Europe's Lonely Heart

By Anna Volk

The era of globalization does not seem to have touched Belarus. This country in the very heart of Europe is becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the world. But the world needs to pay more attention. Last week, the European Union reiterated its deep concern at recent developments in Belarus, where there has been a systematic and increasing repression of civil society, the political opposition and the independent media.

The European Commission initiative to remove trade preferences for Belarus because of human rights violations was opposed by only two of the 25 EU member states: Lithuania and Poland. They insisted on more "soft" methods of resolving the Belarusian situation. Nevertheless, in response the Belarusian regime dispatched three Polish diplomats and cracked down on the Union of Poles of Belarus.

The ethnic Polish community in Belarus makes up about 4 percent of the Belarusian population. The Union of Poles in Belarus is the largest nongovernmental organization in the country; it is democratically oriented and actively maintains its close ties with Poland.

But Belarus-Poland relations have become increasingly strained in recent years. Things came to a head recently when the Belarusian government orchestrated an illegal coup within the Union of Poles in Belarus and replaced the democratically elected leadership with its own cronies. It also closed the country's main Polish-language newspaper. These actions have coincided with arrests, detentions and show trials of average citizens and journalists. As a result, last week Poland recalled its ambassador to Belarus and said he will not resume his post until the situation in Belarus changes.

The reaction of the Belarusian authorities is not surprising. They fear the kind of revolution that has already occurred in Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been persona non-grata for several years in the EU and US. Being in isolation himself, he now does everything to isolate his country.

Lukashenko, first of all, is trying to strengthen his personal control over everything that happens in this country. Belarus is the only ex-Soviet country in which the KGB still exists. Last July Belarus adopted a law which foresees the inculcation of the Special Forces collaborators into private enterprises under cover of ordinary employment. Moreover, the KGB is given the right to enter any premises by breaking locks, and the prosecutor's sanction can be received within the next 24 hours.

There's more. Lukashenko is trying to isolate not only the country as a whole, but also a specific group: the nomenklatura, the state bureaucracy. A month ago he decreed that public officials in Belarus can go abroad only with the president's consent and for no longer than two days. The Belarusian leader has instructed officials to cut their travel abroad to a minimum.

He is also telling students to stick to their textbooks and keep out of politics. All educational establishments in Belarus have been provided with instructions for how to prevent students from being involved in unlawful activity of a political nature. School and university teachers are strictly prohibited from talking about the political situation in the country with students. From now on, students engaged in opposition activities will be monitored even more closely. A number of active students have already been expelled from the universities.

Is it possible at the dawn of the 21st century that an entire university could be driven into exile in Europe? Yes, it is. In July 2004, the government closed the privately funded European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk, a school that provided Western-style education and promoted the exchange of ideas between students from Belarus and the West. Lukashenko subsequently acknowledged that the EHU was closed because it was training a new Belarusian elite that would make the nation pro-Western. Earlier this year, the EHU reopened in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The re-opening of the state university in Lithuania proves that Lithuania has lost its patience and is fed up with the non-democratic politics of its closest neighbor. Following the recent diplomatic conflict with Poland, one can easily state that Belarus has crucially lost the loyalty of its two main historical partners.

Russia so far is the only country that refrains from serious official statements on Belarus. However, it's only a matter of time. Vladimir Putin understands that sooner or later he will need to make a clear decision on Russia's neighbor, especially in light of the presidential elections next year in Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko is like a wolf in the trap. He is constantly losing credibility with his people. He doesn't trust those he works with, he has just lost the last bits of loyalty from his neighbors.

Belarus is a hot spot on the map of international politics. Events in this country promise to be dramatic in the coming months. According to the recent declaration from Brussels, "the EU reiterates its standing commitment to continue assisting Belarusian civil society and the population at large in their efforts to promote a democratic and pluralistic society in Belarus".

Resolutions and declarations by the EU on Belarus are necessary to keep the international community informed and alarmed about the situation in Belarus. However, they are hardly the most efficient way to help people defend their rights and improve the political situation in their country. There can't be any dialog with dictatorship. Other paths need to be explored. Poland is one of the first countries that has understood that.

Anna Volk is a freelance writer based in Belarus.