Experts discuss developments in Belarus, Open arts exhibition
On February 12, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted a discussion on recent developments in Belarus and on current Western policy vis-à-vis the country. Taking place at the GMF headquarters in Washington, DC, the event was met with considerable interest and was attended by over 70 experts, analysts, civil society activists, and representatives of the Belarusian Diaspora.
The Belarusian regime, long considered "Europe's last dictatorship," has recently undergone what some observers see as the beginnings of liberalization, raising hopes that the country may gradually open up and move toward democracy. Thus, a number of political prisoners were released in August of last year, followed by a parliamentary election that, while not considered free and fair by the OSCE, was somewhat more open to participation by the political opposition. In a next step, the Lukashenko government admitted two independent newspapers to the state-run circulation system, and announced the creation of several councils, on media, human rights, and the development of the country, that include opposition representatives. At the same time, persecutions of the democratic opposition have continued, none of its candidates have entered parliament, and a new, stricter media law has been enacted. These internal developments have taken place against the background of a deepening economic crisis in the country and global, and a renewed geo-political struggle between Russia and the West, particularly affecting the countries in between, such as Belarus.
These domestic and international developments pose intriguing questions both for the Euroatlantic community and for democrats in Belarus. Pavol Demes, GMF Director for Central and Eastern Europe, outlined in his introduction that it is as still unclear whether or not recent steps by the Belarusian government indicate a new policy and fundamental political change, or if they are yet another episode in Lukashenko's maneuvering between Russia and the West. This makes it difficult to establish if Western, and especially European, attempts to re-engage with the Belarusian government, as signaled by the lifting of visa sanctions and a series of high-level meetings, are an appropriate response. This dilemma between a moral, value-based position and a more pragmatic realpolitik equally affects the Belarusian opposition and civil society, which has generally remained very cautious about recent openings.
In her response, Irina Krasovskaya of the We Remember Foundation argued that any adjustments of EU and U.S. policy toward Belarus should be based on an analysis of the real situation in Belarus, rather than the declarations of government representatives. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that steps taken by the Lukashenko regime are largely cosmetic in nature. Repressions against democrats in the country continue, a dialogue between government and opposition has not emerged, independent civil society is given hardly any space to act in the open, and the media remain almost fully state-controlled. None of the conditions posed by the EU for normalizing relationships with Belarus have been fulfilled by Minsk, and steps toward engagement with the Lukashenko regime are therefore premature.
The discussion further highlighted these dilemmas. According to Balazs Jarabik of Pact Ukraine, recent moves by the Belarusian government are indeed unprecedented and if they are to be attributed to a more proactive European policy toward the country, that policy of engagement should be continued and made more concrete. In turn, as David Schwartz, former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, pointed out, Lukashenko's concessions may well reflect a deepening economic crisis and increasing pressures by Russia, rather than a sincere wish to liberalize. Any substantial opening, as pointed out by Marcin Walecki of the International Foundation of Electoral Systems, would require principal institutional changes, including an overhaul of Belarus' electoral law that would have to provide for a fair chance of the opposition in future polls. This position was reinforced by members of the Belarusian Diaspora that reminded the audience of earlier experiences when Lukashenko, having achieved Western concessions as desired, renewed repressions against democrats in the country.
It remains, hence, if Belarus really has arrived at a crossroads. Developments inside Belarus and a changing EU policy may provide for new opportunities in relations with the Lukashenko regime. In order to be successful, however, any engagement must be geared at strengthening democratic tendencies in the country. In this direction, the upcoming EU summit in Prague with a possible Belarusian participation will be an important test.
The roundtable was followed by the opening of an exhibition of Belarusian contemporary art at the GMF headquarters, entitled "Art against Dictatorship," with 40 paintings by independent artists from Belarus on display. In their brief introduction to the exhibition, Ales Marochkin and Ales Shaternik, well known for their critical art work, highlighted the role of culture in Belarus' strive to become a democratic, independent, and European country. The exhibition is on display through March at the GMF offices at 1700 18 Street NW, Washington, DC.