarantor of the country’s independence. Even nationalists see the Kremlin as a far more awful evil than the president, whom they have gotten used to anyhow.
The trying-to-be-impartial Western media views Belarus with Russian eyes. Foreign correspondents in Moscow report on the defeated Lukashenka, saying, between the lines, “it serves him right.”
Sorry, but have you thought about the consequences? Do you believe, dear Western colleagues, that Russia is thinking of getting rid of Lukashenka (even if only in the long run) in order to foster democratisation in Belarus? If Russia comes, we’ll have even more Russia, not human rights.
The question is, what is the Kremlin’s plan – especially for the upcoming Belarusian presidential election? Russia can’t put forward a candidate, it has no political influence on the structures of power in Belarus. Experts worry what may happen if Russia doesn’t recognise the results of the elections and the West is forced to follow suit. The whole nation, not just the leadership, will be ousted and isolated.
And, as you look back, unlike the case of Ukraine or Georgia, there’s neither Brussels nor Washington, absolutely nobody behind you.
Scary, isn’t it?
I think I would give one of my toe nails to eavesdrop on certain behind-closed-doors meetings. Maybe even a toe. We rarely get VIP guests from Brussels. Just 18 months ago, I would have said we never get them. I wonder what is the accurate picture the Belarusian authorities paint for their distinguished guests?
In looking at EU travel/international relations arrangements, you can spot the difference: while we hosted EU commissioner Fuele on 8 and 9 July, Kiev next door hosted EU President Van Rompuy.
You can also see a difference in the way Belarusian TV presents the EU and Russia. Brussels is associated with “dialogue” – “it’s the beginning of a long process, but we are on the way to normalising our relations because the EU and Belarus are important economic partners.” Moscow is associated with “conflict” – “their imperialist mentality, their condescending approach to their closest ally is calling our brotherly ties into question.”
Our leader’s rhetoric addressing Mr Fuele front of the TV cameras speaks for itself.
“We won’t fall down, won’t crawl on our knees in front of anyone – you [EU] or Russia or America,” President Lukashenka said Friday. “We won’t be running around Europe or America or Russia, taking money from you,” he added, urging Brussels to “adhere to democratic values without double standards”.
Lukashenka noted that the EU wants take a long look at the upcoming presidential elections before making any fresh moves.
“On the one hand, it is right and objective – you and others want to know whom you will have to deal with, who will be president in Belarus. But I want to caution you against excessive hopes and expectations: Belarus will be taking its own route,” he said.
Decoding the diplomatic language, this means: We don’t need Paul the octopus to predict the outcome of the elections here, brother. So what are you waiting for?
Meanwhile, the opposition at a separate meeting urged Fuele to demand the release of all political prisoners and an end to repression of political adversaries. They were relieved to hear from Fuele that the EU and Russia will not “solve the Belarus issue” behind its back.
Pre-election temperature is rising in Minsk: political groups are dividing the financial resources, their members are changing places like amoebas in a warm pond. The authorities have passed a new Internet edict giving them the right to suspend websites. Not many know but that’s no surprise for them that an issue of an independent newspaper hasn’t found its way to newsstands, one activist got arrested, another was beaten up.
The Czech Republic’s EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy was relaxed and smily. He declined to divulge to journalists the details of his Lukashenka tete-a-tete. But he voiced hope of a “joint interim plan” to develop EU-Belarus ties, currently under negotiation.
He called Belarus the “best kept secret” in Europe.
Does it mean, that the EU worries about Belarus, wondering: “She loves me. She loves me not?” This is no secret. I’m afraid, it just changes every day. We are taking our own route after all!