The initiative to renew dialogue with the Belarusian regime is not a recent invention.
One year ago, this idea was already being zealously promoted by certain foreign and local organisations, as well as Аleksandr Milinkevich. The Office for a Democratic Belarus in Brussels, and its director Olga Stuzhinskaya, even came up with a proposal to edit the “black list” by striking off such odious names as Zimovskiy and Peftiev.
Currently, the same people and organisations have again brought up the idea of initiating rapprochement with the Belarusian regime, even though the whole range of arguments was presented during last year’s discussions regarding the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of sanctions and dialogue. Those arguments showed that dialogue with the authoritarian regime is ineffective and will not facilitate the democratisation of Belarus (see my articles – (“EU sanctions as the only feasible policy”) and (“Between dialogue and double-standard politics”), as well as publications by the political scientist Andrey Yeliseyev – (“EU sanctions: will Belarus follow the example of Myanmar?”) and (“Are the EU sanctions working?: an analysis of the arguments”)). Those in support of a dialogue policy, represented in particular by BISS analysts, have so far failed to provide any reliable evidence that dialogue is preferable to sanctions, or more effective, or that it encouraged any real political change in Belarus between 2008 and 2010.
Nevertheless, the discussions and argumentation related to this topic have been completely ignored by certain opposition figures and European politicians alike which, in my opinion, is totally unacceptable in terms of devising strategies concerning Belarus. Those currently in support of renewing dialogue are still using mere rhetoric based on speculation and distorted facts instead of solid evidence.
The above position is expressed in the following statements:
- Sanctions are ineffective, whereas dialogue will improve and modernise the internal political situation in Belarus.
- Sanctions are pushing Belarus toward Russia’s sphere of influence, whereas dialogue will bring Belarus closer to Europe.
According to the authors of these declarations, the 2008–2010 “dialogue” yielded positive results, although no examples are provided to support their statements.
I will not be launching into a discussion here, since all the basic counterarguments are presented in the above-mentioned articles, but will just outline several key points which demonstrate that the position of those calling for dialogue with the Belarusian regime is inconsistent.
- Despite a temporary, formal “warming” in the functioning of the Belarusian political system, the dialogue did not result in a full transformation. Society and the opposition still operate within restrictive, narrow limits imposed by the regime, and overstepping those limits results in immediate repression, no matter if there is a dialogue or not (as happened on December 19, 2010). The opposition remains in a marginal state outside of political decision-making processes. For example, during the “dialogue’s triumph” period, the opposition did not win any seats in parliament in the 2008 election. At the same time, the regime was using the dialogue to reduce internal and external tensions, and obtain additional resources to support the functionality of the system and its individual components.
- Even though the regime might suspend its overt repression and control of opponents during a “dialogue” period, this does not mean that it would completely abandon the mechanisms for pressurising and controlling opponents. The repression would simply take another form, no less brutal. For example, the authorities’ opponents would continue to be subjected to physical and psychological pressure, as well as threats and beatings. In 2009, during the “thaw” period in Belarus, a human rights defender from Soligorsk, Yana Polevikova, was driven to suicide. In 2010, the founder of the Charter’97 website, Oleg Bebenin, died in uncertain circumstances (it is strange how quickly these tragedies have been forgotten). There were also attacks on independent newspapers’ headquarters and political parties’ offices; politically disloyal students were expelled from universities (it should be mentioned that so-called political conscription also occurred during that period, which affected a number of youth activists); and lecturers, civil servants and workers on the state payroll were dismissed for violating labour regulations.
- It is impossible to modernise the economic system without political transformation. State management of the economy ensures the stability of Lukashenka’s political system. Therefore, all funds and resources the regime receives from the West for “modernisation” would in fact be used to preserve that system. Loans and investments would not only be used to subsidise loss-making enterprises, but also the entire administrative and repressive apparatus. Lukashenka will never disband the BRSM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), Belaya Rus organisation, or his ideological “power pyramid”, nor will he make any personnel cuts within the KGB or militia (despite repeated declarations to that effect). All of these bodies form the basis of his regime, and cost millions of dollars to maintain. By launching the “dialogue on modernisation” programme, the EU will simply make additional resources available to the current regime.
- The previous “dialogue” with the regime (2008–2010) neither led to democratisation and regime-change, nor helped to strengthen the country’s independence. Nevertheless, Аleksandr Milinkevich persists in ignoring the reality, and religiously repeats that “dialogue will divert Belarus’ attention away from Russia”. Having misconceptions is an unforgivably negative attribute for a politician.
