Pres­id­en­tial elec­tions were held in Belarus on 11 Octo­ber 2015. As expec­ted, Lukashen­ka was again elec­ted to the pres­id­ency in elec­tions that were, once again, rigged. And once again, new refine­ments in elec­tion manip­u­la­tion were intro­duced. For­eign policy con­sid­er­a­tions sug­gest that a more pos­it­ive eval­u­ation of the regime on the European stage would be expedi­ent. Pub­lic opin­ion in the West may be influ­enced by ostens­ible improve­ments in the gen­er­al elect­or­al envir­on­ment and elec­tion pro­cess, without recog­niz­ing this as a form of self-decep­tion.

The country’s inter­na­tion­al con­text is char­ac­ter­ized by stra­tegic uncer­tain­ties and a per­sist­ently crit­ic­al eco­nom­ic situ­ation. As the res­ult of recent strategy shifts, the inter­na­tion­al isol­a­tion of Belarus, which began in 1996, has giv­en way to a will­ing­ness on the part of the West to engage in some degree of cooper­a­tion, which is asso­ci­ated with both oppor­tun­it­ies and risks. Pro­ponents of this policy shift like to point to improve­ments in the elec­tion pro­cess in Octo­ber 2015 by way of jus­ti­fic­a­tion. This rationale under­mines the cred­ib­il­ity of the West: the elec­tions per se do not give cause to improve in rela­tions to Lukashen­ka – oth­er stra­tegic grounds, i.e. West­ern stra­tegic con­sid­er­a­tions, may jus­ti­fy such policy adjust­ments.

The offi­cial final res­ults of the 2015 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions obfus­cated the genu­ine res­ults, the tam­per­ing with elect­or­al registers, and the actu­al num­bers of non-voters. The real atmo­sphere and the genu­ine mood changes in the coun­try for the coun­try as a whole would be bet­ter reflec­ted in elect­or­al res­ults pri­or to their manip­u­la­tion. A wealth of details that emerged dur­ing unof­fi­cial elec­tion obser­va­tion sup­port the well-foun­ded assump­tion that Lukashen­ka received only one half of the votes cast in the cap­it­al, that the “against all” option accoun­ted for at least 20% of votes cast in Minsk and that Lukashenka’s chal­lenger, Tat­si­ana Kar­atkevich, shown in the offi­cial res­ults as receiv­ing 4.43% of votes cast nation­wide, actu­ally won around 20% of the votes. The genu­ine elec­tion res­ults for the coun­try as a whole, i.e. the non-manip­u­lated res­ults, may cor­res­pond to the break­down of votes depic­ted in the res­ults of sur­veys con­duc­ted before the elec­tions by the Inde­pend­ent Insti­tute of Socio-eco­nom­ic and Polit­ic­al Stud­ies (IISPS, Minsk-Vil­ni­us, Pro­fess­or Man­aev).

On the oth­er hand, there is little doubt that the Belarus­i­an pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to “stick by” Lukashen­ka because of a belief that social, albeit not eco­nom­ic, con­di­tions in Belarus are bet­ter than those in West-ward look­ing Ukraine. To some extent, Lukashen­ka, as an uneasy part­ner for Moscow, rep­res­ents a guar­an­tee for the country’s inde­pend­ence in the face of Rus­si­an yearn­ings towards sub­jug­a­tion and annex­a­tion.

People still har­bour the pain­ful memory of the viol­ent meas­ures of repres­sion and per­se­cu­tion pur­sued in the wake of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion on 19 Decem­ber 2010 against oppos­i­tion fig­ures – includ­ing offi­cially registered pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. From that time, the people feared by Lukashen­ka included polit­ic­al pris­on­ers, whose wrong­ful impris­on­ment he used as a deterrent against poten­tial unrest in the coun­try. Nev­er­the­less, in August of 2015, Lukashen­ka did release the last of the polit­ic­al pris­on­ers still behind pris­on walls, includ­ing Mikalai Statkevich, a “Lukashen­ka oppon­ent of con­science”. The leg­al res­tor­a­tion of his rights and repu­ta­tion (“rehab­il­it­a­tion”), for which there were calls in the West and else­where, did not occur.

