The Balance Sheet on Belarus

by Rodger Potocki

Rodger Potocki, Senior Director for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy, offers a comprehensive assessment of the successes and problems of the Western policy response to the December 2010 post-election crackdown in Belarus.

The second anniversary of the December 19th postelection crackdown in Belarus offers an opportunity to weigh the costs of “Bloody Sunday” and assess the West’s response. In 24 months, Belarus has gone from a potential European Union (EU) partner to an international pariah, from among the more prosperous to one of the poorest performing post-Soviet economies. The human toll has been harsh. After protests against a flawed presidential election, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime beat, imprisoned and tortured more than 700 of its citizens; raided dozens of civil society organizations; and forced scores of activists into exile. Related demonstrations in 2011 led to the repression of thousands more. The regime still holds more than a dozen political prisoners. The resulting economic crash has made millions poorer and spurred significant brain drain and labor migration. The population is passive and seemingly resigned to more of the same.

Disputed Findings

After two years of engagement, the West had little choice but to punish the regime following the December 2010 crackdown. The EU and the United States have placed visa bans on almost 250 of the regime’s henchmen, as well as asset freezes on 32 businesses that sustain the dictatorship. But Brussels has been careful not to target trade with Minsk, which has increased even as diplomatic relations have declined. While the history of sanctions on Belarus almost matches Lukashenka’s 18-year reign, their impact remains hotly debated. There is some evidence that they have reduced repression at times, but abuses continue. Some Western experts argue that sanctions have freed political prisoners. But if there are fewer behind bars now, too many remain.

Most Belarusian analysts oppose the restrictive measures. They believe the record shows that prisoners have been released because of dialogue, not sanctions; that travel bans and asset freezes are easily evaded; and that they only erode the West’s liberalizing influence and make the country more dependent on Moscow. But there is no evidence that engagement has produced fractures in the circles around Lukashenka. The country’s economic crisis has done more to undermine support for Lukashenka’s system than closer ties with Europe have. It is the regime’s retrograde policies, not Western sanctions, which have stymied foreign investment and privatization that would loosen the state’s shackles over the economy. Despite Kremlin bailouts, Lukashenka has blocked Russian attempts to take over key Belarusian enterprises. After two years of diplomatic clashes and stalemate, the debate over engagement versus isolation remains a draw. While the EU asserts that it is not pursuing a policy of isolation but of “critical engagement,” the result has been the same; Fall 2012 marked a nadir in official interaction between Brussels and Minsk.

New Partners

What has changed is Europe’s approach to Belarusian civil society. Prior to the 2004 Eastward expansion, the EU’s Belarus policy meandered between isolation and inattention, adopting the same approach for both friends and foes of democracy. But most experts agree that the 2008-2010 period of engagement had an important “Europeanizing” influence on Belarusian society. Thus, in the crackdown’s wake, the EU adopted a different approach. At a February 2011 international donors’ conference in Warsaw, Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, spoke of the decision to sanction the regime but also to “reinforce our links with, and support for civil society [while] seeking to avoid isolating the Belarusian population.” Polish Foreign Affairs Minister Radosław Sikorski promised solidarity with and support for the people of Belarus: “Europe is with you and you are with Europe.”

The 36 official delegations present proposed to help Belarusians by increasing direct support to civil society and strengthening people-to-people contacts. The direct support would assist the victims of repression, NGOs, independent media and students. Fostering links between Europeans and Belarusians, both civil society and ordinary citizens, would be accomplished by reducing travel barriers.

Problematic Expenditures

Those in Warsaw pledged $120 million to assist Belarusian civil society, including a fourfold rise in EU support, a doubling of Polish funding and a 30 percent boost in U.S. assistance. At a grim moment, this aid was of crucial importance given the scarcity of internal resources. Today, we can make some general observations regarding the efficacy of this effort. While the numbers were impressive, many of the pledges included support for already existing or planned programs. Actual new support turned out to be only a small percentage of the total. Due to the complexities of working in a dictatorship, most aid actually benefited Belarus-related projects based outside of the country. Less than a quarter of what was delivered went to those trying to cope with the crackdown and promote change inside Belarus. In some cases, the additional funding was late to arrive. And the support that did make its way into the country did not benefit every civil society sector.

In retrospect, it was unrealistic to expect significantly more funding to become available. Among the post-Soviet states, Belarus has never been a priority for democracy assistance. Brutal as it was, the crackdown was soon overshadowed by the Arab Spring. The regime’s ability to stabilize the situation — and the opposition’s failure to take advantage of the opportunity — ensured that developments in neighboring Russia and Ukraine would divert attention. Given the way bureaucracies operate, it was easier for most governments to increase support for external entities, rather than to develop the special procedures needed to get aid to front-line groups inside the country. It proved less controversial to fund studies abroad than freedom fighters at home.

