Reversing course on Belarus

Joerg Forbrig (Europe)

The EU policy toward Belarus is in tatters. Two years of engagement with Alexander Lukashenko's regime, direct cooperation in the framework of the European Union's Eastern Partnership programme, and gentle pressure to allow some space for democrats in the country came to naught on December 19, when the police crushed a courageous mass protest against fraudulent elections.

Independent media and nongovernmental organisations were raided and hundreds of campaigners for democracy thrown in jail, where they must fear brutal treatment and harsh sentences. It was a grim day - for the democratic opposition of Belarus, but also for Europe's much-vaunted soft power.

European policy makers were caught completely off guard. Many of those who watched the crackdown from afar in shock and dismay had worked hard (together with some of their Belarussian counterparts), and had invested personal credibility in a reset with Belarus. Their sense of personal outrage resonates from the forceful condemnation published by the foreign ministers of Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. Still, official statements say little about what the EU should now do in response. What is needed is a reset of the reset - a complete reversal.

The situation of the democrats in Belarus today is a humanitarian disaster. Numerous people remain behind bars, many without sufficient clothing, food, medical supplies or legal assistance. Once released, they face further police repression, loss of jobs or expulsion from universities. Many others have gone underground. All are in need of protection, shelter and financial support. The European Union must act immediately to help them, through embassies, via charities, through the acts of individual citizens.

By far the worst off are 23 key detainees - including opposition candidates and their associates - who are held in KGB prisons, where, according to Amnesty International, they are interrogated and even tortured. At least two of them, Andrei Sannikov and Vladimir Neklaev, are in fast-declining health and require immediate medical assistance. The European Union must demand humane treatment, access to doctors, lawyers and relatives, and eventual release for these detainees.

On all other issues, the relationship between the European Union and Belarus should be put on ice. Projects such as a plan for deeper cooperation, participation in the EU projects like the Eastern Partnership, credit lines or economic aid by European agencies should be frozen pending action by the regime in Minsk on the detainees.

The EU travel ban on the leadership in Minsk - lifted two years ago - will have to be re-applied. The list of individuals affected may need revision and expansion to include those responsible for vote-rigging and post-election atrocities. Lukashenko belongs on this list, as do the heads of central and regional election commissions, directors of state-run media, officers ordering violence against protesters, KGB interrogators, prison heads, state prosecutors, and judges handing out hundreds of politically motivated sentences. That would be an unmistakable signal to the state apparatus in Belarus - and prevent the perpetrators from spending the rewards for their criminal actions on vacations and shopping sprees in the European Union.

Meanwhile, the European Union must open its arms to ordinary Belarussians. Kept in isolation for one-and-a-half decades and bombarded with anti-Western propaganda, many people in Belarus are uncertain whether they are even welcome in the European family. With a liberal visa policy - dropping the visa requirement altogether or at least providing free visas to normal citizens - the European Union can refute these doubts. That would be a show of solidarity with a society under siege. Over time, open borders will strengthen those in Belarus that seek their country's future in Europe. Poland set a good example a few days ago when it imposed its own travel restrictions on the Minsk regime and abolished national visa fees for Belarussian citizens.

Europe must also provide more support for civil society in Belarus. Despite years of state pressure, the "last dictatorship in Europe" has a lively and sizeable democratic community that dares to speak out freely, independently and critically. This community is now under massive attack by state authorities, and its survival hinges on swift European help. Some E.U. countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, have long provided funding; it is needed more than ever. Across the European Union, civil society should be viewed as a legitimate voice of Belarus, and included in any dialogue on E.U.-Belarus relations.

In the long run, no good can come out of Belarus as long as it is ruled by Lukashenko. Here, the Union ought to remember its considerable economic leverage, as it is becoming the premier destination for Belarussian exports. It will find a partner in the United States, which remains a staunch supporter of a democratic Belarus. European leaders will have to impress upon Moscow that Russia's "modernisation partnership" with the EU extends to the common neighborhood - including Belarus.

Belarussians call December 19, 2010, their "Bloody Sunday." If Europe manages to muster the courage to stand up to Minsk, this day might be remembered as the beginning of the end of Lukashenko's tyrannic rule.

Joerg Forbrig is senior programme officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin


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