With Russian Help, Belarus Heads Downhill
When Belarus’s authoritarian ruler, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, goes to ski in Russia, it is rarely just for a nice vacation. The southern Russian resort town of Sochi, planned site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is a favored spot for Belarusian and Russian officials to gather and discuss bilateral relations in a relaxing setting. Lukashenka’s trip to Sochi last month was no exception, with official Belarusian media duly reporting that his time on the slopes would be combined with a working visit.
Little information on the details of the trip emerged, aside from video and photographs of Lukashenka skiing together with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev.
However, even those images meant a great deal to a keen observer. They indicated that the relationship between Belarus and Russia is on the rise. The two countries' bond has faced a number of ups and downs since Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 2000, suffering from periodic trade wars, oil and gas disputes, and mutual smear campaigns by state-controlled media. The latest in a series of media attacks occurred in 2010, when Russia's NTV aired the documentary Krestniy Batka (Godfather), which was highly critical of the Belarusian president. Curiously, the first several parts of the documentary were broadcast just before the December 2010 presidential election in Belarus. Some observers suggested that the Kremlin was finally fed up with Lukashenka and would support one of the alternative candidates.
To be sure, Russian officials never liked Lukashenka, who, out of concern for his own power, had repeatedly resisted Moscow's attempts to exert a stronger influence over Belarus. But faced with the prospect of a pro-Western president in Minsk, they saw him as the lesser of two evils. So, as it always had after previous quarrels, Moscow eventually sided with Lukashenka, backing his claim to have won a new term in the deeply flawed election. Riding on this support, the Belarusian ruler brutally cracked down on postelection protests and jailed seven of his rival candidates. Dmitri Medvedev sent his congratulations.
Those in the Kremlin no doubt knew that the gesture would soon pay off. Having alienated the democracies to the west through his ruthless crackdown, Lukashenka would have nowhere to go but Moscow when seeking help with his growing domestic troubles. In the first half of 2011, Belarus experienced severe economic problems and had to devalue its currency by 54 percent. The appetite for protest in the country was dampened by mass arrests and the imprisonment of opposition leaders, but people still found ways to show their discontent without chanting antigovernment slogans, most notably through a series of so-called clapping protests.
Facing an acute economic crisis with political implications, Minsk finally sent an SOS signal to Moscow on June 23. News agencies reported that Belarus was ready to sell Russia one of its most precious assets -- its remaining stake in the natural gas transportation company Beltransgaz. The firm controls crucial gas pipelines linking Russia with the European Union (EU), and it was already 50 percent owned by Russia's Gazprom. The deal was finalized on November 25. It locked in a low gas price for Belarus until 2014, a subsidy the Belarusian government desperately needed.
Photo Credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Russia has routinely offered such financial support to the Belarusian regime over the past two decades, but it generally did not get much in return other than Lukashenka's assurances of a "brotherly friendship" between the Belarusian and Russian peoples. However, there is evidence to suggest that the normally recalcitrant Lukashenka is beginning to yield to the Kremlin's pressure. In addition to the pivotal Beltransgaz sale, shortly after the aforementioned skiing trip the Belarusian ruler signed a decree endorsing a single air-defense system for Belarus and Russia. The agreement was negotiated back in 2009 and signed by Medvedev later the same year, but it took Lukashenka until this year to do the same. Moscow was pleased, particularly because the pact gave Vladimir Putin an extra boost in his presidential campaign. Putin even promised to end any media duels with Belarus and denounced Krestniy Batka as "nonsense which should not be continued."
Meanwhile, emboldened by the renewed Russian support, Lukashenka has redoubled his crackdown on civil society and sought to completely eliminate the political opposition. Two of his presidential election opponents, as well as a number of prominent opposition activists, have remained in jail since last year. There are reports that they have been mistreated and routinely deprived of basic rights. The repressive machine shows no signs of coming to a halt, with new prison sentences recently imposed on a well-known human rights defender -- Ales Byalyatski, vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights -- and opposition activist Syarhey Kavalenka. The latter was sentenced last week to two years in prison on the dubious grounds that he had violated the terms of a previous sentence. He had gone on a prolonged hunger strike while in detention, but was forcibly fed by his guards. He resumed his strike after receiving the new sentence in a closed court hearing.
The Kavalenka sentencing came even as the EU was weighing the possibility of new economic sanctions and extended visa bans against Belarusian g'overnment officials. On Monday, Brussels approved travel restrictions for an additional 21 individuals connected with Lukashenka's regime. However, such actions no longer deter Lukashenka's government from cracking down on dissent. Prior to the EU decision, the Belarusian and Russian presidents issued a joint statement condemning the possibility of sanctions, and Lukashenka promised to "respond harshly" to any European penalties. Minsk acted on this threat yesterday, expelling the EU and Polish ambassadors. Belarusian civil society can also expect a new wave of repression. As one Belarusian observer aptly noted, Lukashenka almost always lashes out at Europe by attacking his domestic opponents. EU member states have begun withdrawing their envoys from the country in an expression of solidarity, but they will need to go further to influence Lukashenka's behavior on human rights and democracy issues. For now, the bloc lacks a clear strategy on how to deal with its truculent neighbor.
In Freedom House's newly released Freedom in the World report, Belarus's already abysmal scores inched closer to the index's worst-possible ratings for political rights and civil liberties. Belarus also ranks near the bottom of the Freedom of the Press index, and the Nations in Transit governance report places it among the worst-rated countries in its region. With Russia's support and a lack of EU pressure, "the last dictatorship in Europe" is continuing to earn its moniker.
* Ilya Kunitski recently graduated from New York University with a degree in international relations. He is presently assisting Freedom House staff with the forthcoming report Nations in Transit 2012.