Boxing with Lukashenka: Why Belarus Needs Europe to Stay Strong

In ten days time, Belarus will hold the first of its post-election political showtrials. The fate of all the remaining prisoners depends on how Europe reacts to the verdict. It must be a suitably firm response, says Andrej Dynko.

About the author

Andrej Dynko is editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Belarus.

On 31 January, the European Union imposed sanctions on the Belarusian leadership. The opposition expected a new wave of repression in response: unable to inflict direct harm onto his despised Europe, Lukashenka has often vented anger on domestic conduits of European values, which he accuses of being "foreign agents".

In the end, the backlash did not materialize. Instead Lukashenka pressed a different key. Having gathered his synkletos, he visited the “Danone Unimilk” factory, and delivered a simple message: if you do not work according to our rules, you will no longer be able to operate in our market. The meeting was broadcast on all TV channels.

While Lukashenka was busy with his demonstrative flogging of business, his eldest son, security advisor and number 2 of the regime, was visiting Qatar.

It was an interesting signal. “Danone Unimilk”, a French-Russian joint venture, started business in Belarus during the period of half-hearted liberalization. Lukashenka was intimating that if the West and Russia join in similar, political union, they could expect their businesses to be ejected from Belarus and replaced by investors from Arab countries, China, and Venezuela.

This is an unusual situation for Europe. It is dealing with a partner that understands one language alone, and that is the language of force. It is a regime that relies heavily on the Belarusian KGB: a strong, tough security service, cemented by a fascist corporate ideology. Europe must understand that if it does not fight this tyranny on its borders, metastases await.

In Warsaw on February 2, European diplomats discussed what their long-term response would be. As a result of this meeting, the EU, its member states and the United States all decided to increase their support for Belarusian civil society. More complex, of course, is the matter of making sure such aid reaches organisations within Belarus. Support for the European Humanities University in Vilnius (a university in exile) and the European Radio for Belarus (broadcasting from Warsaw) is simple enough because they are based in the EU. But they’ve existed for some time already, and are already well supported. More aid to them will not change the status quo. What we need to do is invent innovative mechanisms for EU aid to reach NGOs and media directly in Belarus.

And there is a more urgent need.

On February 18, the first post-election political trial will start. The people being “tried” are Zmitser Dashkevich and Eduard Lobau, leaders of the Christian Democrat’s “Young Front” youth wing. Charged with “hooliganism”, they were actually arrested early morning on the day of the elections. As such, they cannot be accused of engineering election "riots", as the other opposition leaders have been. Dashkevich and Lobau remain in the infamous "Black Stork" prison on the outskirts of Minsk, a place that has often been used to break down incompliant souls.

Lukashenka wants his political prisoners to renounce their views and slander opposition leaders. The dictator himself reiterated it with his usual obstinacy. "Three questions, three answers, and they are at freedom”, he said in parliament. Dashkevich and Lobau do, however, seem to be holding out. There have been no state-TV “repentances”, as was the case with some of the former presidential candidates. Writing from prison, Lobau wrote that the prison "is easier than the army" (he had just finished serving in airborne troops). No doubt, the guy wants to reassure relatives, who are black with worry.

    "We have reached a critical moment for European diplomacy. A just answer to any unjust sentence should mean a yet tougher EU position in respect to the regime."

There are reports that Dashkevich is being blackmailed. He isn’t being threatened personally, since it is the second time he is in prison and he didn’t crack last time. Instead, the authorities are trying a different approach, focused on his 20-year old girlfriend, whom they have been holding in prison since 19 December. If Dashkevich “recognises his guilt”, they will release her. So far, he has refused to co-operate.

No one knows what verdict awaits these young men. But the moment is critical for European diplomacy. A just answer to any unjust sentence should mean a yet tougher EU position in respect to the regime. The only chance that the Minsk authorities will show restraint lies in an immediate and strong reaction to this trial.

If the sentence is harsh, the EU reaction should be equally harsh. And the European Union must have further steps prepared. If we manage to get some of the prisoners out of prison, it will encourage other inmates. There will clearly be no public retreat from Lukashenka, but European pressure might make him release his hostages tacitly.