Europe's last dictator lives on borrowed time


WORLD VIEW: The time has come for the EU to switch off life support for the Stalinist president of Belarus

LYUTSINA KHALIP says her grandson, three-year-old Danil, "asks constantly where his mum and dad are". She worries that not only will he not see them soon, but that he too will soon be taken from her by the same authorities that imprisoned his parents. Andrei Sannikov and Irina Khalip, her daughter, an investigative journalist, were jailed following protests on December 19th against Belarus's rigged elections.

Hoping to add to the pressure on them, state social service officials have visited her home to insist that she is not capable of looking after Danil. Europe's "last dictatorship" and its secret police, still called the KGB, are living up to their obnoxious reputation.

Sannikov, who contested the presidential elections against Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, was one of seven opposition candidates detained among the 600 held in the brutal post-election crackdown. During and after his arrest he was severely beaten, suffering leg injuries, and has been denied both medical treatment and legal access, his lawyer Pavel Sapelko said. Thirty opposition leaders now face charges that could mean terms of up to 15 years.

Now lawyers and NGOs who are raising their cases are coming under pressure from the regime. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee, which has operated in Minsk for 15 years, has been threatened with closure for writing to the UN to complain of the intimidation of lawyers. And the rights-monitoring Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which condemned as fraudulent the elections in which Lukashenko "won" his fourth term with an 80 per cent mandate, is being expelled.

The crackdown has provoked widespread international condemnation, including from the EU, the US and human rights organisations. And there have been calls for a radical reversal of the union's conciliatory approach to Lukashenko adopted after he began to woo the West by releasing dissidents in 2008. Ahead of the elections the EU was offering up to $3.5 billion in aid if reform was forthcoming.

Sannikov, one of many in the country's lively though divided opposition, had in October called for a harder line, warning that those politicians in the EU who think they can "Europeanise" Lukashenko are pushing an "extremely stupid and extremely dangerous" policy.

"Europe has tried every kind of approach toward Lukashenko: carrots, sticks, promises, conditions, removal of conditions, dialogue, appeasement, strong language, soft language," he warned. "You can't change Lukashenko: he's about power."

An overdue policy reversal is, however, under way in Brussels, with travel bans and the freezing of foreign assets of regime members likely to be announced before the end of the month. "We know very well that we should change our policy towards Belarus," European Parliament president Jerzy Buzek told Belarusian opposition leaders in Brussels on Wednesday.

The EU should also now move to suspend dialogue in the Eastern Partnership process - unfortunately due to be chaired by the Hungarian EU presidency, whose human rights credentials are somewhat tarnished - as well as credit lines and economic aid.

A welcome lead on the issue has been taken by its neighbour, a proactive and unapologetically interventionist Poland, which feels a special responsibility for making the country, with its sizeable Polish minority, an important foreign policy issue for the EU as a whole.

Warsaw has already doubled financial support to Belarus's civil society and NGOs to over ?10 million a year, while isolating the top leadership in Minsk. It is extending its support to its Belarusian-language TV services, opening its universities to Belarusian students who can't complete their studies back home because of their political activities, and establishing a centre in Warsaw for the Belarussian opposition.

Belsat TV, a satellite television channel supported by the Polish government and located in Warsaw, with its slogan "Your Right to Choose", began broadcasting to Belarus in December 2007. It is watched by nearly 761,000 people and employs 37 full-time journalists with over 100 freelancers in Belarus, several of whom had been imprisoned. The offices of Belsat TV were raided in the days following the crackdown.

Poland also supports Radio Racja, a Belarusian-language station, and European Radio for Belarus.

Belarus under Lukashenko is a blast from the past, an unreconstructed Stalinist police state of 10 million impoverished people dependent on the goodwill of Russia. Its regime has been described by former constitutional court chief justice, Valery Tsikhinia as "legalised lawlessness". The tentacles of a vindictive state extend to every aspect of life, criminalising the majority of the population, not least in the economic sphere, where it is virtually impossible to work and not violate some law, decree or regulation.

In 2009, Lukashenko ordered legal changes to allow security services to search and arrest anyone without warrant. Officials of some 68 government agencies can institute administrative charges against citizens and in 1997, over four million citizens, more than half the adult population, were charged with administrative offences.

But the brutal and incompetent Lukashenko is living on borrowed time. It is right that the EU should do what it can to switch off his life support.


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