By Nathalie Vogel
In the course of the Arab Spring the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been ousted. Yet, there is one forgotten dictator at the Eastern border of Europe in Belarus. During the last presidential election December 19, 2010, Alyaksandr Lukashenka garnered a Soviet-like result: 79.65 % of the votes. (The spelling of the name may vary, in Russia it is Alexander Lukashenko). The OSCE declared the election as fundamentally flawed. The evening ended with 10,000 protesters demanding Lukashenka’s resignation. Massive arrests and brutal beatings ensued. The majority of members of the opposition were arrested.
But more disturbing was the spectacular betrayal of Jaraslau Ramanchuk who came in third in the election with 1.98%, and publicly accused other members of the opposition of being responsible for the unrests. Coming in 9th with only 1.02% of the votes, Ales Michalevich had been pressed into delivering a similar public testimony on TV, but refused and was eventually released after signing an agreement with the KGB which he immediately retracted. Ramanchuk was not as courageous, he offered a justification for the arrest of several activists, including Andrei Sannikau’s wife, award-winning Russian journalist Irina Khalip. He was then free to go wherever he pleased and was no longer bothered. He chose to go on winter holiday to Austria…
Former diplomat Andrei Sannikau, 2nd result with 2.43 % of the votes, did not have that luxury. He was violently beaten and taken to prison with severe head injuries. On May 14, he was sentenced to five years on charges of allegedly organizing a “mass disturbance.”
Another member of the opposition, author Uladzimir Niaklajeu sustained a head injury during a beating on Election Day and was apprehended from intensive care by Belarusian security forces.
Meanwhile over 40 major figures of civil society have been convicted. On August 12, nine were pardoned. They were pressed into signing declarations accusing themselves of having organized civil unrests and pledged to discontinue any form of political activities, a de facto surrender of their Freedom of assembly and Freedom of expression.
This is the way former collective farm Director Lukashenka understands “free and fair elections.” In response, the United States has imposed harsh sanctions. They concern Belarusian state owned companies and travel restrictions. “These sanctions are not designed to harm the people of Belarus, but rather to deny funds to those responsible for the repression in Belarus following the December 19th  presidential elections,” State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated. Similar measures were adopted by the European Union banning 158 Belarusian officials from entering the European Union.
Europe’s Last Dictator: A Racist, Stalinist, Anti-Semite?
The quote about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the worst catastrophe of the 20th century is often attributed to Vladimir Putin. It is not entirely correct. Putin quoted Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenka, the only deputy of the Supreme Soviet Council to vote against the ratification of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Lukashenka has been in power since 1994. His country has not seen a free and fair election by international monitoring standards since then. What it has seen, however, are mysterious disappearances of high profile opponents to Lukashenka, such as former Minister of Interior Yuri Zakharanka, MP Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.
Belarusian diplomats will assure you that their president is the world’s most misquoted politician. In fact, he is a constant victim of bad translations. Speaking to Germany’s Handelsblatt in 1995, Lukashenka argued that Germany’s history was similar to the history of Belarus, praising Adolf Hitler who after all “did not only do bad things.” Bad translation, they claimed. In 2007 he was commenting on the terrible state of the city of Babruysk as follows: “This is a Jewish city. The Jews are not concerned about the city they live in. They have turned Babruysk into a pigsty. Look at Israel. I was there and saw it myself. I call on the Jews to come back to Babruysk.” Broadcasted on national television, Lukashenka could not blame it on poor translation. This time, it was “humor,” a spokesman for the administration argued. Belarusian diplomats again came to his rescue claiming that Mr. Lukashenka, was, after all, known for not being a racist.
