Lukashenko takes it all

Tom Washington

A handful of protestors gathered on Minsk's main square on a recent afternoon. The police almost outnumbered the demonstrators, who chanted "Long Live Belarus" and held up photographs of various people they claimed were political prisoners and were being held without trial for a crime that other people had already been convicted of.

The banned red-and-white flag of the Belarusian opposition was waved and the crowd was dispersed.

"We gathered to express solidarity for the political prisoners Mikalay Autuvich, Yury Liavonau and Uladzmir Asipenka," said Alexander Atroshchankau of opposition group European Belarus.

"Mikalay Autuvich went on hunger strike in the Minsk pre-trial detention centre on April 16, 2009. He demands a public trial for himself and his colleagues or immediate release from prison. ... Amnesty International has recognised them as prisoners of conscience."

Such is the reaction in Belarus to President Lukashenko's human rights record and his assertion that all political prisoners have been released.

Concessions to human rights are one of the key issues in Lukashenko's new relationship with Europe, effectively launched at the Eastern Partnership summit in Prague last week. His claim that he had released all political prisoners earlier this year was considered a milestone.

"The time has come for a visible step change in relations with our East European neighbours", European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the summit.

The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, and representatives from Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus met with EU officials to discuss deeper ties between the EU and its eastern neighbours and energy security.

"The Eastern Partnership summit fulfilled our expectations because we got unanimous and very strong support for the project from our fellow EU member states and from the six partner countries", Jan Sliva, a spokesman for the Czech Embassy to the EU, said by telephone. Funding promises of 600 million euros have been secured for the project until 2013.

Europe is pleased to have brought Belarus to the table at last, after years of trying to isolate the country over alleged human rights abuses. But the real success is for Lukashenko, said Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The EU had no other choice as it had not been successful with its isolation policy. It is a victory for Lukashenko as he and his policies have now been recognised by the EU", he said.

Minsk residents asked about the summit differed about the level of repression under Lukashenko, but agreed that the country needed to build closer ties with Europe. Significantly, all asked that their names not published for fear of repercussions.

"Europe should not ignore the real political situation here for the sake of some minor economic benefits," said one Minsk teacher. "They're turning a blind eye to real life here and human rights violations. People are still rotting in prisons for no reason, and if there are actually reasons they should be made public."

"When foreign papers say we have a dictator it is not so," said a Minsk student. "We live freely, here I am studying what I want to. It's just that compared with Europe we are considered the unlucky ones, and we should certainly accelerate our growth."

But political freedoms have still got progress to make, she said. "Any opposition is quashed at the roots and therefore there is no balance. The question of the opposition is a complicated one. Students, for example, can't join any opposition groups or they are kicked out of university."

Bringing Belarus closer to Europe would give the bloc stability on its eastern border and the region is crucial to the union's energy flow.

Economic problems at home make the timing apt for Lukashenko, and building bridges to Europe reduces his dependence on Russia, which earlier this year initially stalled on loaning Belarus $3 billion.

Russia has since pledged a smaller sum of $2 billion in credit and disbursed half that sum. The Kremlin announced plans in February to build an air defence system from Belarus' border with three NATO nations, through Russia and to the Chinese border. Nonetheless, a $2.5 billion loan from the IMF has also helped to bolster Belarusian coffers in a difficult time.

Recent overtures to Europe have assisted further. Developing economic relations with Europe is a prime concern for Lukashenko if Belarus is to weather the global economic crisis. The country needs technical expertise and investment as well as oil and gas. The former can be provided by Europe, the latter by Russia.

"We should make friends with Europe. We must make friends with all countries. That is the bottom line," said a Minsk shop assistant. "With Russia it is the same, we are Slavs together and so it is important."

"Belarus was one of the most important allies for Russia - it's a country without a colour revolution and a stable dictator more or less loyal to Moscow. It is Russia's Western neighbour, with a border to the EU, so also of strategic importance," said Meister. "An important sign of Lukashenko's rapprochement towards the EU was that he was not willing to recognise the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia."

This is what Moscow had dreaded, that an expanding EU would leave both parties competing for space.

"We will observe that Russia will set a more difficult pattern for the EU on the PCA, Energy and development or tensions in the post-Soviet space like with Georgia or [Ukraine] because of even just this development", Meister said.



Partners: Social Network