The European Journal - July 2003
Belarus is a landlocked country which little is known about in the west. Historically it was perceived as indivisible from Russia and Poland. It has been ravaged by the invading armies of Napoleon and Hitler. Politically now it is important again, as it will become in 2004 a neighbouring country of the EU, sharing over 1000kms of borders with the new members Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. In spite of being relatively large territorially it has a small and shrinking population of around 10 million people as a result of emigration and low birth rates. Of more immediate concern is that it is the last surviving major European bastion of neo-Soviet ideology.
One can say in its favour that unlike some of its neighbours it remains free of inter-ethnic strife. It has also unilaterally renounced its nuclear arsenal as well as much of its conventional weaponry. Organised crime is low. It also rather surprisingly continues to enjoy reasonable economic growth of 4%.
However it is an increasing worry to the EU, and in the 1996 European Parliament resolution on the situation in Belarus, it decided that no further steps would be taken towards renewing the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (standard fare with all ex-Soviet countries) until clear signals had been given by the Belarus authorities of their intention to fully respect basic democratic and human rights.
This position was endorsed in the most recent declaration by the EU Presidency of 16 October 2002 on Belarus. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the Partnership Agreement with Belarus is important as a means of securing peace and stability in the region.
In November 2002, in protest, the Czech Republic refused to issue President Lukashenko a visa to attend the Prague NATO summit, whilst 14 out of 15 EU member states have imposed a travel ban. Portugal dissented, ostensibly as it holds the Presidency-in-Office of the OSCE and did not want to jeopardise its role.
Recently, the country has deteriorated into authoritarianism and repression of linguistic (against native Belarusian in favour of Russian) rights. This was followed by the initial refusal to renew visas for the OSCE AMG mission in Minsk although they are now allowed back with a weaker mandate. This deterioration in the conditions for democratic expression has led both the OSCE and the Council of Europe to refuse to allow Belarus to participate in their respective bodies, although, bizarrely Belarus Parliamentarians still turn-up uninvited to their meetings. The Belarus "House of Assembly" is sadly barely recognizable in western terms as a free and democratically elected Parliament which holds the executive to account.
The election of Alexander Lukashenko as president in 1994 led initially to the hope that authority would be upheld, corruption routed out, and the economy put back on track. In particular, it was hoped there would be a stop to the asset stripping and tax evasion by oligarchs seen in other CIS countries. However, Belarus’ strict alignment with Russia and the re-introduction of a centrally planned economy has hampered economic liberalisation and obstructed the development of democracy. Belarus has always been reliant on Russia for exports and imports, energy supplies and financial investment.
The country’s volume of trade with EU Member States is small in comparison with that undertaken with Russia. A strategically important aspect for the EU lies in the fact that the gas transit pipeline supplying the EU with energy from Russia passes through Belarus. Belarus is also under pressure to reinforce its borders with Russia and the Ukraine to avoid any further influx of immigrants seeking to penetrate the western border with the EU, as currently over 100 000 illegal migrants are awaiting on its territory. I unlike the Commission and many members of the Parliament believe that we must help Belarus financially to deal with these problems, which ultimately effect the UK, irrespective of the nature of the country's internal politics.
Private enterprise in Belarus function poorly, and the banking sector remains in state hands. There are few conditions suitable to foreign investment flows into the country, and in spite of negotiations with the IMF it has halted credit to Belarus. In May 2002, the EBRD indicated that, since Belarus offered one of the poorest climates in the region for investors, it would be reducing its funding programs there. The bulk of financial investment comes from Russia, despite the fact that Belarus has not made the same progress as Russia in economic liberalization. All privatization plans are on hold after a promising start particularly in the SME sector. Nonetheless, Belarus applied for WTO membership in December 1995. Currently the Central Bank under Presidential control is printing too much money to bail out unpaid wages with inflation rising. The effects of the Chernobyl disaster are still of grave concern since almost a quarter of Belarus is affected by radioactive contamination.
