West wrings hands over Belarus

Minsk's Communist-style crackdown leaves Western governments with few options.

By David L. Stern - GlobalPost

KIEV, Ukraine - Belarus authorities announced criminal charges last week against seven of the nine candidates who ran against President Alexander Lukashenko in last month's elections, according to news reports.

The candidates, five of whom are being held by the Belarus KGB, are being accused of "organizing mass disturbances," after thousands of their supporters gathered on Minsk's main square on election night, Dec. 19, to protest Lukashenko's victory, which they said was rigged. The Belarus leader, who has been in power since 1996, won another five-year term with 80 percent of the vote, while his closest competitor, Andrei Sannikov, received just 2.5 percent. International election observers said the contest was heavily flawed.

On Friday, Belarus shut down the Minsk office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose monitors had reported flaws in the presidential election. The office of the human rights watchdog had opened in January 2003. "The Belarussian side has taken the decision not to continue the operations of the OSCE office in Minsk," said foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh.

The previous day, officers of the police and KGB searched the offices of news media and journalists, as well as the homes journalists, human rights activists and presidential candidates, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The searches, arrests and accusations possess all the hallmarks of a communist-era crackdown. Under Belarus law, charges of organizing public unrest can incur a sentence of between five and 15 years.

In addition to the seven candidates, another 19 individuals - all culled from the country's opposition - are also facing extended jail terms. Some were seized from their apartments in the dead of night. More than 700 people were arrested in the wake of the protests and are serving detentions of up to 15 days. (Many were released at the end of last week.) They may face difficulties returning to work or being admitted to university, as Lukashenko's Soviet-style state controls all aspects of public life.

There is evidence that the post-election scenario was planned in advance. Lukashenko, in comments just before the vote, insinuated that after the elections he would deal with the opposition leaders, many of whom used the freer political atmosphere permitted during the campaign to openly attack him. Unknown assailants jumped and badly beat opposition leader Vladimir Neklyaev while the polls were still open. He was knocked unconscious, and police later dragged him from his hospital bed to take him into custody. (His lawyer, Tamara Sidorenko, said that he is suffering from acute hypertension and that his life may be in danger.)

The election night events remain somewhat murky. Opposition members claim that an attack by a handful of protesters on a main government building - the act that triggered the riot police's breaking up the demonstration and commencing arrests - was in fact a provocation orchestrated by outside forces. Much of the detail surrounding the attempted storming is indeed still unexplained. But it is additionally not entirely clear why the protestors moved from the main October Square to nearby Independence Square, where the attack took place.

Whatever the inspiration of the crackdown may have been, it now appears that Lukashenko is using the opportunity presented him to clean house in his eastern European state of 10 million. The main questions at this point are: How far is he intending to go? And what will western governments do - or can they do - about it?

On the face of it, Lukashenko has shown an emphatic middle finger to the West. Belarus authorities seem to have taken fright at the whiff of freedom that the presidential contest produced and opted to turn the country back into one of the world's most repressive police states. After a period of improved relations with the European Union, as well as promises of extensive economic aid from European governments if the elections lacked gross violations, the crackdown comes as an obscene slap in the face.

What's more, if the opposition leaders and their supporters are convicted - becoming prisoners of conscience - the country will become a political pariah. The absence of political prisoners has been a pre-condition for European and U.S. engagement with the Lukashenko government. (Belarus released its last political prisoners in 2008, under Western pressure.) Imprisoning such a large number of opposition members will mark a major turning point in the country's fossilization, Western diplomats in Minsk say.

But some offer alternative interpretations of the recent events. The Belarus leader could be using the opposition detainees as political hostages of sorts, whose liberation could be traded sometime in the future with the West for political and economic concessions. Another political thaw could eventually follow, just as it did in 2008.

Another possibility: The crackdown is as real and all-encompassing as it seems, but it is also setting the scene for further economic reform. The Belarus elite, as this theory goes, recognize that they must ultimately liberalize and open up the country's economy if they want to survive. The political freeze is their attempt to maintain as much control as possible, even as they allow a small amount of economic freedom and some unpredictability (and possibly instability) into their rigid market system.

Both of these theories have their limits however. In response to the second possibility, observers ask, why would a Western businessman trust Belarus officials to honor a contract after having seen what the government does to people who cross it?

Lukashenko may not care if the Western investors stay away, since he seems to have sculpted a new foreign policy. On one hand, he appears to have mended bridges with Russia, thereby guaranteeing Belarus will continue to receive subsidized oil and gas and further access to the Russian market. On the other hand, he is forging relations with countries outside of Europe. In the past, he has used the EU as a counter-balance to the Kremlin, flirting with Brussels when Moscow's policy has become too overbearing. Now it seems that, in place of the EU, he will use Venezuela, China and Iran as his foils.

In the "political prisoners as hostages" option, the main reality arguing against an eventual reconciliation with the EU is that the European officials have seen this movie before and say that they won't be taken for suckers again.

"There can be no business-as-usual between the European Union and Belarus' president, Alexander Lukashenko, after what has happened since the presidential election in Belarus," wrote the foreign ministers of Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany in a New York Times op-ed piece.

"Continued positive engagement with Mr. Lukashenko at the moment seems to be a waste of time and money. He has made his choice - and it is a choice against everything the European Union stands for," they wrote.

But what can they do? Aside from reinstated visa bans for top Belarus officials, including Lukashenko, and possibly other sanctions, Western diplomats admit in private that they possess few instruments of leverage over the Belarus strongman. EU officials will meet for an extraordinary meeting on the Belarus situation in Brussels on Jan. 12.


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