Europe, U.S. press long-time dictator Lukashenko to release 700 political prisoners
For Europe’s last old-style dictator, this has become the week when the
walls close in, as neighbouring democracies move to deprive his regime
of travel, money, skilled citizens and – perhaps most galling – hockey
Alexander Lukashenko, in his 17th year as President of Belarus,
received sharp rebukes and outright threats on Thursday from the
leaders of the European Union, the United States and a number of
European democracies, all of them outraged by a December election in
which at least seven opposition presidential candidates were severely
beaten or imprisoned.
The European Parliament Thursday called for the near-complete isolation
of Belarus through restrictions on travel of leaders, the freezing of
government assets, bans on investment and cross-border trade, freezing
of foreign aid and, perhaps most alarming for a hockey-loving nation,
the stripping of Belarus’s right to host the 2014 world hockey
championship, which the country has been planning for years.
”Alexander Lukashenko’s government lacks democratic legitimacy,” said
Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, as the European
Union discussed a package of sanctions that could be imposed as early
as next week.
Even more creative is Poland’s decision to punish its neighbour Belarus
by removing all visa requirements for Belarussian citizens – but not
leaders – and allowing free movement across the border, which had
previously been heavily policed.
”This is a very clever way to bring about change, because it
essentially means that the country will quickly lose its most skilled
and talented citizens, but the only way to stop it will be for
Lukashenko to close the border himself, from within, which would make
him look even more authoritarian to citizens. It puts him in a position
where he may have to back off,” Arkady Moshes, a Belarus specialist
with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said in an
While Belarus has long alarmed Europeans both for its largely
unreformed Soviet-style government and for feuds with Russia that can
cause much of the continent’s gas supply to be cut off, the latest
escalation of political violence and repression had caused much deeper
The election and its aftermath were met with a campaign of arrests and
harassment by the Belarus spy agency, still known as the KGB.
Europeans were horrified to read the story of three-year-old Danil
Sannikov, who is set to be sent to an orphanage after both his parents,
an opposition presidential candidate and a journalist, were jailed by
the KGB after the election.
The EU and the United States Thursday pressed Mr. Lukashenko to release
the approximately 700 political prisoners who were rounded up on
While there was an unusually concerted effort to condemn Mr. Lukashenko
and his regime in Europe and Washington this week, officials and
activists are still divided on how to approach the problem of Belarus.
The financing and organization of opposition movements, known as
democracy support, has ceased to be a popular strategy among many
European governments, although the European Parliament Thursday vowed
to increase funding to democracy think tanks and organizations in Minsk.
But there is a growing realization that punishment and isolation of the
country could be both counterproductive and inhumane. Mr. Lukashenko
has used Belarus’s isolated status as a point of national pride in the
past, portraying his country as a garrison state facing a hostile
Russia on one side and an uncaring EU on the other.
So there are efforts, including Poland’s visa-free travel regime, to
help the Belarussian people (and to encourage their flight) in ways
that do not support the regime.
Analysts say that Mr. Lukashenko, who in the past could turn to Russian
oil and gas as his key source of financing and support, is increasingly
dependent on Europe. He is in the midst of a bitter feud with Russia
over Belarus’s right to take cut-price oil and gas for its own use in
exchange for using its pipelines to ship much of Russia’s output into
Poland and Germany.
The feud seemed to end in an agreement last week, but the oil is still
not fully flowing. Russia is developing new pipeline routes to Europe
that will bypass Belarus and Ukraine, and there is no sign of peaceful
relations returning between the two Slavic countries.
”The economic situation of Belarus is bad – the regime is facing a very
serious crisis so therefore it is interested in the sort of investments
that can only come form the European Union and the West,” Mr. Moshes
said. ”I suspect that this is a serious enough threat to Lukashenko
that he will have to find a way to back down and compromise.”