Mr Lukashenka goes to Vilnius

By Vitali Silitski

Should Belarus's strongman really be allowed to enter the EU?

On 16 September, I was sitting in a tiny cafe in Vilnius with journalist-friends who had travelled from Belarus to cover President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's visit to Lithuania - his second foray into the EU since the temporary lifting of visa sanctions in October 2008. All of a sudden, there was a commotion in the cafe. The limo carrying 'the last dictator of Europe' was in a traffic jam just outside, stuck en route to a chic hotel in the old town - much to the enjoyment of the onlookers, who usually have to put up with endless road closures in Minsk to allow Lukashenka to move between his residences.

Other than that, Lukashenka's opponents had few reasons to cheer. They see his forays in Europe the same way Americans see touchdowns - as a six-point lead. This lead, they insist, is being given away for free. While the EU lifted the sanctions to encourage the Belarusian strongman's perceived movement towards political liberalisation, Lukashenka is on track to becoming eastern Europe's Muammar Qaddafi - an unreconstructed leader who took advantage of a political conjunction to legitimise himself on the Western stage but who uses his sorties into the enemy zone to mock the well-wishers. In fact, Lukashenka's behaviour in Vilnius was in many ways analogous to the circus show staged days later at the United Nations by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez, and Qaddafi himself.

The official reason for the visit was the opening of a Belarusian trade fair in Vilnius, which came in handy as a moment at which Lithuania could try to play its part in the diplomatic manoeuvring about what policy the EU should pursue towards Belarus. But while Lithuania expressed hope that its openness would be helpful to seduce Lukashenka into Western ways, Lukashenka came to declare in effect that the EU had accepted that its policy of isolating Belarus had failed - and also that its criticism of Belarus was wrong. "Reason had prevailed" when the EU's decision to take a more pragmatic approach (that is, toning down its human-rights rhetoric), the Belarusian leader explicitly said. Lukashenka was upbeat on his human-rights record (after all, his government does provide the right to work, the central human right for which others can be sacrificed), dismissed charges that Belarus lacks democracy (after all, Lithuania is a vassal of Brussels, he implied) and said he saw no need to change the economic model (after all, as he argued, since the fields in Lithuania are not cultivated in the collective-farm style, the countryside is probably decaying). Just as other pariahs on their occasional visits to the West, Lukashenka showed off as much as possible what he views as his strong-man charms - such as making somewhat trivial jokes with journalists and bizarre statements about his personal life.

Above all, Lukashenka's visit elicited interest in Lithuania because it provided an opportunity to see an extravagant leader with an odd political philosophy. Passers-by and students flocked to catch a glimpse of a mysterious strongman, far outnumbering the tiny group of protesters. Some of the observers were genuinely intrigued and admitted they understood why Lukashenka was so popular at home. Others could not hide their disgust. Their disgust was made all the greater by the somewhat clumsy choice of the day of the visit: 16 September was the tenth anniversary of the disappearance and presumed murder of the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Viktar Hanchar, a man whom Lukashenka described as a mercenary in an interview with Lithuanian television.

But Lukashenka did not seem to care about bad press and the protests: his visit was important for domestic reasons. Some Belarusian analysts even believed Lukashenka used the visit to start his re-election campaign for 2011 elections. His triumphant crossing of the EU border was meant to mark the defeat of an opposition that had long insisted on sanctions and to provide proof that Lukashenka had been right all along to disobey the West.

A man open to seduction?

So what of the hopes of seducing Lukashenka? In some sense, this approach follows the same lines as the old West Germany's Ostpolitik towards the socialist camp: avoid confrontation and instead pursue change through engagement.

Some feeble signs of a warming in the political climate last year encouraged the proponents of this approach, among them Lukashenka's decision to release some political prisoners and ease pressure on the opposition press. Never mind that Lukashenka clearly stated that these measures were merely meant to 'please' the West and still called his opponents freed from jail "criminals"; with a few insubstantial steps, Lukashenka managed to wring substantial concessions from the EU, such as pressure on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to grant Belarus stabilisation loans. Then he returned to politics as usual, taking several more political prisoners, effectively to act as hostages to be released in the next round of liberalisation. Domestic analysts insist that the feeble liberalisation evident in the last quarter of 2008 has effectively come to a halt this year and that Lukashenka is now demanding more and more concessions simply to maintain the status quo - in other words, not to go on another repressive spree.

What can be concluded from this record is that Lukashenka understands the logic of the EU's seduction too well to be easily fooled by what is a simplistic strategy.

