Human rights in Belarus: the political context

Analytics | | 25-10-2018, 03:25

Human rights in Belarus: the political contextI would like to offer some thoughts on the political context of the human rights situation in the Republic of Belarus. The lifting of EU and U.S. sanctions in spring 2016 has heralded an unusual series of changes: a combination of further and accentuated human rights deprivation, soft nationalism, and internal changes that are superficial, but calculated to elicit praise from the West. 

Behind these changes lies one common factor, and one that has been both beneficial and dangerous to the government of Belarus, namely the war in Ukraine and Russian aggression. I will comment here on the ambivalent nature of the events of 2013-2018 and how they have changed the political environment.

In December 2010, the relations between Belarus and the EU reached their lowest point in the Lukashenka presidency following the brutal aftermath of the presidential elections. In the following year, further repressions followed. But the standoff in Kyiv’s Maidan in late 2013 accompanied with the removal of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and the protracted conflict in the Donbas changed the political climate in Europe. 

Lukashenka exploited this crisis by emerging as a peacemaker and intermediary rather than taking Russia’s side directly. The two Minsk Accords of September 2014 and March 2015, though seriously flawed, represent the only meaningful and internationally accepted attempt to end the most serious fighting. Both Russia and Ukraine claim to be abiding by them. For the EU, the Accords changed the perception of official Belarus. It became expedient to offer support to the Belarusian government as a means of ending Russian aggression and stabilizing central Europe. 

As a result, the entire framework of the European Partnership Project, founded in 2009, which had highlighted the elimination of human rights abuses as a precondition of association with the EU, was abandoned. In its place, Belarus could offer popular but easily attainable changes: the opening of the Western border for short-term visa-free visits, a tacit recognition of the independent government of 1918 on its centennial, as well as Belarus’ historical links to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania rather than the East Slavic community, smoother trade relations, heightened rhetoric against the Putin administration, partial privatization of the economy, and an overhaul of the government, starting with the Prime Minister. 

Western narratives about the government of Belarus framed by experts and several governments — with the notable exception of the United States — slowly began to change accordingly. Within the EU, the current tendency is to encourage opposition members who are prepared for dialogue and to work with the government rather than those who are firmly outside it. Incidentally, such ‘rapprochement’ has a history dating back to the 1990s. To date, every such effort has ended in failure. But the illusion persists that collaboration with the authoritarian regime can bring rewards, bringing Belarus “at a snail’s pace’ toward a democratic society. More to the point, the EU attitude has become first one of neutrality toward the administration in Minsk, and more recently quite favorable due in part to its new Dialogue with the West which started in 2015.

There have been some hiccups along the way. The protests of spring 2017 against taxes on the unemployed (the so-called ‘Parasite Laws’) threatened to lead to further repressions, and the arrests that preceded the March 25, 2018 Independence Day almost resulted in some rethinking of EU-Belarus relations. The summer 2018 attacks on the popular website and the news agency Belapan, likewise, as well as very heavy fines imposed on journalists (including those working for foreign companies like Belsat), have elicited concern. But they have been overshadowed in turn by the continuing dilemma of dealing with Russian provocations, involvement in Syria, intrusions through cyberattacks and social media, the attempted assassination of the Skripals in Salisbury, England, and not least the uncertainty engendered by the new U.S. presidency of Donald J. Trump and its alleged involvement with Russian oligarchs and the Russian government. 

Within this explosive cocktail, the fate of Belarus has often been overlooked. The attacks on independent media, which have been so intensified of late, may also divert attention from another concern: namely that a majority of Belarusians rely primarily on Russian media sources for their information. In short, Lukashenka, in standing firm against Russia in the public mind, is not reflecting the views of most Belarusians, who regard the occupation of Crimea as justified, and perceive the government of Ukraine as a far-right neo-Nazi junta that came to power in a coup d’etat in Kyiv. About 65% of Belarusians would favor a Union State with Russia and 14% with the EU, according to a spring 2017 opinion poll.

