Posts Tagged Belarus protests

Beware Twilight Diplomacy

They say that long journeys begin with small steps.

Thousands of small business owners recently staged strikes across Belarus against new rules imposed under the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Minsk was reluctant to join it back in January 2010. But it is difficult to say “Niet” to its strategic partner: Russia approves loans and sets gas prices.

Meanwhile, street vendors need to do business.

There are some 80,000 small firms in Belarus that sell clothing and footwear. The new rules come into force on 1 July 2013 and require them (but not manufacturers) to submit samples of their goods to laboratories to test compliance with Customs Union safety standards and to pay (high) certification costs.

After the protests, the new rules were put on ice till November, hopefully the procedure of certification will be tested.

Small business owners believe the Customs Union is a threat to private enterprises in Belarus. They want the country to withdraw from the club. The businessmen were never consulted, but now they are having their say.

President Alexander Lukashenko says that Belarus’ social and economic model is based on the Christian ideals of the Russian civilisation.

Maybe that’s how come the Russian civilisation can force through any project it wants without it being labelled political.

The Russian are even opening a (Christian?) military airbase in the Belarusian town of Lida. The location is close to the Lithuanian border, which makes it vulnerable – and political.

It’s good to have allies. But the “Russian civilisation” has a habit of cooking up new gas price formulas, unions or initiatives behind closed doors. And the Russian bear’s embrace suffocates much needed reforms in Belarus.

Belarusian people are not consulted, but the government says, of course, that they endorse the projects by their own free will. So, its their responsibility, not Russia’s, not the EU’s.

Funnily enough, the EU also practices twilight diplomacy in Belarus. It recently suspended, for one year, its visa ban on Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey.

It is not a bad move per se – there should be someone to oil diplomatic contacts.

It is clearly aimed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November in Vilnius, where the EU hopes to pull closer some of the former Soviet countries by signing agreements and visa pacts. But nobody knows the conditions of Makey’s attendance.

Regardless of its political calendar, the EU needs to engage more with Belarusian society, to have (genuine, not bogus) NGOs as a condition partner for its common projects with Minsk.

The EU should be watering the roots of civil society. It is these people who must, ultimately, come to an arrangement with their state.

At the same time, as a normative power, the EU should create clear, fair and open rules for its relations with difficult neighbours.

If it wants to play diplomacy in the twilight zone, it should beware: the Russians and the Belarusian elite are masters of the game.

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Clap Your Hands, Say Change

Picture this: My granny regrets having voted for Lukashenka in the elections half a year ago. It’s not the end of the world, but looks like the beginning of it. As we say, meaning that a certain fate is unavoidable: Annushka has already spilled the oil.

Isn’t it ironic? The name of my blog has changed its meaning several times since I started it. The spring of 2009 brought the thaw, the winter of 2010/2011 looked like an Ice Age and summer 2011 has it all: economic breakdown, complete loss of direction on behalf of the authorities and creative protests. My personal Oscar goes to the sense of humour skyrocketing these months in Belarus.

And it is ironic indeed. Now that the opposition is in jail or morally devastated, Belarusians all over the country are organising themselves with the help of social media (and use of the Internet is fairly widely spread) for silent protests. During three consecutive Wednesdays Belarusians gathered on the central squares of 20 cities, without chanting any slogans, and simply clapped their hands.

Each time more people came (several thousands only in Minsk) and even more were brutally detained or arrested. The next demo is on 29 June. On 3 July – on our Day of Independence – there is another one. Police have already announced that clapping hands will be considered a violation of public order.

Meanwhile, the EU has introduced its first ever economic sanctions against the regime. They needn’t have bothered. They regime already did that to themselves: problems with availability of foreign currency, imports and foreign debt are drastic.

In the time of economic crisis it’s finally evident  – even for my granny  – that the country badly needs structural reforms.

Belarus’ economic model has run out of steam, the World Bank says. Devaluation of the national currency to 56 percent is a blessing for an export-oriented economy, Lukashenka says. He is embarrassed to see how Belarusians reacted, with panic buying, to rumours about possible shortages of sugar and sunflower oil … (the oil, yes, the oil, Annushka).

A quarter of Belarusians believe they are to blame for the economic crisis in the country, Lukashenko also says. Aha, the nation responds, now we know how many Belarusians really voted for the president in December.

You can’t choose a nation to govern, Lukashenka adds. But you can choose a president is my reply.

Russia? Its involvement in the whole story of the economic deterioration in Belarus is not so clear. After years of brotherly help, it sharply raises energy prices, denies indirect subsidies, demands back debts and remindes about the Belarusian enterprises it could buy.

In terms of political pressure, the Russian government has publicly deplored politicised trials and state Russian TV is closely following our protests. For his part, Russian President Medvedev didn’t even bother to come to the Brest fortress to commemorate 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic war.

This is what Belarusians are saying with their silence. That changes are taking place and more is to come. It’s scary. It’s unbelievable. It’s unexpected. But it’s real and it needs to be done.

Hey EU – all eyes on Belarus for 3 July.

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