Who will Rock Belarus?

, by Aleksandra Tomczak

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Who will Rock Belarus?

On March the 18th we will be mourning the second anniversary of a lost opportunity to democratise Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko has been at the helm since 1994 and the amended constitution puts no time restrictions on the one-man rule. Even though the EU’s foreign policy project has been given more shape and its borders have moved Eastwards, Belarus is still a remote destination where reins the last of ‘Europe’s dictators’, at an intersection between the Russian and the EU dream.

Since the release their first album in 1994, the year President Alexander Lukashenko took the helm of Belarus, NRM (AKA Independent Dream Republic) has resolved to campaign in favour of freedom - against the authoritarian rule of President Lukashenko. With 10 albums promoted within 10 years, NRM has been the most successful rock band in Belarus and continued with its dissident tunes regardless of the obstacles and the imposed playing restrictions.

In 2007 leaders of Belarusian half - prohibited rock groups met the deputy head of president’s office Colonel Aleh Pralaskoŭski. He offered to return the groups’ music on the air and ease access to public concerts inside Belarus. In return, the musicians should abandon participation in the concerts organized by the Belarusian opposition. Krama and Neuro Dubel agreed and so did NRM.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Elected in 1994 with 80% of votes, Lukashenko reformed the Constitution of Belarus 2 years later and replaced the elected Parliament with a national assembly nominated by the president. Ever since the OSCE has been criticising Belarus for not complying with democratic election requirements. In 2004 President Lukashenko called for a referendum allowing him to run for presidential elections without a term limit. With the wind of change favouring democratic leaders in the presidential elections in Ukraine and in Georgia, international spectators hoped that another revolution would follow. However, there was no Roses or Orange scenario and Lukashenko won the 2006 elections with a 82% support . The EU and the OSCE condemned the authorities of Belarus for campaign rights violations but none of the actions undertaken could change the fact that Lukashenko managed to secure his position as the last dictator in Europe.

Civil Society has no capacity to build a strong anti-establishment coalition with the authorities in Belarus cracking down systematically on the Freedom of Press and Freedom of Association. There are only 15 countries where the restrictions on the freedom of press are more severe than in Belarus, according to Reporters Without Borders. Only in 2004, before the referendum and elections, 160 registered print media institutions were closed down. Most NGOs voicing their opposition to the government are persecuted for minor administrative irregularities. Most recently the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the only remaining human rights group was closed down for tax evasion.

‘Belorussian society is a closed and controlled one. The regime is of authoritarian nature. There is virtually no place for human rights.’ The UN report of March 2005 gives a severe account of the political situation in Belarus. At the same time Eastern Europeans often frown at our excited questions about the political authoritarianism in their country. ‘Life is not as bad as media want it to appear’ is the ever returning answer. I believe my Eastern European friends are right – One can get used to many things. The younger generation has the supplementary ‘comfort’ of having never lived under a democratic regime. Freedom of Speech and opposition parties recognition have turned into some remote goals which many have already buried and most might have only heard about.

Controlled societies can create habits of dealing with the rigid structure of their daily life. A Belarussian student in the UK says he misses his native language. He had only had one class taught in Belarusian. His brother was arrested 5 times for swearing in public places and so was his uncle. Giving up swearing is not that difficult and he can speak Belarusian at home. The question is, do we accept these peculiar norms to survive in modern Europe, on our continent?

The virtues of flexibility and adaptability are not desired when democratic values are at stake. The adaptability of those who live under an authoritarian regime may appear to be necessary. Adaptability of the outside world would be gutless.

Euro- mood on the High Street!

Having the force of attraction, the EU has very few excuses to sustain its current prudence in dealing with Belarus. Former Communist Republics and contemporary Belarus have much in common; sclerotic politics and dormant civil society prevail. But take a look at the Belarus high street and you will notice a variety of ‘Euro-shops’, ‘Euro-used-cars’ and other ‘Euro-adds’ which glow in bright yellow on a blue background. Like The United States of America during the Cold War, European Union is becoming a synonym of well-being and freedom in post-Cold War Europe. It has a force of attraction without using coercion but continuing divisions and internal struggles prevent the European Dream from reaching its full potential.

Having the force of attraction, the EU has very few excuses to sustain its current prudence in dealing with Belarus.

The logic of a soft power is that it contributes to the shaping of values and behaviours. It gives the momentum and saves from passivity. Harvard University professor Joseph Nye is one of the most prominent proponents of using culture, values and ideas to achieve political goals. He distinguishes 3 major ways of exercising influence; sticks, carrots and soft power, or the ability to attract.

The EU has an undeniably big carrot to wave in front of the People of Belarus: financial aid, security provision and political stability are the main benefits. In ‘European Superpower’, John McCormick argues that the EU has also proved to be an effective soft-power offering an alternative to the coercion-based weight of the United States. With these strong points on its side, the EU should not be tolerating an authoritarian regime playing around with the citizens of Belarus in its backyard.

Euro-jargon to feed hope?

There is currently no action plan for Belarus and the progress of the European Neighbourhood Policy depends on the willingness of the Belarusian authorities to respect democratic values and the rule of law. Sadly enough, the authorities in Belarus do not lean towards reform and Lukashenko continues the repression and assault on the Civil Society.