In spite of the altered tone and general background of Belarus’ relations with the West (it even managed to become a member of the Eastern Partnership, and received financial assistance from the IMF), its geopolitical preferences remained unchanged. The country has not withdrawn from or even frozen any of its strategic projects with Russia (the Belarusian–Russian Union, CSTO, CIS, and EurAsEC). Moreover, joint military exercises were carried out with Russia: Autumn-2008 and West in 2009 (the name speaks for itself). In the same year, an agreement about joint protection of the external border of the Union and creation of a single regional anti-aircraft system was signed and ratified. In 2010, agreements on the creation of the Customs Union were signed and ratified, and all this happened during the period of “information war” with Russia and “dialogue” with the West. As “proof of its pro-Western policy”, Belarus granted political asylum to the ousted Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his family in April 2010.
During the “dialogue” period, the Belarusian authorities sold the first 50% of Beltransgaz shares, and came to a final decision regarding the construction of a nuclear power station, all with the involvement of Russia, not the EU countries. This is why it is unclear what gives analysts and politicians grounds to believe that Belarus was getting “closer” to the EU during the dialogue, when in fact Russia was increasing its influence. While such processes are taking place, speculation that the December 19, 2010 events were a Russian provocation aimed at ruining Belarus’ relationship with the EU sounds naïve, to put it mildly. It raises a perfectly natural question: if some opposition members were aware of this provocation, then were the Belarusian secret services aware too, and why didn’t they use that information to justify their brutal crackdown on the Square? However, state propaganda claimed the “provocation” was instigated by Poland and Germany, not Moscow. Does this mean that the Belarusian secret services and media are controlled by the Russian secret services, and do as the Kremlin dictates?
Any rational person understands that the main threat to Belarusian independence is not the sanctions policy, but Lukashenka, and this has always has been the case. As long as Lukashenka’s regime exists in Belarus, the country will never be truly independent. If the opposition representatives led by Milinkevich, Niakliaeu and Janukievich really care about the interests of the country and not the regime, they should direct their efforts towards uniting the opposition and overthrowing Lukashenka. If they are unable to do that, their existence in the Belarusian political arena is meaningless, and in that case the best solution, both for them and for the democratic community, would be for them to “retire”.
Does Lukashenka need dialogue?
Considering the above arguments, it seems strange that there are people in Europe who believe that Lukashenka would behave differently with a new “dialogue”. Analysing the dialogue policy, it is important to understand that any agreements between Western partners and dictators are completely non-binding for the latter. Since a dictator usurps power by violating his own country’s laws and international agreements, why would he keep any promises to Western politicians? A dictator’s psychology is perfectly understandable: for them, there are no rules of the game apart from those which they establish themselves. They look at dialogue from their self-interested point of view, which implies preserving and strengthening their power, not weakening it. Any dialogue with a dictator will end whenever it starts to affect their immunity and limit their authority.
During the whole period of talks about dialogue, Lukashenka did nothing tangible to confirm that he really needs a dialogue with the EU (apart from sending some mysterious signals). Political prisoners are not amnestied, but are forced to sign appeals for clemency instead; repression and attacks on activists continue; and no-one from the opposition, even those most loyal to the regime, won any seats in parliament in 2012. It is odd how these processes are used to prove that the sanctions are ineffective, but not to show that the regime will not change its modus operandi under any circumstances.
Lukashenka understands that all he needs to do is wait for European politicians’ weak wills and short memories in order to sort out his problems with the EU, which will lead to the sanctions being called off.
What can Europe do?
Europe needs to understand that democratising Belarus will be impossible without gradual cultural and civilisational integration in parallel. Belarus is still under strong Russian geopolitical influence, which neutralises both the sanctions and dialogue policies, since they lack the geopolitical element.
First and foremost, Europe must ask itself whether it really needs Belarus to be a part of united Europe. If the EU only sees Belarus as a some kind of “buffer zone” with no prospects for integration (which is exactly how the situation looks today), then whichever strategy it applies towards the Lukashenka regime will be absolutely irrelevant. Any such strategy will be ineffective, since the geopolitical initiative belongs to Russia, which will eventually lead to Belarus losing its independence.
If the EU does have serious geopolitical intentions to include Belarus in its sphere of influence—which needs to be declared—then additional methods to influence Belarusian society and assist its integration into Europe could even be employed on top of the sanctions policy. For example, implementing a unilateral cross-border movement agreement, and liberalising visa policy with possible full abolition of visas for Belarusian citizens. All these ideas have been suggested to European politicians for many years, but have met with “helpless shoulder-shrugging” (“EU sanctions as the only feasible policy”).
Hence, until Europe decides on its civilisational approach towards Belarus, the sanctions policy will be insufficient to create conditions for significant change in the country. As the Swedish minister of foreign affairs Carl Bildt pointed out: “Sanctions can be part of… a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy”.
Unfortunately, I am convinced that, as before, the “dialogue” supporters will ignore all arguments and reasoning about the utopian nature of the dialogue idea.