By RFE/RL analyst Jan Maksymiuk
Alyaksandr Lukashenka this year had a golden opportunity to free all political prisoners in Belarus and take an important stride toward improving the country's standing in the West. Instead, the Belarusian president chose to pass on the chance and retain Belarus's status as the only country in Europe that imprisons people for political convictions.
On January 23, Belarusian authorities released Zmitser Dashkevich, the leader of the opposition Youth Front, after he served 16 months of an 18-month sentence for heading an unregistered organization.
Dashkevich's release was followed by a that of another Youth Front leader, Artur Finkevich. Finkevich spent two years under a "restricted freedom" regime for writing political graffiti, and then in October 2007 had his sentence extended by another 18 months for violating the rules of his correctional facility. On February 5 of this year, however, the court considered Finkevich's appeal, unexpectedly shortened his second term to six months, and released him immediately.
Ten days later, President Lukashenka ordered the released of Andrey Klimau, an opposition politician who in August 2007 was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the president and calling for revolution in an article posted on the Internet. Klimau, who served as a legislator in the Supreme Soviet of Belarus in 1995-96, had been jailed twice before. He served four years of a six-year sentence he received in 1998 on charges of embezzlement; in 2005, he was sentenced to 18 months of "restricted freedom" for his role in organizing a demonstration in Minsk.
Following the decision on Klimau, it became apparent that some backstage deal had been made between Minsk and Brussels on the issue of political prisoners. So it was no surprise at all when on February 22, Belarus's Supreme Court shortened a three-year prison term given to journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou to three months. Zdzvizhkou was sentenced in January for republishing the controversial Danish cartoons displaying the Prophet Muhammad in an independent newspaper in 2006.
In the meantime, it became known that in the first half of February, Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau -- who is among Belarusian officials currently subject to an EU travel ban -- secretly visited Germany. There, it can be presumed, Martynau suggested how Europe might reward Minsk for releasing its political prisoners.
The details of the deal were not made public. But it was clear to all that its ultimate success depended on the release of the last of Belarus's prisoners of conscience, former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was serving a 5 1/2-year prison term for leading an antigovernment demonstration in the wake of the 2006 presidential election.
Carrot And Stick From EU
For the past 10 years, the European Union has concocted a rich brew of measures meant alternately to punish Lukashenka for un-European behavior, to lure him into behaving in a more respectable manner, or to financially and morally support his opponents in their attempts to oust him. As of yet, such efforts have been to no avail.
Lukashenka tops the list of 36 Belarusian officials banned from entering the EU because of their role in vote-rigging and cracking down on human rights. The last country to invite the Belarusian leader for an official visit was France, in 1996. Ironically, after his meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, Lukashenka said he greatly admired France's presidential form of government -- to the degree that he wanted Belarus to emulate it without delay. In November 1996, Lukashenka staged an infamous and heavily rigged constitutional referendum that handed him authoritarian powers and did away with the fledgling democracy Belarus had acquired at the time.
To that stricture, Brussels added a sweetener, issuing in November 2006 a "new message to the people of Belarus," in which the European Commission promised to rain the benefits of its European Neighborhood Policy upon Belarus in exchange for democratic concessions from the governing regime. There are 12 conditions the EU extends to partnership governments in this money-for-democracy trade -- including transparent elections, freedom of expression and association, fair treatment by the judicial system, and the release all political prisoners.
When Lukashenka freed Dashkevich, Finkevich, Klimau, and Zdzvizhkou, it was clear that he was acting under a swap deal concluded with Brussels. But the deal collapsed when it came to Kazulin.
The Kazulin Case
In 1994, when Lukashenka was first elected president, Kazulin was a deputy education minister. In 1996, Lukashenka appointed Kazulin rector of Belarusian State University (BDU) in Minsk. Kazulin, who was known at the time to refer to himself as "the president's man," was reelected to the same post by BDU professors in 2000. From 1998-2001, Kazulin held the rank of minister in the Belarusian Cabinet of Ministers. In 2001, however, Kazulin's luck began to turn. Lukashenka fired him in connection with a criminal investigation into a company affiliated with the BDU, although Kazulin's complicity in the case has never been confirmed.
In 2005, Kazulin switched to the opposition, joining one of Belarus's cantankerous social-democratic parties. In 2006, he unsuccessfully challenged Lukashenka in the presidential race. Kazulin positioned himself as an opposition candidate, although the united opposition stood behind another hopeful, Alyaksandr Milinkevich. In his words and actions both before and after the March 19 election, Kazulin proved to be much more radical than Milinkevich.