In Belarus, as elsewhere in the countries of the former USSR, the transition from a dictatorial regime running a centrally planned economy led to collapse and disorder in the early 90's. Lukashenko’s victory in 1994 with 80% of the vote enabled him to introduce reforms and with this came an improvement in the socio-economic climate. At the same time, however, Lukashenko’s Soviet style approach resulted in the reintroduction of the economic central control model favoured by the previous regime, thus leading to clientilism and interventionism in all aspects of public life. In 1996 in a referendum (judged illegal by the Constitutional Court) he extended his mandate to 7 years and curtailed the power of Parliament and Courts enshrining the right to rule by decree. In the most recent presidential election of 2001, Lukashenko won 75% support although the OSCE declared the election had failed to comply with the minimum conditions set out in the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document making the figures somewhat suspect, although no one disputes his victory.
President Lukashenko’s increasing authoritarianism involving harassment of the opposition, the silencing of critical voices and the establishment of a network of patronage throughout the country has been well documented. As a result, leading opposition figures have been arrested, beaten and a few disappeared (most notorious former Minister of Interior Yuri Zakharenko and former MP Viktor Gonchar), although other disappeared individuals have strangely reappeared!. The EU has repeatedly condemned these acts, for which the government and judiciary of Belarus have offered no explanation. My sister party the United Civil Party has been particularly targeted. They support eventual EU membership for Belarus, as do as many as 55-65% of the people according to recent opinion polls although if asked do they support Union with Russia, they support this as well! The independent media have faced growing difficulties of censorship. Recently three journalists (Markievich, Mazhejka and Ivashkievich) were sentenced to years of hard labour for "slandering" the President. The tragic case of the disappeared Russian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky remains unsolved. The Prosecutor General Viktor Sheyman (previously head of state security and appointed in spite of having no higher legal education) allegedly acts under orders from the President to stifle opposition.
Lukashenko’s government has focused its entire political and economic program on closer relations with Russia and his dream of recreating the Soviet Union albeit on unrealistic terms. Ideally he would like to build an eastern panslavic block hostile to the west. However, especially since President Putin came to office, Russia has responded by seeking to partly distance itself from Belarus which it finds an embarrassment as Russia itself develops closer relations with the west post September 11th. Russia is now more inclined to offer reintegration of Belarus into the Russian Federation as a dependant autonomous Republic rather than a Union of 2 separate but equal sovereign states. In theory a Russia-Belarus State Union Treaty was ratified in 1999, but it has been largely ignored in practice and its legal relation to the CIS and Euroasian Economic Community is unclear. Russia, however, has little interest in promoting human rights, democracy, or market reforms in its neighbour, perhaps preferring to use Belarus as an example to the world of how things could go horribly wrong if the west ceases to give unstinting support to Russia.
The Western press has accused the authorities in Belarus of supporting the illegal trafficking in immigrants and women and breaching arms embargoes.
The democratic opposition would like to see Belarus adopt an economic and political system similar to that which operates in the EU and eventually join the EU itself. However, Belarus society has little historical experience of democracy. Consequently, championing democratic values in Belarus represents a formidable challenge. The municipal elections in March 2003 did demonstrate some favourable political developments in Belarus. They showed that the democratic opposition parties have been afforded greater freedom and fair treatment. The EU should respond towards Belarus accordingly. Currently, any changes in Belarus will occur only to the degree that they do not threaten full control by Lukashenko over the country; secondly, the President will only change his policies if the price it takes to preserve the existing system will be higher than the risks of introducing needed reforms.
There is growing appreciation within Belarus as to the need for democracy and to bring the legal framework governing freedoms closer into line with that which operates in the EU. Hence the need for greater western contact with pro-democracy parliamentarians who are willing to challenge the regime and are dedicated to making the country a fully-fledged member of the international community.
In the European Parliament we are now discussing the policy document of Commissioner Patten and High Representative Xavier Solana on the EU neighbouring countries including Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Although Belarus is clearly the laggard in this group, current EU assistance under programs such as TACIS and Interreg ought to be stepped-up to raise public awareness in Belarus as to the importance of democracy, so as to avoid the risk of self imposed isolationism, and give encouraging signals and hopes to the opposition forces in the country. Experience from Spain, Greece and Portugal suggests that given time and economic growth the transition from dictatorship to free market democracy is achievable.