Perhaps, but Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s political actions speak a different language. From the repression of the Polish minority in Belarus to his closest ties and arms deliveries to Israel’s worst enemies, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has proved that he is not just a “clumsy” head of state with an odd sense of humor. Actually, it may very well be that the Western World does not share his presidential “sense of humor,” especially when European lawmakers read reports of arbitrary arrests and torture in Belarusian prisons in the worst Stalinist tradition of repression. After the latest wave of arrests in December 2010, protesters were beaten unconscious by the squads of the Ministry of Interior, dragged into cars and transported to interrogation centers, where they were systematically tortured. Several political prisoners were forced to stand outside naked in the cold. They were forced into excruciating positions during searches and forced to sleep in cells where the temperature was kept at 10C. They were also denied access to basic hygiene during interrogation (including the use of a toilet). Seriously ill detainees were refused their daily medications causing severe liver and kidney failures after beatings.
For German MP Marieluise Beck, the facts speak for themselves and there is no need for translation. After massive arrests following peaceful demonstrations in June 2011, she confronted Lukashenka personally: Alyaksandr Lukashenka proves again with the massive arrests of peaceful protesters that democracy and human rights are being grossly violated. People in Belarus are suffering immensely with cost of living hikes and food shortages. Lukashenka is the one responsible for the economic ruin, yet he has anyone protesting against his mismanaged economy arrested, she said. According to Beck, the Belarusian regime has put itself outside of the European value system. Meanwhile, Minsk police have received orders to arrest anyone participating in the allegedly subversive “clapping” protests in the Belarusian capital. Belarusian Absurdistan is the only country in the world where applauding can send you to jail.
The Awakening of the EU
Seven years ago it was nearly impossible to attract the attention of European lawmakers on Belarus. George W. Bush and John McCain had taken the lead sounding the alarm on behalf of the Free World. The Belarus Democracy Act was passed on October 4, 2004, then amended and renewed on December 8, 2006. The US administration tried to engage its partner into taking action. “We will work with our allies and partners to assist those seeking to return Belarus to its rightful place among the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies,” President Bush stated. But in the EU, most continental Western diplomats were contemplating the actions of US politicians with disbelief–if not disdain. For 11 years until October 2009, Germany’s foreign policy was entirely based on pleasing the Kremlin, while ignoring Ukraine and systematically appeasing Belarus. Especially during Chancellor Schröder years in office and later with Frank-Walter Steinmeier as Foreign Minister, cooperation with Moscow was to be preserved at any cost, be it the cost of lives in what Moscow considered its sphere of influence. Political positions in Paris and Berlin did not differ much in this regard; stability with Belarus was the keyword. Especially since Lukashenka had questioned the security surrounding Yamal Europe, a pipeline transporting gas from Russia to Germany and crossing Belarus, securing safe gas deliveries suddenly advanced to a top priority. German diplomats left the first newcomers of the European Union, particularly Poland and the Czech Republic alone in their fight, almost labelling them as agitated children, some sort of loose cannons and troublemakers.
This constant disharmony within the EU, but also between EU and US policies played into the hands of Lukashenka. While the US opposed the IMF granting a loan to Belarus in 2009, the European Union supported it arguing that “change through engagement,” inspired by Chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy applied to East Germany and its neighbors and known under the name “Wandel durch Annäherung,” would bring favourable developments. The only visible development, however, was a Stalinization of the official rhetorics and massive repression. A yo-yo policy of sanctions imposed later lifted and again re-imposed have added a certain inconsistency in the European policy towards Lukashenka. And the Belarusian tyrant quickly understood how to play the “Russian card” when pressured by the EU.
While some countries in the EU were very cautious in implementing the sanctions (the first had already been passed in April 1998), others had no problem with having Mr Lukashenka enter EU territory, later delivering Schengen visas to compromised Belarusian officials and even providing safe haven for the Belarusian capital.
Lukashenka could torture and murder at the front door of the EU with complete impunity. Meanwhile, Eurocrats in Brussels were essentially busy with the standardization of the size of bananas and the major European capitals were busy pleasing the Kremlin. Times have changed and these diplomats are now gone. With Germany suddenly joining a value-driven alliance of Balts, Czechs, Poles and Swedes within the EU, Lukashenka’s quiet days are over.
Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski managed to win the support of Germany’s FM Guido Westerwelle. Sikorski led an uncrompomising group of European Foreign Ministers, among whom longtime freedom fighters such as Carl Bildt and Karel Schwarzenberg. They intended to straight talk Lukashenka with one firm European voice. Very soon thereafter, Europe’s last dictator understood that this group of political leaders meant business. With their joint letter after the fraudulent election of December 2010, these European chief diplomats actually put a diplomatic end to Brussels’ “constructive dialogue” based on political conditionality which tried to create incentives for Belarus to reform and join the European Community of values. The statement issued on December 23, 2010 could not have been clearer: “Continued positive engagement with Mr. Lukashenka at the moment seems a waste of time and money. He has made his choice–it is a choice against everything the European Union stands for.”
The massive repression after Dec 19th was also the occasion for former President George W. Bush to break his self-imposed silence. He joined Radio Free Europe’s “Voices of Solidarity” with several personalities, including Vaclav Havel and Elena Bonner, and read out the names of Belarusian political prisoners.
Lukashenka always remained the same old dictator
It took a long time for European decision-makers to realize that Belarus was not only geographically, but also culturally in Europe. Many were very willing to let Belarus drift apart from the rest of Europe, granting it a right to exceptionalism outside of any shared democratic value system. Austrian political scientist Martin Malek of the Academy of Defense in Vienna summed up the internal Belarusian status quo soberly: “Lukashenka’s policy never really changed much”. It is the only state in which November 7, the Anniversary of the October Revolution is officially celebrated. It is also the only European state in which the death penalty is still carried out. It is a country where loyalty to the president is the only credential required to become a state official. A former president of the Academy of Science, current PM Michael Myasnikovich was a low rank civil servant in the Municipalty of Minsk with no scientific background whatsoever and the former attorney general, Viktor Sheyman (2000-2004) never was a real lawyer. Lukashenka’s singular sense for human resources culminated in him nominating a construction engineer as chairman of the National Bank of Belarus, Malek said.
Paranoia is another trait of Lukashenka’s ruling style. Obsessed with the fear of an Orange Revolution, he has put Belarusian civil society under constant observation, especially its youth movements. He even managed to completely fragment the political forces of the country. The KGB regularly foments discord and manipulates the weakest into reporting fellow members of the opposition to the authorities.
An Odd Circle of Friends Abroad and Less and Less Support at Home
The fact that Belarus is in Europe seems to elude Alyaksandr Lukashenka as well. His allies read like the Who’s Who of rogue states and Third World dictatorships. Russia, which championed the entente with Belarus out of geo-strategic consideration, has seen its turbulent relations with Lukashenka deteriorate, culminating in Lukashenka accusing the Kremlin of plotting against him before the presidential election. Other heads of failed states are full of praise for the Belarusian dictator: “We see a model of social states like the one we are beginning to establish,” Hugo Chavez said during a visit. These are the partners with whom he preferably cuts lucrative arms deals: Iran, Libya, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea, Vietnam, Syria, Sudan, China, various African rebel movements preferably involved in genocides and Marxist or Islamist terrorist groups. Belarus is not very picky in choosing its customers. Recently, Belarus was even caught delivering weapons to Pakistani terrorists. Trade with such partners is booming, yet when it comes to the production of basic consumer goods, Lukashenka’s declining industry is unable to provide for its own population.
Ignoring such blatant political failures, Lukashenka’s supporters argue that he still enjoys a broad support within the population. This is mostly explained by “brain drain,” the enormous digital divide in the country, and also by the fact that his base, the rural population, hardly has access to free information. The main pillar of his power, the security forces support him for self-serving reasons. He guarantees them relatively good wages with the assurance of a comfortable status quo. Any type of reform of the state system would compromise their status as seen in many Post-Soviet states. They fear nothing more than the specter of a post-Revolutionary “lustratsia”, the systematic eviction of collaborationists.
