How to Thaw Belarus’ Permanent Winter
BERLIN -- In politics, this has been a year of extreme weather. The Arab Spring dismantled decades-old autocracies through peaceful protest. The heat of summer scorched some even more brutal and determined rulers, from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (whose regime went up in fire) to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (the flames are still licking at the foundations of his power). Late autumn, finally, dealt a surprise blow to the Russian government, with the largest protests since the ascent of Putinocracy. Yet in Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, winter reigns all year round. Only a year ago, things looked a lot more promising in Europe’s last dictatorship, which is sandwiched between the northeastern borders of the EU and Russia. In the campaign preceding the presidential elections, nine opposition candidates challenged Lukashenko, met voters in packed halls, and even debated in the state media. Relationships with the West warmed, an invitation was extended to Belarus to join the EU’s Eastern Partnership, Western leaders flew to Minsk and promised aid in exchange for democratic reforms. For a while, it seemed as if the Belarusian regime might open up after 16 years of iron-fisted rule. But this democratic experiment was brutally aborted on December 19 of last year. When it emerged that the polls had been grossly manipulated to secure Lukashenko a fourth term in office, tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in peaceful protest. There, they were met with the full force of the police state. Some 700 protesters were beaten and arrested that night, including all of the democratic candidates. Ever since “Bloody Sunday,” as democrats soon called it, things have gone from bad to worse in Belarus. A witch hunt was unleashed against opposition leaders, human rights activists, and independent journalists. Those that were not thrown into jail went underground or into exile. Show trials were held against some 40 dissidents, with 15 of them remaining behind bars to this day. Those who were released reported physical and psychological torture. Laws that were already strict were tightened to squeeze civil society and the independent media. Citizens are now forbidden even to gather silently. Critics inside the country are intimidated by the KGB; those that left the country live in fear for their relatives and face Interpol arrest warrants for themselves. Nonetheless, Lukashenko’s regime is weaker than ever, despite the brutality of the crackdown. Last year’s elections gave Belarusians a lasting taste for political openness. The subsequent state terror has politicized even ordinarily docile Belarusians, and protest has become frequent. Official propaganda is so shrill now that many citizens are turning to independent, mostly Internet-based media, whose audience has tripled. Belarus’ economy has effectively collapsed, with the national currency devalued by 189 percent and annual inflation at 104 percent. As a result, independent polls report that only a fifth of the Belarusians still support Lukashenko. In short, the Belarusian winter first hit the most courageous of Belarusians, then engulfed the entire population, and now Lukashenko himself is feeling the gnawing cold. So will Belarus succumb to permafrost—or is there a possibility of a thaw? Lukashenko himself is clearly intent on staying at the helm by any means. He has begun to reinforce the pervasive security structures that are now the only remaining pillar of his power. To sustain them, he has launched a desperate search for funds, whether by taking out loans at a staggering scale or by selling the country’s family silver, including gas pipeline operator Beltransgaz. This has proved a boon for Moscow—for the Putin regime, Minsk’s troubles are an opportunity to recapture Russia’s supremacy in the post-Soviet space, to grab strategic assets in Belarus, and to subdue the notoriously unruly Lukashenko. Europe, for its part, appears helpless and resigned. Neither the EU’s pre-election strategy of political outreach nor its subsequent isolation of Minsk since seem to have yielded any results. For Belarus’ citizens, Europe’s declarations of support must ring increasingly hollow. And European lethargy may waste the last chance in a long time to end Lukashenko’s rule, ensure an independent Belarus, and launch much-needed democratic and market reforms. The necessary measures to take for Europe have long been on the table and demanded by Belarusian democrats. Political isolation must be accompanied by effective economic sanctions, targeting those exports for which the EU is Belarus’ key market, such as oil products and fertilizers. An embargo will deprive Lukashenko of the funds for his machinery of terror and depress the price investors might be willing to pay for industrial assets. If coupled with a moratorium on loans from financial institutions, such as the IMF or private banks, this would dry up the Western revenue stream that has long sustained the regime. This would force Lukashenko to the negotiating table. There, the EU’s first demand must be the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners, followed by talks between the regime and the democratic movement on political, economic, and social reform. Belarusian civil society deserves all Europe’s attention and support. The restrictive visa regime must give way to open EU borders for ordinary Belarusians, and opportunities to visit, study, and work have to be boosted. Human rights groups, civic initiatives and independent media need increased, continuous, and accessible assistance. The political opposition needs encouragement, expertise, and funding to develop its strategy for change, and the democratic movement has to be treated as Belarus’ recognized representative in all European and international forums. Europe has taken first and encouraging steps toward such a shift in policy, including a visa ban and asset freeze against 210 key representatives of the Belarusian regime. It must now move from piecemeal to comprehensive, from half-hearted to decisive. It is the only chance to prevent the looming permafrost in Belarus and give its brave citizens a hope of spring. Joerg Forbrig directs the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.