Lukashenka’s power is under a threat, and the European Union should not save Europe’s last dictator.
“I was released from one prison into another, a bigger one”, - a youth leader Dzmitry Dashkievich said, having left the place of his imprisonment last week.
It may seem that the number of political prisoners in Belarus has started decreasing. However, political prisoners are not being released by the order of the dictator, but because the terms of their imprisonments expired. On 28 August Dzmitry Dashkievich was released, Aliaksandr Frantskievich was released in a few days after that. The freedom is very relative – after the release they will be under police supervision and may be sent to prison again any moment. This already happened with other oppositionists.
It is important to remember that Dashkievich did not simply spent his prison term in full, but was held in custody for a year longer than the initial sentence for not recognizing himself guilty and “bad behavior” behind bars. Like many other political prisoners, in prison he underwent physical and psychological pressure and was kept in inhuman conditions. Over ten political prisoners remain in Belarus in such conditions, including a former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievich and the leader of the human rights movement Ales Bialiatski. Last month the list of political prisoners grew longer by two sentenced opposition activists, detained priest and a psychiatrist, who criticized the authorities.
However, even in these conditions the lobbyists of the Lukashenka regime are able to speak with European politicians of “good will” on the part of the regime. Actually, it could have been much worse: they could have not released Dashkievich, but add another additional prison term for him. And yes, another political prisoner Hajdukou was not sentenced to 8 years in prison, like the prosecutor had initially demanded, but “only” to a year. The ruler of Belarus is very kind!
But let’s leave the sarcasm alone: there are 185 names in the list of political prisoner for the 20 years of the regime’s existence. And at least four disappeared political opponents. And hundreds of thousands of the people, who left the country because of political persecution. And complete absence of investigations of human rights violations, a stable atmosphere of impunity, the continuation of repressions.
For all these 20 years with regular periodicity the EU offered the Lukashenka regime different carrots for engaging him into the “European orbit”. The monster swallowed these carrots, asked for more, and took new hostages in the meanwhile in order to exchange them for another portion of carrots. That is why one cannot but be surprised by the naivety, or rather cynicism of those European and Belarusian politicians and experts, who are now suggesting the expansion of economic cooperation and renewal of the political dialogue with Belarus without the release and exoneration of all the political prisoners and the start of systematic democratic changes.
These lobbyists are again referring to the necessity of having a dialogue and the usefulness of the carrot policy. They are again using the argument that if the EU made steps towards Lukashenka, “the political prisoners could probably be soon released”. Because there allegedly were some misty promises of that on the part of the dictator. This compromising position is a total contradiction to the demands of Lukashenka’s principled opponents, including the political prisoners, remaining in custody.
The voting on a report on the EU’s policy towards Belarus (Paletskis’ report), scheduled for this week, clearly reflects this tension between the principled and compromising positions. After multiple discussions and introduction of amendments by the parliament’s Foreign Committee there are indirect and even direct recommendations of broadening the economic cooperation with Belarus left in the report’s draft. At the same time there have been no positive changes in the country. This report, in its essence, declares the EU’s position on Belarus. If it is supported by the European Parliament like it is, it will be an approving signal to the dictatorial regime and a discouraging signal to those, who are fighting for democracy and the rule of law in Belarus.
In Europe they still do not want to learn the lesson of the twenty years: Lukashenka is not capable of sticking to an agreement. His representatives may give cloudy promises, he may act like he is interest in a partnership, but any agreement will be broken. This happened multiple times. A fine example of that was the very fresh story of the “potassium war” with Russia and the arrest of a Russian businessman Vladislav Baumgartner, who came to Minsk by the Prime-Minister’s invitation. Lukashenka decided to use the practice that he has long and successfully used in the Western front – taking hostages – for forcing a Russian company Uralkali to cancel its decision to withdraw from the joint cartel with a Belarusian partner.
It is not important how this story ends for Uralkali, it is important that it clearly shows how Lukashenka makes deals. He is able of biting any hand, even the one that feeds him and provides for his wellbeing. In this case this means oil, gas and loans from Russia. This, by the way, completely disproves the argument of the lobbyists (and the regime itself) that Belarus “will go to Russia” in the case the West increases pressure on Lukashenka.
It is surprising, but Europe has still not realized the difference between the approach to business in the EU and Belarus. There is no independent business in Belarus – it is completely controlled by the regime and the system that Lukashenka’s family has built. It is exactly the dictator who in the end decides, who can and who cannot do business in Belarus. A foreign investor, coming to Belarus, is measured in the same way – it is Lukashenka, who decides everything.
Moreover, foreign business is considered a regime’s leverage of influence on the EU policy. We saw the examples of such successful influence through business connections in 2011, when the enterprises of an oligarch Jury Chyzh from Lukashenka’s entourage had EU sanctions lifted. This was done with the help of Latvia. Separating the pragmatics of economic cooperation from a political dialogue in words, Lukashenka skillfully ties them together in practice.
However the regime’s difficult economic situation and Russia’s tough position led to the situation, when Lukashenka has nowhere to go for help apart from the EU – for new loans and the expansion of trade. The threat of not being able to last until the 2015 presidential elections becomes real for Lukashenka.
A lot now depends on whether the possible economic carrot from the EU becomes a buoy for the regime that is unwilling to change. Or instead of exchanging “positive” signals the EU, including the European Parliament, presents the regime in distress with an ultimatum – “change or drown”. The European Union instead of trying to broaden the economic cooperation and “improve the relations” with the regime should make it change and implement reforms, which will ensure a democratic, successful European future for Belarus. It is hard to imagine a better time for putting forward tough demands, than now.
Calling economic cooperation a carrot for the regime, inviting European business to deal with Belarus the EU should understand: entering economic relations with the Lukashenka regime European business is responsible for financial and political consolidation of the dictatorial regime, the continuation of repressions and the fate of political prisoners. Moreover, it risks its own assets, its people and its reputation.
Olga Zakharova, Jury Dzhibladze, specially for charter97.org