Impressive Yields

The additional funding that made it to Belarusian organizations was largely focused on the human rights and independent media sectors. This strategy appears to have paid off. A combination of prepositioned U.S. and Scandinavian aid, donations from Belarusians and EU support that arrived shortly after the crackdown helped Belarusian human rights groups to provide legal, medical and humanitarian assistance to more than 1,000 cases of repression. The coordinated support encouraged Belarusian human rights groups to work together in a consortium, which maximized their comparative advantages while minimizing duplication. As a result, they have been among the best performing parts of civil society, helping all of those in need, regardless of political orientation. Recognizing the impact of these efforts, the regime imprisoned Belarus’ leading human rights defender, Ales Bialiatski, on trumped up tax evasion charges.

Additional investment in the independent media sector has also produced dividends. Following repression against editorial offices and journalists, support helped outlets to survive and continue operating; not one stopped publishing. Increased aid allowed them to boost coverage and print runs, leading to significant increases in readership. Independent news websites expanded their audiences by 200-300 percent and independent newspapers raised circulations by 10-20 percent. To date, the outlets have been able to hold on to these larger audiences. More Belarusians are getting more objective information about their country’s political, economic and international situation. More than half of Belarus’ 20 most popular news websites are independent or opposition-run. With one-third of Belarusians now getting their news from the Internet, the influence of these sites continues to rise. The public’s trust in the state-run media — and the regime itself — has fallen.

In contrast, the political opposition has profited less from international support. While repressed leaders were helped by human rights defenders, their parties have been less of a priority. The policies of many donors restrict direct support to political parties or partisan initiatives. Belarusian democratic politicians have compounded these impediments by being unable to work together or formulate a common message. Some donors would be willing and able to support a more unified opposition, but the political opposition has not taken advantage of the more favorable situation since 2010. While Lukashenka’s popularity has fallen, there has been no corresponding rise in the opposition’s ratings.

If the total funding was less than promised, the support provided in the crackdown’s aftermath has generally proven to be timely and effective. Key civil society sectors have received more assistance, utilized it well and achieved concrete results. But actors in slighted sectors feel short-changed. The debate over what proportion of support should go to Belarusian groups inside and outside the country has taken on greater importance as more of the political opposition has decided to emigrate and continue the struggle from abroad.

International Exchanges

As promised in Warsaw, the EU also acted to expand links between Belarusians and Europeans. Since 2010, Belarus has moved to the top of the list of number of Schengen visas issued per capita. EU member states provided almost 648,000 visas to Belarusians in 2011. The growth in EU visas issued to Belarusians in the year after the crackdown was higher than the increase during the preceding two-year period of engagement. In 2011, the number of national long-stay visas rose and almost every second Schengen visa issued to a Belarusian was for multiple entries. Poland and Lithuania, the EU members with the most influence on Belarusians due to their geographic proximity, are leading in this regard. In other words, the EU has lowered the “the Schengen Wall” for Belarusian activists and citizens.

The process, however, has not been uniformly positive. While EU members could issue five-year visas, they have not adopted this long-term approach for Belarus. According to a July 2012 poll, 87 percent of Belarusians did not visit an EU country in the last 12 months. Despite a European Commission invitation issued before the crackdown and repeated since, Minsk has opted not to open negotiations on visa facilitation. The regime has also blocked the implementation of local border traffic agreements signed with Poland and Lithuania. The EU cannot unilaterally ease its visa and travel rules, and the regime will not move ahead with processes that would benefit millions of Belarusians while exposing them to their neighbors’ more open, prosperous life.

Temporary Returns?

To a degree, the pledges made in Warsaw have been realized. The false dichotomy between isolation and engagement has been broken. Forced to change the way it works with Belarus, the EU has boosted support for civil society and increased people-to-people contacts. There are concerns, however, that the post-2010 successes are jeopardized by a lack of long-term support. Current levels of funding for Belarusian civil society do not equal those of 2011. Paradoxically, EU and U.S. assistance has declined even as the situation on the ground has become more promising. And the impact is already being felt. Furthermore, even after 2010, Western support for civil society still appears to be less than the total official aid provided by the EU to the regime liable for the current crisis and its tragic costs. When the books are closed and the accounts settled, it would be unfortunate if the Warsaw Conference was appraised as only an emergency response to the 2010 crackdown rather than a lasting commitment to advancing democracy in Belarus.