Belarus: Don’t let us be taken in by the dictator’s Potemkin village

Published on “Brannpunkt” in the daily Svenska Dagbladet, 19 December 2010:

A presidential election is taking place on Sunday in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship. On the surface, the election appears more democratic than previous ones. However, appearances are deceptive – the regime is still holding the Belarusian citizens in a grip of iron and the improvements we have seen are purely cosmetic.

Sweden and other EU countries must not allow themselves to be charmed by the Belarusian dictatorship’s political games, but must insist on their requirements for concrete improvements in the area of people’s rights.

In autumn 2008, the EU initiated the EU-Belarus dialogue. Since then, the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has worked hard to promote his country as increasingly democratic, without changing anything fundamentally.

The EU made a goodwill gesture to Belarus by temporarily lifting travel restrictions placed on Lukashenko and 35 other Belarusian politicians and officials. Lukashenko’s response was to try to appear more democratic, which also coincided with deterioration in relations between Belarus and Russia.

The democratisation which the Belarusian regime pretends to support is highly controlled.  Oppression is more sophisticated and therefore less transparent. The regime is careful only to make improvements that can be immediately reversed on a given order. In the area of legislation, there have been no changes for the better.

On the contrary, for example, a new decree to increase control over the Internet was passed as recently as 1 July. Belarusian human rights defenders are still threatened by the infamous article 193.1 in the Belarusian criminal code. Under this article, people can be sentenced to up to two years’ imprisonment for membership in organisations without registration, which dissident organisations often lack.

In other words, the tools of oppression remain and are ready to be used if needed. In some cases, they are used to remind dissidents what country they live in. Yauhen Shapchyts, Pavel Bandzich and Aleh Anufrienka were recently on the receiving end of such a reminder. They had made a short film entitled “Hide your grandmother’s passport“, which encourages people to hide their grandparents’ passports so they don’t have to vote for Zhyrafenka (a fictitious character reminiscent of Lukashenko).

All three lost their jobs or university places after the film became a hit on YouTube. Another example is the dissident artist Ales Pushkin who according to the police stirred up trouble with an unknown person near his home. As was also the case in the days before the last presidential election, he was sentenced to approximately two weeks’ imprisonment and will be released immediately after the election.

In order to appear accommodating, Lukashenko gave each of his nine opponents two uncensored half-hours on state radio and TV before the election. The opposition has been able to hold a number of election rallies in central Minsk without being assaulted by the riot police. Far fewer dissenters have been sentenced to one or two weeks’ imprisonment immediately before the presidential election than before previous elections.

However, this doesn’t actually change anything as long as there are no systematic and fundamental changes to Belarusian society. Like last time, the dictator Lukashenko will be announced as the unchallenged winner and on Monday it will be business as usual.

Those of us who have monitored the Belarusian dictatorship since its inception have seen before how it retracts its claws for a time only to suddenly turn round and flex its muscles. Civil Rights Defenders therefore urges foreign minister Carl Bildt and other EU policy-makers not to be too hasty in drawing conclusions from the relative calm in Belarus. Cosmetic improvements are no reason for turning a blind eye to the large-scale violation of people’s civil and political rights which is a daily occurrence in the country.

Robert Hårdh
Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders (formerly the Swedish Helsinki Committee)

Robert Hårdh has followed the situation in Belarus for many years and has visited the country regularly. He is in Minsk from 17-20 December to monitor the elections. Robert can be contacted on +46 709 14 63 14 for a comment or an interview.

Categories: Opinion.
Tags: Aleksander Lukashenka, EU-Belarus dialogue, and Presidential election 2010.
Regions: Belarus.