CONFERENCE CALL: Minsk on my mind

By bne IntelliNews March 9, 2011

Nicholas Watson in Bratislava -

The problem of what to do about Belarus was exercising the minds of the great and the good at the Globesec 2011 conference in Bratislava on March 3. While state officials from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland were delivering a "tough message" to the Belarusian deputy foreign minister in a closed-door session, in the nearby auditorium the country's beleaguered opposition and its supporters were discussing what the outside world could, and should, do to help bring about change in this remaining authoritarian corner of Europe.

While the ministers of the so-called Visegrad 4 countries were having what they called an open and frank exchange with Belarus Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Voronetsky over the clearly fraudulent presidential elections on December 19 and the subsequent crackdown on the opposition, alas the same couldn't exactly be said for next door.

When one conference attendee had the temerity to question how the Belarusian opposition was getting its money to travel around the world pleading its case, visiting conferences such as this one, the moderator of the panel discussion, Roland Freudenstien, deputy director and head of research at the Centre for European Studies, jumped off the podium, grabbed the microphone from the startled man, and told him such questions weren't appropriate.

Such tactics do little to enhance the debate, especially when the Belarusian opposition have such a compelling story to tell.

Last man standing

Aliaksandr Milinkievich, an opposition leader and chairman of the Movement for Freedom, is one of the few still available to appear at these kinds of events. Virtually all the presidential candidates who stood against Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus president whom western journalists seem contractually obliged to describe as having ruled with "an iron fist" since the former Soviet republic became independent in 1994, are now either in jail or under house arrest.

Milinkievich says that the EU and the West must use the classic carrot-and-stick approach to get these political prisoners freed as a very first step. "The assessment of the situation should be firm and coherent. First, all the political prisoners must be freed and the instrument is that the regime cannot solve many of its economic problems without the help of the western countries," Milinkievich tells bne on the sidelines of the conference.

The situation over the political prisoners is becoming critical. The state has started putting opposition figures and protesters on trial, with some facing up to 15 years in jail for allegedly organising a mass riot after the results of the election were announced. The opposition claims that the protest was largely peaceful, with just a small number of activists - some allege they were agent provocateurs - blamed for attacking a government building on Minsk's Independence Square.

On March 7, Europe's main security and human rights body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said it had reached a deal with the Belarusian authorities to send observers to monitor the trials. "A first group of four observers is expected to arrive on Wednesday [March 9] to monitor the trials of Dzmitry Miadzvedz, as well as Russian citizens Ivan Gaponov and Artyom Breus," the OSCE's democracy and rights arm, the ODIHR, said in a statement. "The observers will assess the trials for their consistency with national law and fair trial standards as specified in OSCE documents and legally binding international covenants."

In the longer run, few doubt that the Lukashenko regime's days are numbered, though with revolutions sweeping across North Africa and into the Middle East, people like Milinkievich caution that the same is unlikely to happen in Belarus. "Many people don't want revolution like in North Africa, but want changes for the better in Belarus," he says. "We would like the change to happen as quickly as possible, but it is not possible to have a sudden break and things change overnight."

There are fundamental differences between the situation in the autocratic regimes in North Africa and Belarus. "In Libya they did not have any opposition, any free media, or to any great extent civil society. The protest was mostly of economical and social origin. In Belarus, we have a value-based protest. The people who went onto the streets to protest were mostly educated, pro-European people."

To this end, Milinkievich even holds out the possibility of the current regime being a "temporary partner" during the transition, but that the West's strategic partner should always be the democratic part of the political system in Belarus - an implicit criticism that he feels the pendulum swung too far toward the regime when the EU restarted to engage with it two years ago.

Even so, with problems in the Belarusian economy mounting and the EU imposing sanctions, no-one can discount entirely the regime collapsing unexpectedly. "One cannot exclude that Lukashenko's policies will lead the country into a deep economic crisis," says Milinkievich. "It is very important that under such a crisis, the mass protest leads to democracy, not to another autocrat or populist. This can only happen if there are more democrats in society - the Europeanization of Belarus, I call it."

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