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Belarusian Review


Sanction Suspensions Continue …

The application of tough sanctions in 2006 against the authoritative Belarus regime produced some immediate democratization results. Then three years of successive sanction suspensions followed. What did they produce?

Following the fraudulent presidential elections in March 2006 a variety of sanctions were introduced against the Lukashenka regime by the European Union and the United States. The EU and the United States denied entry visas to officials ‘who formulate, implement, participate in or benefit from policies or actions including electoral fraud, human rights abuses or corruption that undermine and injure democratic institutions or impede the transition to democracy in Belarus.’ The US Treasury Department blocked the assets of Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka found in the United States.

The US froze the assets of Belnaftakhim and its subsidiaries, a major foreign currency earner in the West, reportedly benefiting Lukashenka personally.

The sanctions worked to a degree. The Belarusian regime released the major political prisoners, eased the restrictions on two independent newspapers, and allowed the registration of two NGOs. Promises were made regarding improving the electoral process in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Anxious to maintain dialogue with the regime and to counteract Russia’s influence, the European Union has suspended its broad visa ban limiting it to the officials implicated in political disappearances and the top electoral official until April 2009. The US Government maintained the visa ban but allowed two subsidiaries of Belnaftakhim to resume transactions with US entities for a 6-month period. After six months the suspension of sanctions was renewed and has now been extended until the fall of 2010. Contacts between EU ministers and their Belarusian counterparts have intensified as have the US Department of State contacts, even as the US Ambassador is still not welcome in Minsk, and the US Embassy there operates with a skeleton staff. How well did the Belarusian regime conform to the latest albeit weakened EU democratization requirements? Let us review them one by one:

• There should be no more political prisoners.
The letter of this requirement is being partially met, while the spirit is cleverly violated. Young people, in particular, are being arrested; detained without trial; politically active students are expelled from universities; male students forcibly conscripted. The latest punitive steps consist of kidnapping youth leaders by people in mufti, who without identifying themselves, drive them miles out of town, blindfold them, while threatening them with beatings or even execution, and finally dumping them in remote woods.

• Some improvements should be made with regard to media access.
Since the easing of restrictions on the two newspapers two years ago, no new improvements have been noted. New decrees are being prepared against Internet providers.

• Dialogue with OSCE on reforming the electoral law should continue.
The subservient parliament, to which not a single opposition candidate was elected in 2008, enacted some cosmetic changes. The head of the Electoral Commission refuses to confer with OSCE.

• The conditions regarding the NGO status and activity should be improved .
The opposite is taking place with the introduction of Article 193.1 which calls for criminal responsibility for “activities on behalf of unregistered organization.”

• Freedom of assembly and of the activities of political associations should be guaranteed.
Peaceful gatherings are forcibly dispersed, its participants detained and beaten, the distribution of flyers prohibited, etc

What conclusion can be drawn regarding the progress of democratization in Belarus from the recent developments?
The imposition of strong sanctions has produced some concrete results, whereas continued suspensions of sanctions, viewed as a sign of weakness, have been disregarded by the inherently anti-Western Lukashenka regime.

So much for the democratization efforts. The attempt to wean Belarus from its dependence on Russia did not fare any better. Lukashenka has signed on to the Russian-led rapid reaction force, he has conducted the Zapad (West) 2009 joint military exercises with Russia in which NATO was the presumed enemy. On the economic front, privatization has started, however it is the Russian business as the obvious beneficiary. The pipelines are being bartered away to pay for Belarus’ debts for gas and oil, banks are sold at bargain prices, with other big state enterprises readied to be sold, again to Russian interests. All this while repeated IMF loans keep the Belarusian economy from crashing.

To expect the authoritarian Lukashenka to become a born again democrat is a dangerous illusion.The needed change in Belarus will happen when precisely focused sanctions will cause him to step down, when the population will be well informed by adequately funded outside media sources, and when credible in-country democratic forces will be identified and appropriately supported.

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 21, No. 4
Copyright 2009 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.

Walter Stankievich

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