15 August 2005

Squeezing the Squeezer

by TOL

Lukashenka again squeezes the opposition, and the EU again shows it has no grip on Lukashenka.

The latest spat between Belarus and Poland has once again shown up what Belarus-watchers have known for years: while President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has become increasingly sophisticated in manipulating the smallest sign of dissent to his infinite advantage, the West - in particular the European Union - remains bereft of equally sophisticated responses.

For some, Lukashenka is still easy to dismiss: a sometimes cartoonish figure who rose to power from an obscure existence as the head of a collective farm. He remains rough around the edges, a sometimes buffoonish figure who likes athletic and military poses.

But the latest incident has shown again how shrewdly the president can kill (or at least harm) many different birds (the opposition, Poland, the EU) with one stone.

The focal point of the current dispute has been the persecution of an ethnic Polish organization in Belarus after the group, the Union of Poles (UoP), elected a new leadership in the spring. Except for a period early in Belarus's post-1991 independence - before Lukashenka took power in 1994 - the UoP has been a thoroughly docile organization, concentrating on the promotion of Polish culture and heritage.

Following the change in leaders, the authorities claimed the selection process had been illegal and began a crackdown that has since culminated in the arrest of officials and some normal members of the UoP. They have been jailed on charges ranging from participating in an unsanctioned demonstration to illegally meeting with visiting foreign dignitaries (in this case, a Polish member of parliament). The Belarusian authorities have also forcefully reinstalled a previous, loyal leader of the UoP. In the ensuring controversy, both Poland and Belarus have expelled three of each others' diplomats, while Poland recently recalled its ambassador in Minsk for consultations.


Above all, Lukashenka appears to have acted to preemptively take control over a potentially hostile organization, and a large one at that (around 25,000 of the country's roughly 400,000 ethnic Poles are members of the UoP). The likelihood was actually slim that the organization would have played any political role since most Poles are apolitical, eking out an existence in rural areas, isolated from the "corrupting" influence of the more urban independent press, NGOs, and the opposition in general.

But, as events have shown, the UoP does have a core group of brave, defiant leaders, and the authorities had decided not to take any chances. They have now effectively broken the organization, just as they have crushed the independent media, opposition politicians, trade unions, NGOs, and many others before.

In the process, Lukashenka has employed a favorite technique. While excising a suspicious pimple on his rule, he has used these attacks to foment anti-Western hysteria, a key factor in his appeal to certain segments of society. A frequent refrain, expressed by the president and then parroted by the state-run media, is the West's secret financing of internal enemies (NGOs, the opposition, etc.) to undermine the regime and incite a "revolution" such as those that recently occurred in Georgia and Ukraine. With presidential elections looming next year (and Lukashenka planning to run after the approval of a referendum that erased the two-term limit from the constitution), such rhetoric will only increase in coming months.

The attacks on the UoP have also represented a convenient way (and one of the only ways) for Lukashenka to strike back at the Polish government, which the president has accused of helping to instigate the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and of funding groups within Belarus that supposedly want to overthrow the region. Lukashenka fears Poland's growing role as a regional leader, determined to wrest control over the EU's eastern policy and to use its own experiences to promote democratic reform in the Union's "new neighbors."

Unable to launch any physical attack against NATO-member Poland, Lukashenka has chosen one of his only available options: lashing out against a weaker, defenseless member of the family.

Finally, Lukashenka's actions have also had the side benefit of pleasing his on-again, off-again suitors in Moscow. Some Poles, particularly on the right wing of the political spectrum, believe that Russia actually instigated the conflict. Polish-Russian relations have been particularly bad in recent weeks and show little signs of improvement. The Polish weekly Wprost even suggested that Belarus and Russia were using the incident to test the European Union's reaction in the lead-up to other attacks on the Baltic states, EU members where Russia has frequently complained about discrimination against the Russian minorities.

Belarus certainly does represent an effective Trojan horse for Russia, willing and able to do things that the Russian president might like to do but can't without jeopardizing the ever-closer relationship between the EU and Russia.

Yet Lukashenka has far more to gain within the country than any points that he might score by currying favor with Putin.

If Lukashenka has once again shown his ability to seize on a choice opportunity to strengthen his own rule, get back at a pestering neighbor, and ingratiate himself with Russia, then the EU has, once again, failed miserably to deal with the so-called last dictator in Europe. An effective policy for countering Lukashenka's absolute disregard for democratic standards still seems like a pipe dream.

EU officials initially labeled the dispute around the UoP as only a bi-lateral affair between Poland and Belarus, while highlighting the ethnic dimension to the conflict. Instead Brussels should have immediately condemned the crackdown as not only an attack on the ethnic kin of a member state, but an attack on the entire Union and everything it stands for.

At Warsaw's prompting, Brussels did issue a statement condemning the "arbitrary use of force" and pointing to "a climate of growing political repression in Belarus." But even that wording seemed strangely out of touch: the political repression in Belarus has been growing ever since Lukashenka took power in 1994 and reached unacceptable bounds far earlier than now.

EU officials have also said it is too early to implement stronger sanctions against Belarus. If they have economic sanctions in mind, the hesitancy is justified. Trade with the EU has now risen to significant numbers (37 percent of Belarus's $10 billion in exports last year went to the EU), but, as with any dictatorship, the question is how to ensure that the Belarusian people do not suffer instead of the political elite.

How then to get at the elite? Could it sanction Belarus's leaders? The EU has already imposed visa restrictions on those who have stonewalled investigations into the cases of missing opposition politicians and journalists, as well as those considered to be "key actors" in the disappearances and cover-up; after last year's flawed parliamentary elections and referendum, the restrictions were extended to those responsible for rigging the votes and the subsequent crackdown on demonstrators. Those restrictions should be extended once again to cover those involved in the UoP repression, and EU officials should strongly consider widening their scope to include family members. Some in Poland have also argued for a ban on travel for Belarusian athletes, which would strike Lukashenka where it hurts: his passion for sports.

And if none of that works - if, in fact, the EU has no real leverage with Minsk - then it should use the leverage it has with Moscow. (The US should use the same tactic.) Even Poland's diplomats realize they should be at least attempting to engage Russia more on the issue of Belarus. While Moscow has refused to budge on Chechnya, perhaps Schroeder, Blair, and Bush can use the special relationship that they claim to have with Putin to convince the Russian president to lean on Lukashenka - however unlikely that might seem.