In its ‘New Message to the people of Belarus’, published in November 2006, the European Commission outlines the advantages of democratisation in Belarus and the potential benefits, the People of Belarus may enjoy if more cooperation takes place. The Commissioner for External Affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner regrets the fact that the Belarusian government prevents its People from participating and benefiting from a full Neighbourhood Policy. In her letter to the People of Belarus, the Commissioner reassures that the EU would give a full support to independent media...meanwhile most of the NGOs have already closed down or relocated to Poland. In reality the EU concentrates predominantly on the already existing carrots which have proven to have insufficient power of persuasion in dealing with Lukashenko and his henchmen. Civil Society has to be resuscitated and then protected to give the People of Belarus the ability to control and apply pressure to the government and to ensure basic human rights and freedoms. The European Neighborhood Policy Instrument, as planned for 2007-2010 attempts to answer this call.

After Social and Economic Development, support for Democratic Development and Good Governance is the second priority that the EU has defined under the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument for Belarus. Under this programme EU will be aiming to increase people-to people contacts and to support the NGOs in their capacity building. Because of their devotion to the Eastern European cause, some new members of the EU may be invited to play a crucial role in the implementation of this project. Poland is one of the major defenders and promoters of Belarus and Ukraine with numerous NGOs relocating to Poland after being persecuted in Belarus.

The effectiveness of the new strategy is not inscribed in its technical sketch but it will depend on the boldness of European leaders and their capacity to deal with Russia. Americans gave Eastern Europe the ‘tear down the wall’ speech, ‘James Bond symbol’. The EU has given the people of Belarus an uninspiring technocratic paper on the EU Neighbourhood Policy. Now that the symbols of the EU have been watered down, we cannot even give our flag.

Rather than inspirational, the EU politics is still managerial. Yet, Belarus, the Western Balkans and Ukraine need more than grey administration. The people living on the other side of the EU border want energy, motivation and support to overcome the political apathy, passivity and isolation. The financial incentives offered by the EU just do not seem enough to break the stubbornness and the rigidity of the people in power.

Which Carrot...or the Russian-style 4 Freedoms.

The authorities in Belarus do not go frankly for the European carrot even though the high street gives a blunt Euro-shout. Instead, Lukashenko builds a ‘multi-dimensional’ policy which combines its European perquisites and Russian aspirations. In April 2005 Belarus and Russia signed a joint foreign policy action programme of the Russia-Belarus Union which is supposed to bring the countries closer and is a next step, after the 1999 customs union, to the free-trade area establishment.

Lukashenko builds a ‘multi-dimensional’ policy which combines its European perquisites and Russian aspirations.

The progressive steps towards a new union bear striking resemblance to the European construction agenda in the post-war period. The Single Economic Space, which is currently under negotiation, should bring Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus together in a project to establish Four Freedoms (free movement of goods, capitals, services and labour).

It is thrilling to see Russia following the European model but the Russian-led project should have nothing in common with the European integration process if it continues to ignore the most pressing need for the democratic reforms and human rights protection. If Russia doesn’t undergo a swift Cinderella-style transformation, the EU-style Four Freedoms will probably join the absurd club of the other constitutionally-entrenched and legally-violated rights.

Dance with the Wolves

When the Civil Society in Belarus has been bullied into a corner, it is very unlikely it will rock on its own. At the same time Russia seems to be performing a boogie-woogie, stepping on the feet of anybody who dares coming closer. The United States, trying to put an end to a chaotic pogo in the Middle East will do nothing else but square dance away from troubles for another few years. Meanwhile, the EU is still shying away, having barely even thought about the choreography.

Image: Spirit of Belarus from Flickr.

Your comments

  • On 17 March 2008 at 17:59, by Dimitri Replying to: Who will Rock Belarus?

    A very good article, one of the best I read on Belorussia. Yes, indeed, European Union doesn’t really have a coherent foriegn policy, especially on the Eastern front. But the problem is that the civil society you are talking about is unfortunatly useless, because it doesn’t really have a political program. Look at belorussian opposition leaders: Milinkevitch looks like a noble from 19 th century without any political charimsa, whereas Kozulin reminds me Jirynovsky, because he opposes Lukashenko without any purpose. I sometimes think that he doesn’t even know why he opposes him... Moreover, their reserved attitude towards Russia, to which, as far as I know, the majority of belarussian are attached, doesn’t allow them to have a real popularity. I don’t want to advocate Lukachenko, but I don’t really see any alternative to him in today’s Belarus.

  • On 19 March 2008 at 02:26, by Aleksandra Tomczak Replying to: Who will Rock Belarus?

    Thanks a lot for your comment.

    Indeed, opposition leaders in many non-democratic and newly-democratic countries are an imperfect alternative to the binge power-holders.

    Democracy and the necessary process of ageing

    Mr Yushchenko and Mrs Tymoshenko were far from being politically pure at the moment of the Orange change and yet there was a wide-spread belief that there were more benefits than drawbacks in voting out the Kuchma-supported candidate. Other countries, like Poland, where democracy was re-established almost 20 years ago, still struggle to build a stable post-communist political elite. The never-ending changes in the party labels make it hard to define and to rely on the Political Supply in Polish politics.

    Civil Society and the law of Supply and Demand

    In politics, as in economics, Supply and Demand can only meet if Supply is not controlled and repressed by a Monopolist. In a Democratic State, Civil Society is a Market where Citizens, on one hand, communicate their needs and wants and on the other, organize themselves in advocacy and opinion groups. It is a political back-stage of Democracy where politics develops through dialogue and debates.

    If the opposition in Belarus is not appealing to a Western eye it is because it has not developed in a Western-style Liberal Political Market. If the EU sticks to its goals of empowering the Civil Society in Belarus, it may do a very good job. If the European and International Civil Society gets more engaged, it may catalyze a real change.

    When JEF calls on the EU to give the People of Belarus a Voice, it campaigns for enabling the People of Belarus to develop decent conditions wherein a Civil Society can survive and thrive.

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