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The Belarusian people are suffering from “arbitrary terror” after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko unleashed a brutal security operation against his population literally hours after the polls closed on the eve of the presidential elections on August 9.
Since then there have been three days of increasingly violent protests that have already left two dead and hundreds injured, some critically.
What is remarkable is the speed with this revolution (and commentators have been scrupulous not to dub it a revolution, due to the connotations of Western interference that word now carries) became violent. In addition to the deaths, over 6,000 people have been detained in the first two days, many of them innocent bystanders. The Ukrainian EuroMaidan protests went on for almost two months before they became violent.
Europe holds its values of justice, democracy and the dignity of individual human rights to be sacrosanct. In Minsk those values are prostrate on the pavement as a circle of OMON riot police bludgeon them with batons. The rest of Europe is sitting at home watching the nightly instalments streamed intermittently over a hobbled internet, but doing almost nothing.
“Aren't you ashamed? You’ve beaten a child,” a young lady bravely rebuked two masked OMON offices standing over a 15-year-old boy on the ground yesterday in one of the dozens of vignettes to come out of Belarus in the last 72 hours.
Europe made a few compulsory comments of condemnation and the US State Department also commented, but once again the international community is restricting itself to “deep concern,” “grave concern,” “significant concern” – a catchphrase that came to be ridiculed in Kyiv in 2014 as it was trotted out again and again at each new atrocity committed by Viktor Yanukovych without any follow-up.
Belarus’ next door neighbours, the Poles, have been more proactive and were the first to condemn the violence in Minsk, in a joint statement by the Polish and Lithuanian presidents. But when the Poles tried to start a debate on imposing sanctions on Lukashenko the motion has been quashed for the moment.
These are our values being beaten on the streets of Minsk, on our very doorstep. And yet we sit calmly by treating it more like some violent reality show than the arbitrary terror, as Independent Moscow correspondent Oliver Carroll dubbed it, inflicted on what are by conventional wisdom some of the calmest and tolerant people on the Continent.
Veronika Tsepkalo, one of the three brave women that have ignited the country, said in a video message released yesterday after she had fled Belarus for Moscow: “We need your help. The people of Belarus need your help,” in a poignant appeal to the international community. She repeated the word “help” over and over again.
And yet nothing happens. Nothing will happen.
Western diplomats are believed to be hesitant because they are afraid a crackdown on Lukashenko using sanctions or other punishments will “drive him into Putin’s arms.”
“Western countries’ muted and confused reaction to events in Belarus highlights the fact that they tend to look at the former Soviet space through the lens of geopolitical struggle against Russia, rather than those of human rights and democracy,” tweeted Leonid Ragozin, as well-known Russian journalist who lives in the Baltics.
Too often the West has put the new Great Game ahead of its own values and the calamity that innocent populations suffer when they rise up to oust intolerable dictators. Protesters camp out on squares, face the OMON beatings and are shot by snipers, yet the West holds back for a variety of reasons.
We have become too tolerant of the special interest groups using this tension for their own domestic political purposes; of the think-tanks like CEPA that are openly funded by arms manufactures and the US Defense Department spewing out “opinion pieces” like one this week “arguing” it is too soon for a reset with Russia; or like the outspoken and NATO-backed Atlantic Council that takes donations from oppressive governments in the Middle East and Ukrainian oligarchs, only to fall silent when one of their patrons falls in the glare of the Klieg lights. And then there is the legion of journalists that have made a career for themselves hyping the conflicts – although to be fair we will never get rid of this part of the business, which has become part of the DNA ever since Palmerstone was bullied into the Crimean war by the press.
It is time to rise above the petty politics of the post-Cold War era. The long queues of Belarusian outside embassies across Europe hoping to cast their (worthless) votes only highlight how Belarus is part of Europe. They are members of our community even if they aren’t and won’t be part of our EU club. As the hundreds of thousands on the streets today show they share the same values as we do. They want peace, justice and prosperity like we do. Yet the reason we hold back is the country is seen as part of the Russia story.
“The policy has been one of letting Lukashenko off with almost anything he does for fear of pushing [him] into Moscow’s grasp. It shows an utter and complete lack of understanding of the situation in Belarus – Lukashenko hates Putin and he himself does not want closer relations/integration with Moscow. Maybe holding him to account for his actions in Belarus would force him to make some difficult decisions about his relationship with the West and Russia. And if he opts for the Russian option, then Moscow would fully have to write the cheque to bank roll him, and I don’t sense they want to do that,” said Tim Ash, Senior Sovereign Strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, in a note emailed to clients. “And the reality: would risking pushing Lukashenko closer to Putin look much worse than this for ordinary Belarusians?”
“Help!” said Tsepkalo. What can we do? The obvious thing is to impose targeted personal sanctions on Lukashenko and his clique that are perpetrating the violence on the people he is supposed to serve. Country sanctions don't work, as those on Russia have shown.
But we need to go beyond that. It's a small country of 10mn. Our action should be shorn of the polemical political habits we have fallen into. We should be bold. We should do as our values dictate.
Officially recognise Tikhanovskaya as the winner of the elections – because she was the winner. Lukashenko is now totally illegitimate. But given the lack of legal confirmation of Tikhanovskaya victory – a lacuna that didn't stop Europe widely accepting the illegal ousting of the democratically elected Yanukovych from office in 2014 – clearly this should come with demands for at the very least a recount of the vote, or better new open and free elections, as Tikhanovskaya herself is actually calling for.
Give Belarusian work permits so they can simply choose to abandon the country while Lukashenko remains in office and you could drain Belarus of its labour force. Europe is by contrast desperately short of labour, as the flood of expat Ukrainians has shown.
Offer financial help to modernise the country. The EU infrastructure grants have transformed all the 2003 accession countries and politics temper when a country flourishes, but become fraught when it is in slow collapse, as the EU’s failure to help Ukraine has so adeptly shown. The Eastern European Partnership mechanism is already in place and could be vastly expanded. In the short term it will be seen as rewarding Lukashenko but growth brings liberalisation, as Russia showed in the noughties; as bne IntelliNews recently argued in the op-ed “The Moscow Consensus”, 2008 was the high-water mark of Russia’s flirtation with liberalism, when then president Dmitry Medvedev launched a massive privatisation plan. The financial crisis at the end of that year also marked the start of the repressive crackdown in Russia.
It is time to be bold. It is time to be generous. It is time to bury the past and welcome our neighbours in their time of need. A prosperous Belarus would be a boon to all of Europe, including Russia. A repressive pariah state on the lines of North Korea right in our backyard will be a drain on our resources and a hell on earth for Belarusians. Whatever we spend now, however many Belarusians move to the EU, it will still be cheaper and less painful than allowing Lukashenko to stay in office for what could be decades.
Reflections from our correspondents on the ground in the Russian capital.
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