However times are changing even there. Belarus is encountering a daunting economic crisis. Lukashenka, who had been threatening that the harshest economic threats would hit Belarus should the opposition come to power, is now running out of excuses.
It is slowly becoming clear in even the most remote corners of Belarus that Lukashenka has not only politically isolated the country, but also completely ruined it economically. His oxymoronic “market socialism” was mistakenly understood as the reason for constant growth in recent years (10% GDP in 2010). This was in fact the result of a boom which gratified all members of the Commonwealth of Independent States with growth due to their position as either oil producers or transit countries. In fact, the centrally-planned economy is on the verge of collapsing, the currency is in free fall, and the poorest classes cannot keep up with the inflation. Belarus had to borrow $3 billion from the Community of Independent States. Its long-time creditor, the Russian Federation put a not-so-altruistic condition to any loan: reform of the economic system and privatization of Belarusian industry. The Belarusian government inquired with the IMF if an additional $8 billion in stabilization funding could be granted. But major voices in the Senate opposed this and wrote a letter to Timothy Geithner stating that this money would just consolidate Lukashenka’s regime and that they instead favored broader sanctions against a number of state-owned Belarusian firms.
The senators — Independent Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut), Republicans Mark Kirk (Illinois) and John McCain (Arizona); Democrats Richard Durbin (Illinois), Benjamin Cardin (Maryland), and Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) rejected any type of support stating that this “would only subsidize Lukashenka’s continued illegitimate and repressive regime and would not advance real economic reforms.” As a response to the US sanctions, Belarus has started a nuclear blackmail over highly-enriched nuclear fuel exchange, in clear breach of its agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative.
Wannabe historian Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has never seen a Faculty of History from the inside, was perhaps partly right with his historical parallel. Belarus will recover and stand up from the ruins he has left behind. As Germany survived two dictatorships, Belarus will have a bright future, too, without him. At the occasion of the worldwide global day manifestation for Belarus, symbolically taking place on August 25th, the Independence Day of Belarus, WSN spoke with Belarusian politician Ales Lahviniec and with Swedish MP Walburga Habsburg Douglas about the future of Belarus.
The WSN Foundation has been lobbying since 2005 for a more assertive policy towards Belarus. We suggest the following steps be taken to support a peaceful transition in Belarus.
- EU member states should apply the sanctions thoroughly and implement a strict and careful handling of their bilateral relations with Belarus. No concession to the Lukashenka regime should be tolerated on the basis of a “special relationship” with the Russian Federation as neither the European Union nor the United States recognize the concept of Russian “Sphere of influence”.
- A Council of Transition uniting the Belarusian opposition and representatives of civil society, especially youth movements should be officially established. It should nominate a body of international advisors comprising former Freedom Fighters of Central and Eastern Europe who now are active politicians in the EU.
- It should firstly work to peacefully depose and immediately trial Lukashenka.
- Best practice examples in the field of economic transition should be gathered and submitted to the Council of Transition.
- A strict lustratsia should be prerequisite to any political action, as seen with the Estonian transition. This will allow a radical change of elite.
- An archive on the model of the Gauk-Behörde should be established allowing each citizen of Belarus to assess the extent of the repression he or she has been submitted to.
Belarusian oppositional politician Ales Lahviniec works as assistant to the head of the Belarus “Movement for Freedom” party, Dr. Milinkievich.
Ales Lahviniec: Now the bankruptcy of the regime weighs on the entire population.
Nathalie Vogel: Belarusian students have been reported being under constant observation, what does this observation look like?
Ales Lahviniec: There is an ideological control within universities. Besides a designated official especially in charge of prevention, the regime puts pressure on students involved in political and civil activities. Forms of intimidation can go as far as “conversations” in the Dean’s office in the presence of KGB officers, parents being called in or even universities expelling students under the false pretext of failing academic standards and of course not officially on the ground of their political involvement.
Nathalie Vogel: Is there a digital divide within Belarus, do you know of young people being completely cut off from information?
