Situation in Belarus
Delivered in Plenary - September 14th 2003
Belarus is in focus now, not only for sharing over one thousand kilometres of border with the EU, but also as the last surviving major European bastion of neo-soviet ideology. One could 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. Rather surprisingly, Belarus is also enjoying a 4% growth rate economically. However, the country is an increasing worry to the EU, having deteriorated into authoritarianism and repression of human and linguistic rights, while opposition political parties are now suffering harassment ahead of the referendum and parliamentary elections on 17 October.
Sadly, the Belarus House of Assembly is barely recognisable in western terms as a freely-elected Parliament. The election of President Lukashenko in 1994 led initially to the hope that authority would be upheld, corruption rooted out and the economy put back on track. Yet this has not happened, because the Soviet-style approach resulted in the re-introduction of the economic model of central control leading to clientelism and interventionism in all aspects of public life. He now seeks the right, through the referendum, to become President for life.
Private enterprise in Belarus functions poorly and the bulk of financial investment comes from Russia after a promising but short-lived start, particularly in the SME sector. The effects of the Chernobyl disaster are still of grave consequence and something like a quarter of the country is still contaminated by radioactive fall-out.
In 2001 Lukashenko won 75% support, although the OSCE declared that the election had failed to comply with its minimum standards. Nevertheless, no-one actually disputes his victory. Leading opposition figures have been arrested and beaten, and a few have disappeared, although – mysteriously – some have reappeared. Two years ago three journalists were sentenced to three years of hard labour for slandering the President. Many Belarussians support eventual EU membership for their country, although if asked they also claim to support union with Russia.
Lukashenko would ideally like to build an eastern pan-Slavic bloc hostile to the West. However, especially since President Putin came to office, Russia has responded by seeking to partly distance itself from Belarus. A Russia-Belarus state union treaty was ratified in 1999, but in practice it has been largely ignored, while the single rouble currency union has been deferred to 2006.
The municipal elections in March 2003 showed that some favourable political developments have taken in Belarus. They showed that the democratic opposition parties have been afforded greater freedom and fairer treatment. The EU should respond to Belarus accordingly by stepping up western contacts 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, and as such eventually entitled to a political and cooperation agreement with the EU.
Experience from Spain, Greece and Portugal suggests that given time and economic growth the transition from dictatorship to free market democracy is achievable everywhere in Europe.