In the second of his two campaign appearances on state-run television, Kazulin stunned the nation by touching upon Lukashenka's family life and morals. He disclosed that the incumbent president had a mistress, and a young son from the relationship. The nominal first lady, Halina Lukashenka, had meanwhile been living in a provincial city since Lukashenka's inauguration in 1994. Lukashenka was far from pleased to have his personal life parsed by a political opponent. Kazulin was subject to a harsh beating by presidential bodyguards when he tried to enter the so-called All-Belarusian Assembly, a grand propaganda event intended to endorse Lukashenka as "the people's candidate" two weeks before election day.
On March 25, 2006, during an opposition march led by Kazulin from downtown Minsk to a prison holding several hundred protesters incarcerated in the wake of the presidential election, Kazulin was arrested. In July 2006, he was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison on charges of hooliganism and disorderly conduct. At the time, some commentators suggested that Lukashenka saw Kazulin -- a charismatic and strong-willed politician -- as a potential threat, and was determined to keep him in jail past the point of a second presidential challenge in 2011.
During his incarceration in a penal colony in northern Belarus, Kazulin staged a 53-day hunger strike, demanding that the UN Security Council place Belarus's human rights situation on its agenda. His demand was not fulfilled but, nevertheless, his protest had resonance on the international scene, and even prompted the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to raise the issue at a closed-door Security Council session.
On February 23, 2008, Kazulin's wife Iryna died after a long battle with breast cancer. Kazulin was given a three-day release from the penal colony to attend her funeral in Minsk. While at home, he confirmed the previously reported rumors that Lukashenka offered him an early release to help his wife seek treatment abroad but only on the condition that they would never come back to Belarus. He said both he and his wife refused to accept this condition. Kazulin, who gave a spate of interviews to both international and independent domestic media during those three days, returned to prison with the bearing of a man with unbending political convictions, if not that of a national hero and martyr.
Lukashenka subsequently tried to quell the furor incited by Kazulin's appearance in the capital by publicly vilifying the Belarusian opposition in general as paid mercenaries of the West, and Kazulin in particular as "used toilet paper." But it is now obvious for everyone that, with the Kazulin case, the Belarusian president showed not only his well-known malevolence but also a less well-known political weakness -- wanting to get rid of a political rival by forcing him to emigrate.
Another Lukashenka Growing Up?
There are apparently no immediate threats to Lukashenka's rule in Belarus. Russia's continued benevolence in subsidizing gas supplies to Belarus supports the Belarusian "market-oriented socialism" as a viable economic model. But recently, perhaps inspired by the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev power deal in Russia, Lukashenka has begun to publicly muse about his successor.
In April, state-run television showed Lukashenka in the company of a small, fair-haired boy. While visiting a provincial city, Lukashenka reiterated a curious but casual remark dropped earlier this year that his youngest son would be Belarus's future president. And the Interfax news agency, while commenting on this news, noted in passing that Lukashenka has "three sons, and the youngest, Mikalay, is four years old." The identity of the boy has not been officially confirmed, but there is some speculation in the independent Belarusian press that Lukashenka is indeed thinking about preparing this mysterious child to succeed him.
If so, Lukashenka would have to continue in his current post for the next 31 years until his purported youngest son reaches 35 and becomes constitutionally eligible to run for the presidency. By then, Lukashenka would be 85 years old. Given his current good health, and the political-longevity model of fellow leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who remains vigorous at the age of 83, Lukashenka could well attempt such a strategy.
But there are other potential options. Some publications, citing Lukashenka's predilection for changing the constitution (he's already done it twice), suggested he could adjust it again to lower the age of presidential eligibility to 18. In that case, a changeover could be expected in 2022 -- meaning just another 14 years of Lukashenka's rule to go.
More Political Prisoners Coming
Lukashenka, for the time being, has abandoned any plan to swap Belarusian political prisoners for better relations with Europe.
On April 22, a Belarusian court sentenced opposition activist Andrey Kim to 18 months in prison for allegedly attacking a police officer during a protest in January. Two days later, another activist, Syarhey Parsyukevich, received a 30-month sentence for allegedly beating a guard while serving a 15-day sentence for participating in the same protest.
On May 22 and 27, in relation to the same protest, a court in Minsk sentenced nine youth activists to two years and one to 18 months of "restricted freedom" without sending them to correctional institutions. The verdict implies that if they violate the regime of serving their sentences, they may be sent to real penal colonies.
In other words, the pool of political prisoners in Belarus has been partially restored in preparation for any possibility that Brussels will once again launch negotiations with Minsk about improving relations. However, it seems advisable for any future EU negotiators to take into account the other 11 demands formulated in November 2006 -- not only the one about releasing political prisoners. Apparently, releasing some political prisoners is a serious problem for President Lukashenka. But putting them behind the bars is not a problem at all.