by David J. Kramer
Freedom House's David J. Kramer considers the significance that recent events in Belarus hold for the democratic reform agenda in the post-Soviet space.
Belarus and its dictatorial leader Aleksandr Lukashenko pose the greatest immediate challenge to the European Union's (EU) efforts to advance democracy in the Eurasia region. If EU leaders do not meet that challenge, prospects for wider democratization in the region will be badly damaged, and dividing lines will re-emerge between the EU and the East. Thus, the EU must take a very tough stance toward Lukashenko and his regime while simultaneously extending significantly more assistance to civil society and opposition forces inside Belarus.
In launching its Eastern Partnership Initiative to six countries of the former Soviet Union, the EU had mixed feelings about including Belarus. At the launch of the initiative in Prague in May 2009, leaders from the Czech Republic, which held the EU presidency in the first half of that year, held their noses while inviting Belarus strongman Lukashenko to their capital, making clear that he really was not welcome. Although Lukashenko did not show in Prague, he did interact with lots of European officials throughout 2009 and last year, including the Pope, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and a host of European foreign ministers.
Less than a year after being the target of sanctions, including a visa ban that had prohibited him from traveling anywhere within the EU (or United States) imposed because of the fraudulent 2006 presidential election, corruption, and human rights abuses, Lukashenko and his government cronies were welcomed back into the European fold. The United States, which had its ambassador expelled from Minsk in March 2008, also got in on the act as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, breaking with longstanding U.S. policy, met with her Belarusian counterpart at a European summit in Kazakhstan last November to sign a deal involving highly enriched uranium. Only at the end of their five-paragraph joint statement did the two leaders briefly mention human rights issues, and the statement praised Belarus for inviting international observers to monitor the upcoming election.
For months leading up to Belarus' presidential election last December, Western leaders were engaging and wooing Lukashenko. Especially as Russian-Belarusian relations grew tense last summer, some European officials saw an opportunity to try to lure Belarus toward the West, away from Russia. Aleksandr Lukashenko, they argued, offered the best hope against resisting Russian pressure. If only Lukashenko would permit a relatively free and fair election, relations between Belarus and the West could turn a new page and Belarus stood to gain more than $3.5 billion in assistance offered by the Polish and German foreign ministers.
Those hopes were shattered on December 19, when Lukashenko's goons launched a brutal attack against tens of thousands of brave Belarusians who turned out in unprecedented numbers in downtown Minsk to protest what they believed was a rigged election. According to some independent poll results, Lukashenko received less than the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff round; one Polish firm claimed he barely received 30 percent of the vote. Official results, however, claimed Lukashenko won in a landslide with 80 percent. To stem any challenges from the nine contenders who ran against him and from those protesting in October and Independence Squares, Lukashenko's security services savagely attacked opposition leaders, demonstrators, and journalists and arrested more than 600 people. Possibly spooked by results showing he did considerably worse than his official 80 percent, Lukashenko decided to try to decapitate the opposition and reverted to old tricks.
The rhetorical reaction from Europe and Washington was swift. Yet for several weeks after the violence, Lukashenko's security services raided the offices and homes of journalists and opposition leaders. Staying in power, which Lukashenko was in jeopardy of losing, was much more important to him than his relations with the West.
In light of this dramatic turn for the worse, the EU faces several critical decisions. European Union states have rightly refused to recognize the results of Lukashenko's "victory." But they must also quickly re-impose sanctions (a visa ban against dozens of Belarusian officials was suspended starting in October 2008) against the Lukashenko regime. Furthermore, it seems incomprehensible to allow Belarus to stay in the Eastern Partnership.
Indeed, how can the EU not re-impose its full set of sanctions - and consider adding new sanctions against state-owned enterprises much like the United States did in 2007 - given the situation since December 19, which is actually worse than that in 2006 after the fraudulent presidential election then and violence against the opposition? Far more people have been detained and beaten this time around, and the raids on journalists and opposition figures have continued. Despite the wishful thinking of some Western leaders and analysts that things were getting better in Belarus, the December 19 election and gross use of force against protestors revealed that Europe's last dictatorship has not changed its stripes.
None of the Eastern Partnership's other five members, for all their flaws and problems, comes close to the appalling situation unfolding in Belarus. But they will carefully watch the reaction of the EU and derive lessons accordingly. If Lukashenko is allowed to get away with his recent behavior, then leaders in some of the other Eastern Partnership states will seek similar latitude to crack down against their opposition and civil society. That underscores even more the urgency of decisive EU action.
It is important for the European Union and United States to stay engaged in the region to promote democratic and economic reform among the recipient countries. But it is time for the EU to recognize that its efforts to engage the dictator in Minsk have failed. Aleksandr Lukashenko deserves to return to his self-imposed isolation and face renewed tough sanctions. The EU and United States together should be standing with the people of Belarus during their difficult time and expand outreach to civil society and the opposition. Visa fees for entering Europe should be waived for average Belarusian citizens, and more should be done to help students kicked out for participating in protests.
The future of Belarus lies with its people, not with a dictator in his last throes.
David J. Kramer is the Executive Director of Freedom House and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for European Policy Analysis.