Nightmare in Minsk

Everyone with a conscience about affairs in Europe should watch this moving, occasionally light-hearted, and very brave documentary about contemporary Belarus. Stuck ‘in a Soviet reservation’ as the narrator puts it, Belarusians have endured a lot over the past eighteen months and are hardly helped by their immediate neighbours. Hat-tip to New Eastern Europe for the link.

The Lukashenka government restricts freedom of assembly for critical independent groups. Protests and rallies require authorization from local authorities, who can arbitrarily withhold or revoke permission. When public demonstrations do occur, police frequently break them up and arrest participants. Freedom of association is severely restricted, with more than a hundred of the most active nongovernmental organizations forced to close down between 2003 and 2005.

Although the country’s constitution calls for judicial independence, courts are subject to significant executive influence. The right to a fair trial is often not respected in cases with political overtones. An internal passport system, in which a passport is required for domestic travel and to secure permanent housing, limits freedom of movement and choice of residence.

Freedom House, The Worst of the Worst, 2011

Human rights organisations often have a decidedly grey manner of portraying unpleasant regimes. Executive summaries, like the one above (which puts Belarus amongst the fifteen worst States in the world for human rights abuses), hide a multitude of crimes; beatings, thefts, murders. This unfortunate, if necessary, exactness of language is bearable when there are people prepared to go the extra mile to sway the more disinterested amongst us. Director, Ekaterina Kibalchich, whose Belarusian Dream has won awards for its portrayal of a year in the life of an ordinary resident of Minsk, is such a person.

Consider an environment in which the Head of State, who is also the Head of Government, is a delusional, if occasionally amusing caricature. Not content with being the best ice hockey player in the country, he wishes to absorb a neighbouring state, fifteen times the size of his (in population terms). His young son, being groomed as a successor, follows him everywhere – whether to the State bank to ogle gold bars, to a farm to inspect potatoes, or scenes of gratuitous violence. All he asks of his people, who be benevolently looks down on, is absolute loyalty.

In 2010 the political mood of the country grows more restless as the impact of the global recession is felt. The populations longs for access to the EU, for education, travel and jobs, not just the clean streets of Minsk and prepares to put up alternative candidates for Presidential elections in December. Those elections fall decidedly and suspiciously in favour of the President, with no other candidate gaining more than 3% of the vote. Any person who dares protest against the result is spirited away for Christmas and New Year. The runner up in the poll is sentenced to five years incarceration.

Things get nastier. There is the suspicious death of Charter 97 Journalist Aleh Byabenin, the pitiful announcement from another opposition leader that he backs the stolen election and Lukashenka entirely. Events culminate in the summer with a terrorist attack on the Minsk Metro, which killed seven. Suddenly, the struggle for democracy looks less and less like a Velvet Revolution.

What is remarkable is the grace with which the Belarusian protestors took this frightening development. Like the key waving on the Czechoslovakian marches in Prague back in 1989, protestors turn up and clap or wave flags so that they cannot be accused of committing any crime. This does not entirely prevent the authorities from indulging in their usual methods, but succeeds visually and most importantly, morally. Yet in this exhilarating whirl, bankruptcy catches up with Belarus, a 56% devaluation of the currency and the emptying of the shops follows. Lukashenka is living on borrowed time, but so are the protestors.

Now it is the turn of external actors to catalyse the situation. Belarus has so far been able to rely on Russia to stave of desperation, so long as it engages in a quid pro quo and doesn’t try any funny business or indulge in a colour revolution to match those of Georgia, Ukraine or Kazakstan. The amount Russia has been prepared to lend to or invest in Belarus over the next two years is astonishing, given the current instability in the Country:

  • Purchase of Beltransgaz – $2.5 billion
  • Rollover of $100 million in payment arrears
  • 40 per cent reduction in the gas price to Belarus to $165 until 2014, (saving Minsk $2 billion)
  • $10 billion loan for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Astravets
  • A Sberbank loan of $1 billion to the potash company Belaruskali (in return for shares in other target companies)
  • An agreement to free up the second $440 million tranche of the loan from the Eurasian Economic Union agreed last summer.

Source: Lucky Lukashenko, by Andrew Wilson

The European Union has been slow to act. Like much of the Eastern Partnership, introspection has made Europe’s diplomats less confident looking outwards, while economic interests in Belarua have led to the less than creditworthy veto of sanctions on Belarusian businessmen, allowing a Sovenian company to secure the contract for a generous hotel that is to be built. Diplomats have been expelled on both sides, and Poland’s foreign minister has dropped any pretence of diplomacy.

This is an emotive issue, and rightly so. But it is also a strategic one. Belarus is increasingly important for transporting gas from Russia to Germany via the Nord Stream, and it is for this reason that Russia has bought into the gas transit system and proposed a customs union. Therefore both the EU and Russia have invested in Belarus’ future, but not that of its people. With Vladimir Putin almost certainly returning to the Russian Presidency and the US government pushing for repeal of the Jackson-Vanick restrictions on trade, Russia’s realpolitik in Syria and its near abroad is very likely to continue. Eastern Europe, both Belarus and Ukraine, continues to suffer.

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