By Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - On Feb. 4, a delegation of 10 U.S. Senate and Congress members, led by Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, visited Vilnius on their way to the security conference in Munich. Their task was to meet the Belarusian students in Vilnius and discuss the Belarus issue with Lithuanian politicians, including President Dalia Grybauskaite, who the next day also rushed to the Munich Security Conference to give her speech there.
The American Congress members had their meeting with students of the Belarusian European Humanities University in the Lithuanian parliament's old hall, where the re-establishment of Lithuania's independence was announced on March 11, 1990. The hall was decorated with three U.S. national flags. Several years ago, the European Humanities University was forced to move from Minsk to Vilnius due to persecution by the Belarusian regime. One of the accusations by the Minsk regime to the university was that too many foreign professors are invited to read their lectures there. Now it is the only free Belarusian university in the world. The fact that it is situated close to Belarus attracts many students from that neighboring country. The university declares its readiness to accept to all existing programs the Belarusian students expelled from universities after the violent crackdown that followed the presidential elections of Dec. 19 in Belarus.
The university receives funding from the EU and other Western countries as well as various funds. Students were seated in the seats of MPs while the U.S. delegation was seated in front of them. The meeting was held in the form of a dialogue. Some Lithuanian MPs came to listen, too.
Asked what he thinks about Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, McCain answered, "My opinion of Lukashenko is that he is a ruthless, severe and brutal tyrant" adding that the events in Egypt show that governments cannot deprive citizens of the rights given by God. The Americans asked how they could help those students in Belarus who were repressed due to participation in the anti-Lukashenko protest in Minsk on Dec. 19. Students answered that U.S. student visas to study in a U.S. university would be helpful for those who were kicked out of universities in Belarus. When the Americans asked those who would like to study in the USA to raise their hands, only a few hands jumped in the air. It seems that students are happy with the European Humanities University.
The U.S. delegation also visited the presidential palace to discuss the Belarus issue with Grybauskaite. She expressed her support for the current decision of Jan. 31, made by 27 EU foreign ministers in Brussels when the EU imposed asset freezes and visa bans on Lukashenko and 157 associates, including two of his elder sons, in response to his crackdown on the opposition. The U.S. measures are tougher: they included revoking temporary authorization for business deals with two subsidiaries of Belneftekhim, Belarus' largest state-owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate. The EU stopped short of implementing broader economic sanctions, as called for by Sweden and Poland, because other member states did not want ordinary people in Belarus to suffer. As the example of Cuba shows, such sanctions and total isolation give no positive results - they are rather strengthening the dictatorship and pushing it to look further for the company of other anti-democratic regimes. Earlier, Lieberman stated that he would like the EU to impose economic sanctions as well.
"We are much more in agreement than in disagreement," McCain commented about his meeting with Grybauskaite, adding that she made a very good impression on all members of the U.S. delegation. "Grybauskaite could stand for president of the United States," he said.
Lieberman criticized the earlier attempts of the U.S. and the EU to engage with the Lukashenko regime. "It was a miserable failure," he said.
On Feb. 4, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis took part in a conference of experts on Belarus named Belarus International Implementers Meeting in Vilnius. Azubalis stated that Lithuania will try to push his EU colleagues to make a decision about easing the conditions for Belarus' citizens to get a Schengen visa. Visiting the EU would be the best school of democracy for Belarusians, according to him. "Civil society in Belarus grows, although maybe not with the speed which we would like to see," Azubalis said. He added that EU economic sanctions against Belarus are still a possibility and their imposition should depend on further development with the human rights issue in Belarus.
On Feb. 5, Grybauskaite placed her video commentary on her official Web site - she talked from the Munich Security Conference about regime changes stating that the West can help, but it can not dictate. "Nations themselves should make up their mind - in Egypt as well as in Belarus. I'm glad that British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed the same view about it here," Grybauskaite said.
During the so-called Snow Meeting in Trakai on Jan. 14-15, where foreign ministries' officials and experts from NATO and the EU countries discussed security issues, Vladimir Sokor of the Jamestown Foundation, said that he absolutely supports Grybauskaite's policy on Belarus, stating that Lukashenko is supported by a "good 50 percent" of Belarusians, while the Belarusian opposition activists have failed to gain wider popularity despite all the long-term Western support. He argued that it is necessary to pay attention to geopolitics and to keep dialogue with Lukashenko's nomenclature, which is the only obstacle for Russian total control of Belarus. According to Sokor, the total isolation of Belarus could push Lukashenko into even closer ties with Russia.
It is interesting that Russian state TV channels were almost openly calling for demonstrations against Lukashenko on the day of the Belarusian presidential elections of Dec. 19 (Russia would be happy with some weak power in Belarus, where there is plenty of non-privatized heavy industry which is interesting for Kremlin-related oligarchs), although Russian propaganda is usually negative about 'color revolutions' - for example, the Kremlin's English-language RT TV, previously known as Russia Today, condemns the Egyptian revolt as a conspiracy by U.S. secret service agents, because the Kremlin has a maniacal fear that some day, a similar revolt can take place in Russia.