Yesterday Belarus authorities announced criminal charges against former presidential candidates. Also charged are their aides and journalists - eighteen people in total. These people are already kept in a special KGB prison and are likely to be used as hostages in the future diplomatic war with the West.
The criminal charges followed violent suppression of tens of thousands who came out despite very cold Belarus winter and intimidation to protest against falsified presidential elections the center of Minsk last Sunday. The protests were peaceful with the only exception of what is widely believed to be a KGB-staged vandalization of a governmental building. More then six hundred people ended up in detention and many still face further beatings and torture by police.
Reaction of the West
The United Nations, the European Union, the United States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation were among those who protested against recent human rights violations in Belarus. Most western leaders already signaled their dismay over beatings and detentions of presidential candidates and hundreds of others.
The election day brutality of Belarus authorities ended a short spring in their relations with the West. Radoslaw Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle, Polish and German foreign ministers recently travelled to Minsk trying to pacify Mr Lukashenka by offering him cash bonuses for better respect of human rights. Now, the disillusioned Polish foreign minister announced that there would be more sanctions against Belarus authorities. Mr Sikorski also promised more support to the Belarus civil society. However, it may be too late because not much of civil society is going to be left in Belarus after the last presidential elections.
The fate of political prisoners
Although most of the detained in Belarus will be released after serving a week or two of administrative arrests, they are likely to face problems at their universities or at work. A significant number of them will leave the country ask for political asylum abroad. The Belarus authorities would certainly be happy to see the most active protesters to leave the country voluntarily. Thousands from Belarus are already political refugees in Europe and North America.
The leading politicians and journalists are going to be kept in prison much longer. Those seventeen who face criminal charges will be used as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West. Removal of sanctions or additional economic aid are likely to be demanded by Belarus authorities for their release. By keeping them in prison, the authorities are also hoping to punish them for their active political stand and to intimidate the rest of the population.
Following the 2006 presidential elections, Mr Lukashenka imprisoned Alyaksandr Kazulin. He had also been heavily beaten after he had led demonstrators who protested against the falsification of the 2006 presidential elections. Mr Kazulin was released only after the United States agreed to soften their economic sanctions against Belarus.
What the international community can do
Is is important for the West to understand the name of the game and be prepared for the long-term support of Belarus civil society. It is not enough for the West to introduce additional sanctions. Sanctions and travel bans are not going to make lives of the leaders of the Belarus regime much worse. They will still have much more comfortable lives than the rest of the Belarus population.
The West should triple its support of the remaining civil society in Belarus. It is important to increase broadcasting to Belarus from outside of Belarus and help Belarusians who are in the country to remain active.
Access to information is the key to any changes in Belarus. Most people in the country receive information either from TV or from FM radio stations. Although there is already Belsat, an independent TV channel located in Poland, its impact is weak. The channel broadcasts only several hours per day and only available on satellite. Those who take an effort to buy a satellite dish and turn on Belsat already know what the situation in Belarus is like. There is not much point in evangelizing those are already converted. It is more important to reach an average Belarusian by re-broadcasting television programs across the border. Increasing the coverage of Belsat should be the main priority.
Belarus is surrounded by European Union countries - Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. The Lithuanian border is less than 140 km from Minsk. If the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite already feels guilty for her support of Mr Lukashenka, she should facilitate re-broadcasting television and FM programs to the territory in Belarus. There should be no illusions - breaking through the information blockade is going to be difficult. Mr. Lukashenka announced yesterday that he would particularly target internet and internet and independent journalists during his forth term.
The European Union should also encourage people to stay in Belarus rather than to leave. Journalists, human rights activists, university lecturers, researchers need support when they work inside the country. There is no private sector in Belarus to support them and getting a public sector job is nearly impossible. The West should establish grants and scholarships schemes so that people can stay and work on development of civil society inside Belarus. Small grants for mini-research projects in Belarus or inviting Belarusians to work abroad on a short-term basis could make a significant difference.
These measures should be implemented now while there is increased attention to Belarus problems. Unfortunately, even a few weeks from now, very few are going to discuss Belarus in the West. Already yesterday on Euronews, snow in Paris was more important than blood in Minsk.