Repression undermines dialogue with Belarus

On January 22 Andrea Rigoni, a special rapporteur on Belarus for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), declared that PACE should recommence a dialogue with the Belarusian regime of President Alexander Lukashenka. Her comment denotes the latest stage in a continuing debate as to both the possibility of reforming the Lukashenka administration as well as bringing Belarus into the European orbit as a result of current political difficulties between this country and Russia. The EU has combined a partial dialogue with demands for democratization, but little seems to be changing within Belarus.

The annual “Index of Economic Freedom” was issued in mid-January by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, which ranked Belarus 150th out of 157 countries. In terms of financial freedom, it placed dead last. Coincidentally, January in Belarus has been marked by two mass protests by private entrepreneurs on January 10 and 21 against new laws that became effective this year and force such businesses to make social security payments and prohibit them from employing workers other than close family members. Linked to these protests, which took place across the country and involved a reported 50% of all individual entrepreneurs, the Ministry of Justice has demanded the dissolution of their union, the Perspektyva organization. Its leader, Anatol Shumchanka, arrested along with dozens of other participants in the protests, received a 15-day prison sentence on January 11.

According to some analysts, the harsh measures taken against the entrepreneurs, who were interrogated at a special prison facility on Akrestin Street, should serve to dispel any illusions that the Lukashenka regime can change its outlook. This perspective was given weight by a press conference last month by the chairman of the Belarusian KGB, Yuri Zhadobin, who reported that the "community of destructive elements" in the country consists of 1,767 people and that the agency knows all their names. The leader of the United Civic Party and a chair of the United Democratic Forces, Anatol Lyabedzka, who was among those arrested on January 10, has been deprived of his right to travel outside the country, allegedly for comments made during a Russian radio interview in 2004.

In late December, the Belarusian Popular Front, now under its new leader, Lyavon Barshcheusky, sent a letter to the chairman of the pro-government "Belaya Rus" association, Alyaksandr Radzkou, who had announced upon taking up his appointment his readiness to conduct a dialogue with leaders of the Belarusian democratic parties. The letter stressed that the first step prior to the beginning of such a dialogue must be an end to the persecution and expulsion of students from higher educational institutions for their political views. The BPF letter also noted that the Lukashenka regime has removed the works of Belarusian writers from school programs and reduced the number of children learning Belarusian over the past four years by 50%, as well as closing the Belarusian Humanitarian Lyceum and isolating the Belarusian educational system from its European counterpart. Barshcheusky commented that, to date, there has been no response to this letter, which had to be sent to the Ministry of Education, since there is no known address for Belaya Rus.

The political situation was analyzed in a dialogue between Pavel Sheremet and Vyacheslau Orhish in Narodnaya Volya last month, which focused on Belarus's relations with Russia and the West. This article infers that Belarus cannot seek solutions to its problems simply by turning toward Europe or by responding positively to the image created by the Lukashenka government of an “enemy at the gates” (i.e., Russia) that wishes to annex or colonize Belarus. In their view, the opposition to date has been wasting its energies insofar as they are directed against the menace of Russian intrusion rather than against the government in Minsk. Sheremet states outright that he does not believe in a dialogue with the authorities and that this notion was introduced into the opposition movement by agents from the authorities and KGB. He notes that some observers are advocating discussion at a time when activists of the Young Front are beaten, arrested, and imprisoned, and that they are either "idiots or provocateurs." Under such circumstances any dialogue with the authorities should be considered "a betrayal."

In Sheremet's opinion, the opposition should discard its anti-Russian rhetoric, which plays into the hands of Lukashenka: "Let Lukashenka be the only person who embodies an anti-Russian spirit in Belarus." Instead, the opposition should unite for the coming parliamentary elections (likely to be held on October 12, 2008), by which time Lukashenka's socially oriented economic model could be in a crisis situation because of its dependence on Moscow. The president is too rigid a personality, in Sheremet's view, to transform himself from a dictator to a democrat and thus a new opportunity will arise for the opposition. But in the interim no concessions should be made to – or dialogue resumed with – the authorities. The government in Minsk, rather than the one in Moscow, is thus the real enemy.

Whether a more profound dialogue is viable under the present conditions in Belarus is unclear; to date the regime has made only token gestures – the early release of youth activist Zmitser Dashkevich from the Shklou correctional institute on January 23 is one example –while stepping up repressive actions in other spheres.

By David Marples