The threat from Russia has been illustrated by other events, such as the Zapad-2017 military maneuvers, Russian demands for an air base in Belarus (which it really does not need), military exercises on the borders of Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, and the manifest lack of unity of Western democratic states against a common enemy. On the contrary, President Donald J. Trump has often appeared to have doubts about the continuation of the NATO alliance, the validity of the EU, and the usefulness of NAFTA, and his meeting with Putin in Helsinki has entered the folklore of appeasement and self-abasement.

The changing political climate has led to another phenomenon: that of soft nationalism or patriotism supported by the government: the assertion that Belarus is an independent state, separate from Russia, and even with a different history from Russia. The slogans (For a free Belarus, for a prosperous Belarus, etc.) have been around for a several years, adorning streets and public buildings, but recently they have taken on a new meaning through fear that Belarus could be the next Crimea — and that is the correct analogy rather than the next Donbas. Belarus is far more vulnerable than Ukraine. Moreover, the independent stance of the leadership hardly reflects the reality that Russia has loaned Belarus more than $100 billion in the past decade, about ten times more than loans from the EU, tying Belarus to Russia.

On October 12, the Russian and Belarusian presidents met in the city of Mahiliou (Mogilev) prior to the plenary session of the Fifth Forum of Regions. In welcoming Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka declared that Mahiliou could be considered a “Russian city,” as “it lies in the east close to the Russian border.” Three weeks earlier they had met in Sochi, discussing the future of the Russia-Belarus Union, CIS, and CSTO in light of problems in Ukraine, a meeting that was described as “positive” in official Belarusian media. Though Lukashenka fluctuates in his attitudes to Russia, he has not stated outright previously that Belarusian cities were “Russian.” 

Russia in turn has frequently expressed irritation with Lukashenka. The recent appointment of Mikhail Babich, formerly Presidential Envoy to the Volga Federal District as Russian Ambassador to Belarus on August 24, 2018 with plenipotentiary powers signifies that Lukashenka may not be able to communicate directly with his Russian counterpart Putin in the future, but rather will have to work through the new ambassador. The move could be interpreted as a downgrading of the position of the Belarusian president. Likewise, the establishment of border controls on the Russian side of the border with Belarus in Bryansk and Smolensk has been compared with that on Sakhalin Island and the Kurils with Japan rather than an equal partner in a so-called Union State.

Ultimately, however, we have to return to the assault on human rights and recognize it for what it is: the failure of the government to permit the most basic freedoms to its population starting in 1995 and continuing to the present. There cannot be one law for a government in peace time and another for one in a potential conflict situation. Human rights are the foundation stone of a democratic society and to ignore them, or relegate them to secondary status, will undermine the world that has been constructed since the end of the Soviet Union. It is a pivotal point in history and the future is very uncertain.

On a more positive note, I believe that social media, for all its faults and misuses (hybrid war, for example), has also made the complete control of public information impossible. The protests in Belarus against the use of the Korean vaccine that resulted in the death of an infant in August are a case in point. Slowly perhaps, but inexorably, the Lukashenka regime is losing its control over what its public reads and hears, particularly among the younger generation. In the same way, even Vladimir Putin is incapable of controlling mass protests against highly unpopular measures, such as the new pensions law in Russia. 

In turn, Belarusian civic society must continue to develop and thrive by highlighting every such infringement of human rights and making them part of negotiations and discussions at all levels. I would add finally, that in the Belarusian context, a unified opposition embracing democracy and human rights is the only way forward, as has been demonstrated so many times, and not only in this country. 


This is a revised version of comments made at the workshop held by Belarus House within the confines of the OSCE meeting on human rights held at the Hotel Sofia, Warsaw on September 13, 2018.



About the author:

David R. Marples is a Canadian historian and Distinguished University Professor at the Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta. He specializes in history and contemporary politics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. He authors several books and numerous articles on history and current political matters in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.