Belarus prisoner release: Same old trick

Good news from Belarus is rare, but last weekend president Alexander Lukashenko pardoned six political prisoners.

For the pardoned, all serving multi-year prison terms for challenging Belarus’ autocracy, this is, to say the least, a relief, and has been welcomed by local democrats and the international community.

Lukashenko has declared his decision an act of “humanity”. But is, in fact, a carefully timed tactical move to sway the European Union at a time of growing domestic and geopolitical pressure.

The question is whether he will succeed this time.

Lukashenko has never been shy of pressuring and jailing, and even disappearing, political opponents. In his long line of crimes against critics, the six released last weekend are but the latest.

The most prominent, Mykola Statkevich, ran in the December 2010 presidential elections, and when the poll was rigged to ensure Lukashenko’s re-election, led a peaceful mass protest. Police brutally dispersed the demonstration and arrested some 700 protesters.

Statkevich, and four-dozen other leading democrats, received multi-year prison terms in political show trials. Since then, these prisoners of conscience have been gradually released, but only after being forced to sign humiliating clemency requests.

Statkevich, and the other five released last weekend, steadfastly rejected any admission of guilt, drawing Lukashenko’s ire.

The ulterior motive behind this decision is, however, obvious.

Taking political prisoners has never only been Lukashenko’s favourite means of silencing critics. Rather, they have consistently served as “currency” in his dealings with the EU. Whenever warmer relations with the West are needed, Lukashenko frees them.

This typically happens whenever Lukashenko’s primary sponsor - Russia - increases its political pressure or decreases funding. Such was the case following 2008 when the Russian war against Georgia clearly signalled Kremlin revanchism, a potential threat to Belarusian statehood.

It was also the case when the global financial crisis led Belarus into dire economic straits. Lukashenko freed three political prisoners and, in return, received generous international loans and an invitation to join the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative.

The situation today is remarkably similar.

Geopolitically, Russia’s war against Ukraine has made it crystal clear how far the Kremlin will go to assert a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. To carve out a degree of safety, however tenuous, Lukashenko desperately needs to re-engage with Europe after years of isolation.

Consequently, his diplomats have been sent to EU capitals with the message that given Putin’s conduct, Lukashenko really is the lesser evil, and Minsk’s doors have been thrown open to EU policymakers, experts and lobbyists, in the hope that geopolitical stability can trump human rights and democracy.

Economically, Belarus has been wrecked by sharp simultaneous recessions in Russia and Ukraine, its first and third-most important trading partners.

Exports have crumbled. GDP is shrinking for the first time since 1997. The Belarusian rouble has lost a third of its value since January, and debt re-payments due in fall will precariously reduce reserves.

Meanwhile, Russian willingness, and perhaps means, to support Belarus financially are limited. Absent other sources, Belarus is feverishly looking to the West for cash. This, however, requires an end to the country’s political isolation.

Domestically, Lukashenko is headed for “re-election” in October. Any headaches he may experience will not come from the five docile candidates of the loyal-to-constructive opposition that are running.

Instead, he will be worrying about Belarusians-at-large, to whom he used to give significant wage rises prior to polls, something his dwindling coffers make impossible.

Instead, Lukashenko is styling himself as the sole guarantor of independence and stability towards the Belarusian public. It has not escaped his attention that this would be all the more convincing if the OSCE’s monitoring mission were to nod favourably at the upcoming election.

Lukashenko certainly expects some payback for the hospitality extended to that organisation during the (however fruitless) Minsk talks on the Ukraine crisis.

In short, he is, once again, looking for Western acceptance and money.

Will the EU remember how its 2008 attempt to engage with the Belarusian regime ended? Before 2010 was out, Lukashenko had squandered the Western funds received, returned under Putin’s wing, and taken scores of new political prisoners - the last of whom are the very people released last weekend.

If it does not respond firmly in several respects, Europe risks falling for the same trick all over again.

First, Europe should acknowledge that while these six political prisoners were pardoned, Minsk is busy replacing them.

Three youth activists arrested for placing graffiti saying “Belarus should be Belarusian”, a message hardly different from official propaganda, earned the same “hooliganism” charges pinned on four of those just released.

This new case-in-the-making should dampen the enthusiasm of all those in the EU that consider the time ripe for re-engaging with the Belarusian government.

Second, the EU has long demanded not only the release of political prisoners but also their full rehabilitation. The latter has neither been met in the case of those freed last weekend, nor in the case of any of those jailed, tried and released since 2010.

In all these cases, the EU needs to remain true to its original conditionality for re-engagement with the Belarusian government.

Taken one step further, the EU should remember the comprehensive set of conditions it formulated since 2006 for normalising relations with Belarus, including free elections, media, civil society, an independent judiciary, and freedom of association for workers and entrepreneurs.

Reducing these requirements to the, admittedly important, issue of freeing political prisoners only extends the cat-and-mouse game Belarus has become so skilful in playing with the EU.

Third, the OSCE must be allowed to monitor the October 2015 presidential elections with its usual scrutiny and honesty. Very likely, there will be political pressures to moderate criticism of the electoral process, whether from those seeking to reward Lukashenko for his hosting of the Minsk talks on Ukraine, or those seeking re-engagement for geopolitical reasons, national interests or business ties.

None of these motives should be permitted to undermine the integrity of OSCE election monitoring.

Finally, financial aid should be out of the question. Belarus’ economic woes are homemade; they are the result of economic mismanagement, failure to conduct structural reforms, reliance on external subsidies, and political abuses.

None of the previous aid and loan packages handed to Belarus have resulted in profound or sustainable economic change, but have only helped to ensure the survival of the Lukashenko regime.

The release of the six political prisoners in Belarus is to be welcomed. Yet, it is hardly a sign of liberalisation of Alexander Lukashenko’s ossified autocracy.

Rightly, European responses have been cautious at best. With a principled stance this time around, Europe’s past policy mistakes, which have only ever resulted in more, not less, victims of political repression, will be avoided.

Joerg Forbrig is director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States


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