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Revolutions have the tendency to spread like a ‘virus’, inspiring people and affecting political systems in other countries. Will the one that started in Tunisia and spread via Egypt to Yemen, eventually lead to a revolution against undemocratic regimes in other parts of the world as well? Daniel George analyses this question with respect to Belarus.
By Daniel George
Any hopes that the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in the Arab world would have positive implications for the democratic struggle in Belarus, have vanished quickly now the Belarusian regime is severely tightening its grip on the opposition and civil society for the last two years. The security insti-tutions have established a general feeling of fear and resignation. In the meantime, the state propaganda was very effective in displaying the negative effects of the ongoing revolutions in the Arab world: civil-war, political chaos and economic hardships. In fact the Arab Spring has probably had a bigger impact on President Lukashenka himself than on the general population. In a recent interview he mourned Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gadhafi, in the same breath calling Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad ‘an absolute European, civilized man’.1
Hiding behind his arguments about the benefits of dictatorship and the illegitimacy of foreign intervention, it is ob-vious that the Belarusian President understands that his old strategy of swing-diplomacy between the European countries and Russia is not effective anymore. If we look closer, we can even see the paranoid Lukashenka, afraid that he might follow Gadhafi’s trail, sending out martial threats against his enemies.
It is unlikely that the regime was prepared to finally break all ties with the European governments when it decided to crack down on peaceful protesters that took to the streets against Lukashenka’s predictable victory in the presidential elections on December 19, 2010. After a period of political and cultural relaxation from 2008, allowing a substantial development of capacity in civil society and even political opposition, the harsh actions during the election night and months following, basically destroyed all progress that had been made. Even long-time observers of the regime were surprised by the rigidity it employed against anyone who voiced only the slightest opposition against the prevailing system. Some stakeholders still hardly understand that the ‘policy of change through rapprochement’ is and was not applicable towards Lukashenka and his supporters. The events since 2010 clearly show that the hardliners within the regime are not open to any change or democratic improvement, especially if it would hurt their power- and business-interests. In this light their actions in the election night might have been an over-reaction, yet the Stalinist tendencies they employed thereafter are certainly a well-planned strategy.
The economic crisis that hit Belarus in 2011 – including a tough devaluation of the Belarusian Rubel, the European sanctions and reluctance to reemploy political cooperation and a partial withdrawal of affection by the befriended Russian government contributed to the latest consolidation of the dictatorship. On the one hand Lukashenka is struggling to uphold the social contract with the Belarusian people while the economic crisis keeps threatening the stability of prices, wages and pensions. The year 2011 already saw a steep increase of food prices and further financial hardships, especially for workers and pensioners, the latter forming the biggest group of regime-supporters. It should be reminded that the government’s pledge for stability was mostly underlined by the - compared to other eastern and south-eastern European countries - high living standards supplemented by cheap rates for utilities and gas, keeping the polls for Lukashenka at a stable high rate for years.
On the other hand the autocrats tightening grip on civil society, reflecting long-gone times, is a reaction to the general public’s decreasing approval and the fear of civil unrest and the emergence of political alternatives. The additions introduced to the criminal code as a more or less direct reaction to the ‘Clapping Protest’ in the summer of 2011, now putting basically any public meeting under the threat of intensive punishment, are just one example of the government’s increasing paranoia. It is likely that this measure will be joined by a redefinition of ‘terrorism’ that includes political opposition and non-violent activities (‘the distribution of terrorist ideas and material’) against the state. A respective proposal appeared at first in June of this year and is currently being processed by the powerless parliament that is merely a public extension of the Belarusian Presidential Administration. Indeed the latest developments do not look very promising, especially when taking into account that the Belarusian dictatorship has already proved to be very stable for more than twenty years, with only the most optimistic observers seeing a possibility for short-term change. The Western community drastically revised its policy after the events in 2010, cutting most of its direct political channels to the regime and burying the strategy based on the idea that change can be brought through cooperation. Still the intensified support of the Belarusian civil society has remained to a large extent ineffective under the increasing repressions of the security institutions.