Ales Lahviniec: There are some who have less access to modern technologies, especially in small towns and villages. The economic crisis in Belarus is probably going to hit them first. So they might be the most eager to get alternative information.
Nathalie Vogel: You have taught political sciences in the European Union. In comparison to other European students, are Belarusian students aware of what the European Union represents?
Ales Lahviniec: There is little knowledge about the United Europe and about the possibilities it offers. At the same time, there is a genuine attraction to it. Today many more Belarusian young people study abroad, more than ten years ago. They travel more even with the obstacles not only on the side of the regime, but also because of the rigidity of the Schengen system.
Nathalie Vogel: Generally speaking, who is affected by the sanctions, the regime or the Belarusian population?
Ales Lahviniec: I do not think that the sanctions have an important impact. Now it is the bankruptcy of the regime that weighs on the entire population. Certain companies suffer, but I would not say that these sanctions have a direct effect. Although for the regime, they are not an asset for sure.
Nathalie Vogel: Should Lukashenka’s regime come to an end are you ready to take over?
Ales Lahviniec: If he falls, this new situation will require much greater efforts on our part. I think that at least one part of the opposition is aware of the responsibility resulting from it. However one is never 100% ready, that is only in theory.
Swedish MP Walburga Habsburg Douglas, daughter of Otto von Habsburg, is Vice-President of the Paneuropean Union.
Nathalie Vogel: You are a driving force in support of the opposition in Belarus. Tell us about your latest initiatives.
Walburga Habsburg Douglas: Well, today, the 25th of August, is the 20th anniversary of the independence of Belarus. Last week we had the celebration of the 20 years of the independence of the Baltic States, a real success-story. So today we have to think of our friends in Belarus, who suffer under the dictatorial regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. So what happened was the youth organization of the Swedish Moderata party, MUF, and a couple of Swedish MPs together decided to organize the “Global Manifestation for Freedom for Belarus”. We had demonstrations and meetings in many places around the world: Miami, Stockholm, Berlin – to just name a few. Here in Stockholm we met on Norrmalmstorg, which has become famous for our protests for the freedom of the Baltic States 20 years ago. And we have decided to introduce once more our manifestations on Norrmalmstorg, until the regime of Lukashenka is over.
Nathalie Vogel: How can we help the Belarusian people, concretely?
Walburga Habsburg Douglas: For us it is paramount that we do not forget our friends in Belarus. There are so many ways to keep in touch: Twitter, Facebook, all social media, and normal mail. And we are aware that they are dependent on what we here in the West are doing. As long as we notice their fate, they feel that their fight is not in vain. To give you an example: I reported about our manifestation today in my Facebook-status and published photos from our meeting. It did not take longer than 3 minutes until I got a comment from my Belarusian friends!
Nathalie Vogel: Any doubt in your mind that Belarus’ future is in the European Union?
Walburga Habsburg Douglas: No doubt at all! Belarus already today is a part of the Eastern Partnership of the EU, which means a country with a European prospect. Precisely like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. These countries will become members as soon as they fulfil the Copenhagen-criteria. Moldova already has done a fair share of their work. And: let Belarus become a country with a democratic government, and then they will make enormous progress!
Nathalie Vogel: We celebrated the anniversary of one of your greatest achievements recently, the Paneuropean picnic of August 19th, 1989. Do you have any plans to organize a similar Paneuropean picnic at the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian or Lithuanian- Latvian- Belarusian border?
Walburga Habsburg Douglas: This is a marvellous idea! I have to present it to my friends! And I only hope that the political climate will be the same, and that we can – in 10 years time – welcome Belarus as a member in the European Union!
Nathalie Vogel is a German political scientist born to a French father and a Russian mother of Cossack origin. She is a graduate of the Institute of Political Sciences of the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Until 2005, she taught international relations at the University of Bonn, Germany. She served as a project officer and consultant for youth and civil society at the NATO Office in Moscow (2005/06).