Lukashenka is, in fact, trying his own form of seduction. While visiting the trade fair, he tried to convince Lithuanian businessmen of the advantages of his economic system in which the president decides everything. Forget property rights and the legal system; his message was that if you are friends with the president, you can find the real opportunities. But in the larger sense, Lukashenka's behaviour proves that strongmen against whom soft-power tactics are applied quickly learn to turn those tactics to their own advantage.

Such leaders can afford to allow some liberalisation, but they do so selectively, letting through unthreatening influences (there may in future be a few performances by American rock bands or couple of European film festivals in Minsk) but not those that threaten the status quo (the EU can forget about Western-style education of the broadcast media). They are happy to visit trade fairs but will do little to liberalise at home. And when they do, they will liberalise in a way that prevents the spread of substantial liberties. (Consider Belarus's recent jump 30 places up the World Bank 'ease of doing business' index: The improvements primarily related to opening and registering businesses; the day-to-day running of a business in Belarus remains fiendishly complicated.)

A naive policy?

So is the EU's new policy towards Belarus naive? That question is set to be asked again and again in the coming months as the EU is due to re-consider whether to end visa sanctions on Belarusian officials by the end of this year (at present, the sanctions are merely suspended until 2010).

Well, firstly, the EU's old policy of isolation was a failure (or, at least, the EU proved chronically unable to isolate Belarus fully).

Secondly, a 'change through engagement' policy works in precisely the way that is happening in the case of Belarus: it offers the chance, but no assurance, of a change in the long run, by offering tangible, short-term benefits to dictators. For pro-democracy activists in Belarus, the uncertainty of that long-run change may be too much to bear and the sight of European officials behaving in a way they see as unprincipled may add to the day-to-day burden of repression, but that is an unavoidable part of the process.

So, if engagement is the policy that is necessary, can the EU's engagement be improved? What have other governments, such as Poland's, learnt from the first attempts to encourage change by applying a soft touch?

One, perhaps, is that the EU should use the openings created by its new policy as aggressively and consistently as Lukashenka uses them. Such openings, after all, do help in many ways to define a better policy towards Belarus. They also serve to bring Lukashenka into sharper focus: Lukashenka's own behaviour should demolish any illusion that the Belarusian leader has changed his mind on democracy and human rights and that he will turn into a genuine reformer anytime soon. (The same also seems to apply to his entourage, many of whom observers see as 'young wolves' and closet liberals.)

More importantly, however, it is not just Lukashenka who can use openings as an opportunity to communicate ideas. The Belarusian leader exploits his hosts' politeness to launch propaganda campaign and, so far, there has been no pushback (except by some young journalists, such as one from Lithuanian television who appeared to relish repeating Lukashenka jokes in front of Lukashenka himself). European politicians should understand that each such encounter offers them an opportunity - nay, obligation - to speak up. It would make a great deal of difference if visits such as Lukashenka's sally to the trade fair were to be turned into the type of impromptu (and much-publicised) 'kitchen debate' that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice-President Richard Nixon engaged in over a kitchen unit at a US exhibition in Moscow in 1959.

EU leaders should not only remind Belarusian leader about international obligations in human-right areas; they should be prepared to answer his attacks on their own system and their own values (which Lukashenka openly mocks) in a calm but insistent manner. Of course, it takes a powerful speaker to argue with Lukashenka - but no European leader would lack for arguments in such a debate. This is also should be the rule for European dignitaries visiting Belarus. They do usually speak to the opposition before meeting the government, but they should insist on going to universities, speaking to the press, and on finding other ways to extend public diplomacy. Lukashenka would be unhappy at the prospect of such debates, but since he has demonstrated that he needs Europe (at least for now), no tragedy would occur if such a dialogue and such an exchange were to become the rule of engagement.

Finally, such openings may not transform Lukashenka, but they do help change those who work for him. A friend of mine covering Lukashenka's visit to Vilnius described how shocked Belarusian officials were when they saw people just walking into the trade fair while Lukashenka was walking around; when they realised how easy it was for them to contact Lithuanian officials interested in doing business; and when they saw how powerless Lukashenka's minders were to prevent the opposition media from attacking their boss with a barrage of questions at the press conference. She, for one, believes this may be the best reason why Lukashenka should be allowed to cross the border into the EU. Moreover, Belarusian officials and businessmen from Belarus may - and should - be able to learn more about the European system to which they may one day operate without being hostages to one man's whim. That would not create a revolution in Minsk overnight, but it is always harder to rule with an iron fist over a people that has a sense of its own dignity.

Most importantly, like much of Belarusian society, the Belarusian elite is very sceptical about what are called European values. If engagement with Lukashenka helps to show some of them that these values are real and practical and not a disguise for a cynical political agenda and power play, the EU will find it well worth its while to allow Lukashenka to visit.

Vitali Silitski is the head of the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies.



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