by Aleksandr Matijevich
Most agree that Minsk's wintertime release of political prisoners was a gesture toward Europe. But what happens now?
MINSK In January, Alyaksandr Zdvizhkou, former deputy editor-in-chief of Zhoda newspaper, was sentenced to three years in prison for "inciting religious enmity." Two years earlier, his newspaper, now closed, had reprinted the cartoons of Muhammad made famous in the Danish newspaper Jullands-Posten.
Zhoda had been sympathetic to the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party, chaired by presidential candidate-turned-political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin. When prosecutors filed charges against Zdvizhkou two years ago, he fled abroad. He was arrested late last year when he returned to visit his parents' graves.
The sentence against him caused an outcry among Belarusian civil society groups, journalists, and international observers. Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jullands-Posten, called it "terrible."
Even Ismail Varanovich, the head of the spiritual body of Belarusian Muslims, protested. "I asked the court for leniency. He didn't call on anyone to commit a crime. This was a way of informing people about what was published in Danish newspapers," Varanovich told Belarusian media after the verdict.
Then, one month later, after becoming Belarus' most famous political prisoner, Zdvizhkou was released.
He was one of four political prisoners freed during an unexpected political thaw that took place this warm winter in Belarus, regarded by some as the last dictatorship in Europe.
Among them was Zmicier Dashkevich, sentenced in November 2006 to one and a half years in prison for acting on behalf of an unregistered organization, a law that is more frequently enforced than in the past.
Another, Artur Finkevich, was sentenced to two years in a labor camp in June 2006 for drawing political graffiti. He later received another 18-month term for violating the rules after he returned late from several permitted leaves and was suspected of drinking alcohol.
And Andrei Klimau, a former member of parliament from the opposition United Civic Party, was sentenced to two years in prison in August for publishing an article on the Internet that allegedly called for a violent overthrow of the government. He had been in prison since April while awaiting sentencing.
TILTING TO THE WEST?
The release of political prisoners was among the conditions laid out in November 2006 by the European Union for expanded cooperation between it and Belarus. Other conditions included respect for the rights of the people of Belarus to elect their leaders democratically, to have access to independent information, and to have an independent and impartial judicial system.
While Belarus did not exactly greet the conditions with a smile, two months after they were laid down, the country locked horns with its traditional ally and benefactor, Russia, over natural gas prices. Relations between the two countries have never fully recovered. So while Belarus remains dependent on Russian gas and oil, Minsk seems to be exploring a deeper relationship with Europe.
The prisoners' release, then, prompts a few questions: is it simply a sop to the Europeans or is it a first key step down a westward path? And who makes the next move?
"President [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka agreed to a political warming in a voluntarily-obligatory manner. He was forced to do so by circumstances like an increase in the price of gas, political changes in Russia, etc.," said Alyaksandr Feduta, a political analyst and Lukashenka biographer.
Feduta warned, though, that by making demands, the EU is also making a mistake. The Belarusian authorities will not tolerate ultimatums, he said. "The very moment Lukashenka realizes that he has given in too much, he'll stop. Now a point of concern is about what the Western countries plan to do in response. It's people, not the government, who need real action on, for instance, reduced visa costs. If no reciprocal steps are made by Europe, the political warming will fade away."
In its 2007 country report, Amnesty International said 11 prisoners of conscience were held in Belarus in 2006. The Belarusian authorities deny that they imprison people for political reasons. Lukashenka has said repeatedly that there are no political articles in the Belarusian Criminal Code and that such prisoners have been convicted of criminal offenses.
Even so, the government called the recent releases "a step toward the West." During a February visit to the northern Viciebsk region, Lukashenka said the decision to release "the so-called political prisoners" was made in accordance with the constitution, as their sentences had been commuted and their convictions still stood.
But the country's prisons still hold two people widely considered political prisoners. Andrei Kim, an activist for Initiative, another "unregistered" organization, was detained during a protest rally of entrepreneurs on 21 January. He is accused of assaulting a police officer.
Kazulin, the Belarusian Social-Democratic leader and former presidential candidate, was detained in March 2006. He is serving a five-and-one-half-year sentence for organizing a protest rally that led to a clash between protesters and the police.
Interest in Kazulin's case grew in February, when his wife died of cancer without seeing her husband set free. The authorities ignored widespread calls, from inside and outside the country, to release him. Instead, they allowed Kazulin three days' leave to attend the funeral. He is back in prison now.
THIS ISN'T PERESTROIKA
Vladimir Matskevich, a political analyst with the Humanitarian Technologies Agency think tank, said the release of political prisoners in Belarus does not mean the regime has changed its stripes.
"Obviously, the mere fact of the people being released is exceptionally positive and significant, however, this is a regime that frees some political prisoners and continues persecution of other opponents," Matskevich said, citing the Kazulin case.
About 100 people were detained during a 25 March opposition rally in Minsk, when people took to the streets to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the pre-Soviet Belarusian People's Republic. Two days later, security services searched the offices of independent media and the apartments of freelance journalists. They confiscated about 30 computers and interrogated several journalists.
Perhaps prophetically, a resolution adopted by the European Parliament a month earlier had once again called upon the Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners.
"Indeed, we welcome the release of political prisoners. However, we also know that in Belarus one step forward is followed by several steps back," Bernd Posselt, one of the authors of the resolution, said in an interview with Radio Liberty. "We can expect that next week new people might be arrested or detained. We demand substantial changes of the situation in compliance with the existing international legislation."
Feduta, the Lukashenka biographer, is impatient with Europe's approach. He said he doubts that the 12 conditions were behind Minsk's decision to free the prisoners.
"The 12 conditions is a silly document. It's too vague and not concrete. That's a problem. For the first time the Belarusian authorities did something concrete by setting political prisoners free, and in reply, Europe did something silly like simply putting forward the 12 conditions once more. In this regard I can only advise the EU politicians to decide what they really want Belarus to do in the end!"
Others defend the 12 conditions as the guideposts on a path toward real democratic change.
"But the Belarusian regime has never fulfilled any such conditions. And there's no real dialogue or action going on, just an exchange of diplomatic courtesy," said Andrei Yahorau, a political scientist. "The Europeans try to read the signals from the Belarusian regime, and they make counterstatements, but a real partnership with the EU is possible only in return for very concrete, not symbolic, steps."
Those are steps that Minsk will never take, Yahorau said, because to meet the 12 conditions would effectively spell the end of this regime.
Still, he believes the release of the political prisoners was a "significant move of the Belarusian authorities toward the West."
"If the EU really wants to cooperate with Belarus beyond politics, it should regard the release of the political prisoners as a step forward. But if Europe is seeking real democratic changes, it should regard the move only as a liberalization mask on the face of a dictatorship," Yahorau said.
Aleksandr Matijevich is TOL's correspondent in Minsk