Dr Alexander Milinkevich What could the EU do to progress democracy in Belarus?

Open seminar - registration required

Tue 19.9.2006
The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Mannerheimintie 15 A

 Freedom leads the nation

On his first visit to Finland the politician, scientist and leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition Alexander Milinkevich spoke about the events in Belarus during the presidential elections in spring 2006 and the EU’s support on promoting democracy in Belarus.

Milinkevich sees similarities in the histories of Finland and Belarus. However at present the countries have several differences: one has few problems while the other has many – lack of democracy, fair elections and free media.

Milinkevich was nominated as a candidate in the presidential elections by the Congress of Democratic Forces and he became the main challenger of the current leader Alexander Lukashenka. The leaders of the country responded to his candidacy by rescheduling the elections to be held months earlier in order to distract the opposition campaign. Although in Belarus the presidential elections held every 4 years are a mere formality, it is still an important opportunity for the opposition to meet people and to disperse their fears. During the campaign the opposition invited people to a demonstration on the Election Day. The response of Lukashenka’s propaganda apparatus was broadcasted on tv the day before the event: citizens were threatened by declaring that anyone attending the demonstrations would be considered a criminal and terrorist –even the threat of death penalty was used. In spite of the threats 30 000 people gathered in Minsk in support of free elections and democracy. “Lukashenka declared his victory, but the real winners were the young people attending the demonstration. But 30 000 people is not enough, we need ten times more power to change the leadership.”

After the elections over 1000 activists were imprisoned and lost their jobs. Nine activists received long sentences – among them was the leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party Alaksandar Kazulin, who was the other democratic candidate in the elections. Furthermore 300 students were expelled from the university. Currently the country is under severe control and there is no free media for reporting objectively and spreading information about the democratic options. Many have lost their hope, but Milinkevich believes that the atmosphere in Belarus is changing and that people are cherishing the hope of a democratic change. What is crucial in the fight for democracy, he claims, is the support of the other democratic countries.

Belarus and Russia

The leadership of Belarus cannot hold its power position without Russian support. However Putin is not a big fan of Lukashenka and supported him in the elections only because there were no other political possibilities. The union between Belarus and Russia, which has been on the agenda already over a decade, is now back in discussion. Lukashenka is still promoting the Slavic empire and playing his own power game with Kremlin. The referendum about the union is planned to be held in the end of the year or in early 2007. The opposition does not see this union with Russia as a beneficial process but rather an Anschluss operation.

“When the people are asked whether they support the integration with Russia they say yes - but are thinking about the economic integration. When asked about becoming a part of Russia 90% has a clear opinion of rejecting the idea”.

Reducing the status of the Belarusian language is also part of government plans to prevent nationalistic feelings while leading the nation towards the Belarusian-Russian union. Moreover the economy of Belarus lacks structural reforms and is heavily dependent on cheap Russian energy. Therefore relations with Russia are an important question.

Belarus and the European Union

The moral support of the EU for Belarus is tremendous but the EU has not found effective concrete means to progress the democracy in Belarus.

“The EU is very effective on its aid programmes that it has in the developing countries, but handling relations with a dictatorship is not EU’s strongest feature”.

Milinkevich thinks that the EU should not impose economic sanctions against Belarus as that would lead the country into deeper dependency on Russia and would only give the current leadership substance for new propaganda. What the European Union should do is to use political sanctions targeted on the political leadership and not on the people. The list of people with visa bans should be extended and the visa tariffs for ordinary citizens should be reduced. The visa denials cripple the nomenclature and act as an example for the citizens. Poland and Lithuania have already promised to expand the visa bans. The EU has co-worked in helping the students that were expelled by arranging them places to study abroad.

In 2007 regional elections will be held in Belarus and the opposition is once again active. The united opposition is trying to spread confidence and optimism among the people. This task is not easy since it faces an effective propaganda machinery that claims that no revolution is possible (as compared to Ukraine for example).

Please find background information on Alexander Milinkievich at http://en.milinkevich.org/.