So what can be done to stimulate a Belarusian Spring? First of all it has to be clear that without intensified pressure from the Western community and especially the European Union, short-term change is not only unlikely: it’s impossible. It is a paradox when European governments give millions for the support of the Belarusian opposition and civil society to get rid of the dictatorship, while they are also protecting business interests that earn billions in more or less direct support for that same dictatorship. Only from January to August of 2012 Belarus exported 12.940.000 tons of solvents refined from Russian oil, including 5,8 million tons to the Netherlands and 1,83 million tons to Latvia, the two biggest customers in the European Union.2
In 2011, that’s after Lukashenka started his newest crusade against civil society, European trade with Belarus rose by 221%. In the first six months of 2012, the total trade of the eu with Belarus amounted to 8 billion Dollars.3
In a system where trade and specifically the business of solvents and other oil products is completely controlled by state authorities, it is clear that this cooperation is not supporting the Belarusian people but primarily bolsters the regime. Politicians in the European Union have to understand that the core of this regime is founded on business and profit. Thus there is no other option than tackling the conglomerate of Belarusian state businesses and the oligarchs who arrange the external cooperation in a direct and decisive way. Unfortunately member states have not found agreement on tough economic sanctions in the past, with Latvia and Slovenia specifically showing interest in keeping several high-profile Belarusian companies off the blacklists. It is only a lackluster excuse to refer to possible hardships for the Belarusian people in this matter. Of course harder measures against the economical beneficiaries of the regime would speed up the disintegration of the Belarusian economy, but the prospect of the regime losing its capability to preserve the status quo is at least worth a try, if only for the sake of exactly those beneficiaries withdrawing their support for the dictator.
Secondly, the European community, its national governments and independent donors and implementers have to increase the effectiveness of the support given to Belarusian civil society. This specifically demands a review and adjustment of funding policies and a better coordination between the donors and implementers for more common efforts. This also needs approaches that are more focused on outcomes than quantity and an improved verification of program goals. Furthermore it is important to listen to the activist on the ground and take local ownership for granted, but also to understand local realities by active observation rather than third-hand reports. Belarus is not Serbia or Tunisia and while basic ideas of building civil society might work, other proven concepts can become a complete failure. Donors and implementers already understood some mistakes of the past and for example now focus more on supporting local initiatives rather than on dubious partners who claim to have activists in every community across the nation. Specific attention should also be given to youth, students and women – focus groups that are more open to change than others. Last but not least international efforts should concentrate on an intensified support for independent media and initiatives that promote democratic change, economic reform and European integration through innovative projects that have the potential to turn the tide in the general public.
The third and most problematic implication I would like to point out is the question of Russian influence. Democratic change in Belarus is generally dependent on the political situation in Moscow. Although the relations between the two countries have cooled down during the last years, economical relations stay strong and the Russian government clearly regards Belarus as their zone of influence; one that should not diffuse towards the European Union. Some implementers in the past have sarcastically suggested that all support for democratisation in Belarus should be stopped and the money and effort to be invested in promoting democracy in Russia instead – the rest would then come without further efforts. Of course this is a blunt exaggeration, but it’s pointing to the core problem that effects the whole region (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine). Governments in the European Union should take a tougher stance on human rights abuses and the lack of democracy in Russia and also make clear through all possible channels that direct support for the preservation of a dictatorship on the border of the eu is in no way acceptable. At the same time an increased regional focus of donors and implementers that includes projects on cross-border cooperation for building civilsociety could provide a base for using bestpractice and an intensified development.
In conclusion, it is very unlikely that we will see a drastic change for the better in the next couple of years. The keywords for the Western community, governments, donors and implementers should be ‘adjustment of policies’, ‘intensified cooperation’ and ‘speaking with one voice’. In the past Lukashenka always made very good use of disagreements and particular interests among his adversaries. If the Western community wants to actively promote change instead of waiting for a fortunate moment in history, the dictator and his supporters should not be allowed to be at least one step ahead at all times. The Belarusian Spring will need strong commitment and a long breath, but the struggle for a democratic and liberal society is worth the effort.
is the programme manager of the Belarus Working Group of the International Federation of Liberal Youth
(IFLRY). He is a member of the Aachen city council for FDP and treasurer of the Junge Liberalen
branch in Aachen, Germany.
1 www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/whats-so-good-about-democracy-anyway-an-audience-with-the-last-dictator-in-europe-8218912.html; 19.10.2012
2 www.naviny.by/rubrics/economic/2012/10/19/ic_articles_113_179619/; 19.10.2012
3 www.charter97.org/en/news/2012/10/23/60377/; 23.10.2012
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