Free the Political Prisoners in Belarus Now
MINSK—Peace and quiet reign on Independence Square -- Christmas trees sparkle in the snow, the traffic is flowing, people are heading home to prepare for the holidays. Yet on Sunday, this square in the center of the Belarusian capital witnessed the largest protests against dictatorial rule in a decade, when thousands of President Alexander Lukashenko’s riot police and army troops brutally cracked down on tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. All normal? Not quite. Nearly 400 people were arrested after the protests, including most of the nine candidates that challenged Lukashenko in Sunday´s election. Five of the contenders were severely beaten and remain in the custody of the KGB, the country’s secret police. 40 journalists, both Belarusian and international, were beaten or arrested. Key NGOs, including human rights groups and independent websites, had their offices searched on Monday. A manhunt continues against any critical mind or civic activist in Belarus. Meanwhile, the “President re-elect” lashes out against the “bandits” and “diversants” who dared to challenge what he had hoped would be another easy win at the ballots. The question many here are asking themselves now is: Why did a promisingly open election campaign end with such ruthless brutality? Indeed, the democratic opposition in Belarus had been able to act and speak with unusual freedom in recent months. Several representatives of civil society and the democratic opposition decided to run in the elections. In collecting the 100,000 signatures required to submit a candidacy, they encountered few obstacles. Campaign events by opposition candidates took place with no major impediments. Contenders were able to voice their ideas in the media to some degree, and even participated in a live debate on television. These limited openings provided by Lukashenko´s regime were duly acknowledged in the official assessment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was monitoring the elections. Of course, these concessions were largely tactical. Their most important purpose was to appease the European Union, which had made it clear—over months of travel diplomacy—that closer ties between the EU and Belarus depended on a more open presidential election. They may also have been a response to growing political and economic pressure from Russia, Lukashenko’s most important sponsor for the 16 years of his rule. The surge of candidates was explained by the regime as proof that the democratic opposition in this country is divided, weak, and incapable of handling the challenges facing Belarus. This plan appeared to work—until Sunday night. It began to fall apart when the Central Election Commission published its preliminary results, which gave a highly unlikely majority of nearly 80 percent of votes to Alexander Lukashenko, at an equally unlikely turnout of over 90 percent. When Belarusians poured into the streets to protest against what they saw as a blatant manipulation and fraud, they were met by the batons of the police state. Western institutions responded swiftly and clearly. The OSCE stated that the elections, despite improvements, fell short of democratic standards; it appealed to the government of Belarus to clarify the fate of arrested candidates, journalists, and civic activists. The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, condemned the elections and called for an immediate end to the violence against democrats. The EU´s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, reminded the Belarusian government that any deeper relationship “was conditional on respect for the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.” Individual EU countries have followed with similar appeals, as did the United States, with statements by the State Department, members of Congress, and the White House. This broad transatlantic and European consensus will remain an important lever to push for a political opening in Belarus. Russia’s silence, however, is surprising. After many years of subsidizing the regime in Minsk, Moscow had begun to withdraw its economic subsidies and political support. Over the past months, it even launched an unprecedented media campaign which depicted Lukashenko as psychopathic, corrupt, and responsible for the disappearance of prominent opposition leaders. Yet just before the elections, the Kremlin toned down its criticism and signed a major agreement to establish a common economic space. Belarus will be a test case for Russia´s modernization strategy, its relations with the West, and its approach to its immediate neighborhood. Still, the responsibility for resolving the current situation rests first and foremost with the Belarusian government. Its legitimacy is shakier than ever. The economic situation is deteriorating, and the country’s citizens have had enough—amply proved by the tens of thousands who risked their health and freedom on the streets on Sunday to voice their discontent despite the risk of massive police crackdown. The disproportionate use of force on election night, and Lukashenko´s shrill public statements afterward, only further illustrates the nervousness of the current regime. As Independence Square returns to its snowy, peaceful state, the most immediate question is: What now for the West and Russia? The smallest common denominator—and the most immediate concern—must be the immediate release of the hundreds of prisoners taken during the protests. This would lend credence to recent Western and Russian pressure on Belarus to respect the basic standards of a modern society. It would signal an effort to restore the credibility of the modest liberalization that began the presidential campaign. And it would allow the brave democrats who were put behind bars unjustly to spend Christmas at home.
Jörg Forbrig is a Senior Program Officer in Berlin, and Pavol Demes is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Bratislava.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.