More of the Last Dictatorship

Analysis by Pavol Stracansky

WARSAW, Dec 22, 2010 (IPS) - Belarus is set to remain Europe's last dictatorship after Alexander Lukashenka was returned to the presidency last weekend in an election result which his critics say was never in doubt.

And as he displayed his continuing iron grip on the country with a brutal crackdown on demonstrations in the capital Minsk following his election results, the outlook for progress on human rights is dim, activists say.

"There are unlikely to be any serious changes on rights following the election. The present Belarusian authorities don't understand the value of human rights, they show a hostile attitude to civil society and aren't ready for constructive cooperation," Ales Bialiatski, head of the Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Centre, told IPS.

Lukashenka - dubbed Europe's last dictator by international leaders - came to power in 1994 and has enjoyed unbroken rule ever since having been returned to office in elections widely seen as rigged.

During his rule the former Soviet state has become an international pariah for its appalling human rights records.

A litany of rights abuses have been drawn up by international watchdogs, and the violent repression of the protests just after the election results were announced, including arrests of and beatings which left at least one presidential candidate in a critical condition in hospital - is, they say, characteristic of the dictatorial leadership that has led to the country's international isolation.

Any dissent is suppressed, freedom of assembly is in practice non-existent and the media is effectively muzzled by the state. Only a handful of independent media outlets are left in Belarus, and there have been claims that the regime's secret police have murdered critical journalists.

It is a criminal offence to be involved in a non-registered third sector organisation and NGOs complain of severe restrictions to financing and renting facilities.

Daria Vashkevich of the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus, told IPS: "The fact that our organisation has been trying to register since 1997 and has been denied registration at least four times, says something about the situation in the country."

Minorities claim persecution as well. The 400,000 strong Polish minority is overwhelmingly pro-Western and pro-democracy and some of them say they have suffered years of civil rights repression, traditionally ahead of elections when Lukashenka has looked to remind the population of his power.

Belarus is also the last country in Europe to actively retain the death penalty. Two convicts were executed earlier this year and three remain on death row. And there remain serious concerns over fair trials and the use of torture.

With such complete control the election result was no surprise, and critics and civil society groups had largely accepted it was a foregone conclusion before it took place.

Independent observers have little doubt that voting was rigged. Private opinion polls had shown support for Lukashenka at around 40 percent at most.

Experts say that in the wake of the Lukashenka victory there is likely to be little more than a "cosmetic" improvement in the human rights situation, if at all.

"It is highly unlikely that human rights will be improved substantially. Minsk could make some cosmetic improvements to give an impression of progress but the overall environment for civil society organisations in Belarus will not be affected," Vytis Jurkonis, head of policy analysis and research division at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Vilnius, told IPS.

Others take an even dimmer view. Lukashenka said in the run-up to elections the death penalty needed to be "re-examined".

But Heather McGill from Amnesty International, which has campaigned for abolition of capital punishment in Belarus, told IPS: "I suspect that the three people on death row may be executed after the elections. It was unlikely that Lukashenka was going to do anything in the run up to the elections."

Last year Belarus was invited to join the EU's 'Eastern Partnership' programme designed to create closer ties with non-EU states in Eastern Europe. Western diplomats saw the invitation as a way to engage the former Soviet state amid fears that years of international isolation would only drive it further towards its historical ally Russia.

Lukashenka made some vague pledges suggesting progress on rights may be made, and a number of civil rights organisations operating in Belarus have told IPS that the situation is now "freer, the climate more open" than before the Eastern Partnership invitation.

But the future of relations with the West is in doubt following the regime's reaction to the post-election protests, which critics say has shown Lukashenka's true attitude to human rights.

Experts say that any real progress on human rights in Belarus while Lukashenka remains in power will only now be brought about through a concerted effort by international bodies.

Jurkonis told IPS: "The EU should strongly advocate rights of assembly and association and issues connected with NGOs. This would have a considerable effect in the mid-term."

Bialiatski was more pessimistic though. He said that even token improvements in human rights in Belarus would be hard won. "Any concessions from the Belarusian authorities for the benefit of human rights and the development of civil society will need a great effort from Belarusian society and the international community." (END)


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