Belarus: The EU's Uneasy Neighbour
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On 24 April 2006, the FIIA in cooperation with the Vilnius University and the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Finnish Parliament held a seminar in Vilnius that discussed the current situation and prospects for democratisation in Belarus, and the relations of Belarus with the EU, Russia and other external powers.
The first session focused on domestic developments in Belarus. Oleg Manaev, director of an independent Belarusian institute IISEPS (currently registered in Vilnius), presented the results of a fresh public opinion survey, carried out in late March and early April (that is, immediately after the presidential elections of 19 March). The survey proved that the official election results were falsified, but it also showed that a majority of Belarusian population continues to support Aleksandr Lukashenka. 63.6% of the respondents said they had voted for Lukashenka and 20.6 % for the main opposition candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich in the elections. According to Manaev, the readiness of Belarusian society for serious changes should be neither underestimated (as the Belarusian authorities do) nor overestimated (as the opposition does). Close to 40 % of the people are not satisfied with Lukashenka, but only about half of them have so far been ready to protest. The survey results are available at http://www.iiseps.org/eindex.html
As noted by some other participants, one has to treat surveys carried out in a dictatorship with caution: most people in Belarus have no access to alternative channels of information and many are afraid to express their views. The opinions may change rapidly if and when political and societal conditions, above all freedom of speech and other political freedoms, will change.
Anatoly Lebedko, leader of one of the opposition parties, the United Civic Party, gave an overview of political developments before and after the presidential elections. He stressed that the opposition has become more united and consolidated and now aims to broaden its social base, delegitimise the current leadership and spread information about the policies that the opposition would pursue if it gained power. He called for western support for the oppressed people who are victims of the current regime. According to Lebedko, over 1000 people were imprisoned for political reasons during the election period. He criticised the EU for lacking a common strategy on Belarus; there are only various initiatives that are often not effective. For example, the TV programmes funded by the EU have not reached the Belarusian people.
Elena Rakova from the Institute for Privatisation and Management in Minsk presented a rather gloomy analysis of the economic prospects of Belarus. The pace of economic transition has been lower in Belarus than in any other post-Soviet country. The Belarusian economy is totally dependent on Russia, and majority of its enterprises are inefficient. The economy is not sustainable even in the short term. Major reforms are needed.
Zhanna Litvina, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, stressed the role of independent media for the development of civil society in Belarus and called for systematic western support. The pressure on independent media by the authorities has consistently increased, and the number and distribution of independent publications has dropped. During March over 40 journalists were detained in the country. Litvina stressed in particular internet publications as a way to replace newspapers that have been closed down, and the importance of training young journalists abroad. She also noted that the media projects that have been supported by the EU have so far brought little change to the situation.
The second session looked at the international context of the developments in Belarus. Andrei Sannikov, international coordinator of the civil initiative Charter97, called for stronger action by the west on Belarus. Currently there is a gap between the strong language of the EU and the actual steps taken. According to Sannikov, the EU should send a special envoy to Minsk and raise more strongly the question of Belarus in its dealings with Russia, using in particular the framework of the G8 and the Council of Europe where Russia will be the next chair of the Committee of Ministers.
Anatoli Rozanov, professor of the Belarusian State University, gave an overview of the foreign and security policy of Belarus. The official doctrine stresses neutrality and a multi-vector foreign policy, but in practice there is a strong focus on Russia. The leadership uses Soviet-style rhetoric against NATO. Relations with the OSCE are most strained. Rozanov also paid attention to the problem of landmines: Belarus has the 7th largest arsenal of landmines in the world. Belarus has signed the Ottawa mine ban treaty and has committed itself to destroying the landmines, which is a costly undertaking.
Anatoli Mikhailov, rector of the European Humanities University (which was closed down by the authorities in Minsk in 2004 and now works in exile in Vilnius), also criticized the ineffectiveness of western policies on Belarus and emphasized the need for a comprehensive strategy. He called for “acupuncture” for Belarus, a set of policies with carefully defined targets and purpose. One of the problems of current policy according to Mikhailov is a language gap: Lukashenka is skilful in speaking the kind of language that appeals to the Belarusian population, but western “bla-bla-bla” on democracy fails to reach the people and deal with their concerns.
The last speaker was Vyachaslau Paznyak, associate professor from the European Humanities University, who tackled relations between Belarus and Russia. According to Paznyak, the democratization of Belarus will come before the democratization of Russia. Currently Russia is focused on restoring its international might; it has a strong strategic interest in Belarus and does not want to hear about repression there. In the short term, that is until the elections in Russia, we can expect the status quo to continue in Russian policy towards Belarus. Russia will take no radical steps because it does not have enough resources and tools to address a crisis in Belarus. In a mid-term perspective, there are three possible scenarios: (a) Lukashenka will give away some of its powers to Moscow and possibly Belarus will be unified with Russia; (b) Lukashenka will resist Russian pressure, which will lead to a major economic, social and political crisis; Lukashenka will lose power and a period of unpredictability will follow; (c) Russia and Belarus will make a concerted effort to continue the status quo.
On 26 April, the delegation met the opposition leader Aleksandr Milinkevich, who was imprisoned by the authorities later on the same day, accused of organizing an unsanctioned protest rally that was held in Minsk in order to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Milinkevich stressed that the opposition continues peaceful protests and aims to destroy the system of fear. He called for support for the oppressed people, including opposition activists who have lost their jobs and students who have been expelled from universities for political reasons. The delegation also had a meeting with the president and vice-president of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee that is a leading human rights organization still active in the country in spite of harsh repression. They described the current Belarusian system as a classical Soviet style totalitarian state. The Helsinki Committee is one of the numerous NGOs that is now under threat of being closed down by the authorities.
Report by Kristi Raik