Belarus and the Russian Federation

With the for­cible annex­a­tion of Crimea in viol­a­tion of inter­na­tion­al law in the spring of 2014 and the cre­ation, with Rus­si­an mil­it­ary and eco­nom­ic assist­ance, of “autonom­ous” sep­ar­at­ist-held regions in east­ern Ukraine, Belarus’ stra­tegic pos­i­tion has changed fun­da­ment­ally rel­at­ive to the gen­er­al con­di­tions of 2010, while country’s the financial/​economic depend­ency on Moscow con­tin­ues:

Lukashenka’s pro-Rus­si­an and anti-West­ern policy over the last two dec­ades has cre­ated a pro-Rus­si­an cli­en­tele in Belarus, one that is becom­ing poten­tially dan­ger­ous for Lukashen­ka: Moscow could use it at any time for its own stra­tegic pur­poses, giv­en the Kremlin’s neo-imper­i­al­ist policy towards the former Soviet repub­lics. The Belarus­i­an eco­nomy is depend­ent on dir­ect and indir­ect Rus­si­an sub­sidies. Power polit­ics in Belarus dic­tate that the Lukashen­ka government’s eco­nom­ic stance be state-centred, i.e. planned-eco­nomy dom­in­ated. This has pre­cluded an eco­nom­ic policy that might have attrac­ted dir­ect invest­ment from the West. Sales oppor­tun­it­ies in Rus­sia for the products man­u­fac­tured by Belarus’ out­dated state enter­prises are dimin­ish­ing – partly due to the eco­nom­ic reces­sion there. With­in the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on they are also run­ning into com­pet­i­tion from oth­er mem­ber states.

Recent Rus­si­an state pro­pa­ganda has met with a pos­it­ive response among con­sid­er­able por­tions of the Belarus­i­an pop­u­la­tion.

In the face of the decreas­ing effect­ive­ness of Belarus’ state-con­trolled social, edu­ca­tion and health sys­tems and the fall­ing pro­ductiv­ity of the state eco­nomy, a private sec­tor geared toward West­ern mar­kets is tak­ing shape on the basis of indi­vidu­al ini­ti­at­ive and without enter­ing into polit­ic­al oppos­i­tion to the regime. Fam­ily-based eco­nom­ic­ally rel­ev­ant activ­ity in the inform­al sec­tor is on the rise; this, togeth­er with start­ing occu­pa­tion­al activ­it­ies abroad, could be seen as an attempt to com­pensate for the defi­cits in the Belarus­i­an eco­nomy, state fin­ances and employ­ment poten­tials with mac­roe­co­nom­ic ori­gins, but it is also expos­ing Belarus­i­ans to new exper­i­ences act­ing on the open mar­ket.

Without ques­tion, Lukashenka’s inter­na­tion­al stand­ing was enhanced by the achieve­ment of the shaky cease­fire in east­ern Ukraine, the basic out­lines of which were agreed, i.e. brokered, in Minsk in Feb­ru­ary, 2015, by the Ger­man Prime Min­is­ter and the French Pres­id­ent on the one side and Pres­id­ent Putin and Pres­id­ent Poroshen­ko on the oth­er. With OSCE par­ti­cip­a­tion, the out­come of those nego­ti­ations was sub­sequently trans­formed into a cease­fire agree­ment between the parties dir­ectly involved in the con­flict. Lukashen­ka is not a party to the agree­ment, though, and can­not by rights be con­sidered one of its brokers – oth­er than in respect to hav­ing hos­ted the nego­ti­ations. In view of the risks the coun­try faces in con­junc­tion with Russia’s newly aggress­ive stance, the increase in inter­na­tion­al prestige may non­ethe­less rep­res­ent a strength­en­ing, albeit one of lim­ited effect, of his pos­i­tion vis-à-vis Moscow – but also with respect to the West. On vari­ous occa­sions Lukashen­ka has refused to recog­nize the annex­a­tion of Crimea and the achieve­ment of inde­pend­ence as sep­ar­ate states on the part of two Geor­gi­an provinces, not acced­ing to Moscow’s calls for their recog­ni­tion. Today the focus of con­ten­tion with Moscow is on the estab­lish­ment of anoth­er Rus­si­an air­base in Belarus and the pos­sible loc­a­tion of such a base in great­er or less­er prox­im­ity to the bor­der with Ukraine.

The latest opin­ion sur­veys in Belarus (July 2015) con­firm the down­ward trend in eco­nom­ic per­form­ance and fall in the reli­ab­il­ity of social ser­vices provided by the State to its cit­izenry, but they also con­firm a per­sist­ing pref­er­ence for closer ties with Rus­sia as opposed to closer ties with the European Uni­on. Hence there is a con­sid­er­able dif­fer­ence in the stra­tegic ori­ent­a­tion between Ukraine and Belarus.

Minsk and the Eastern Partnership of the European Union

Lukashenka’s dis­in­clin­a­tion to make the effort to attend the East­ern Part­ner­ship Sum­mit in Riga – May 2015 – in per­son was in the interests of both sides.

Lukashen­ka and Belarus are sub­ject to West­ern sanc­tions because of the fact that between 1994 and 1997 Lukashen­ka made every effort to elim­in­ate the demo­crat­ic cul­ture emer­ging in Belarus and replace it with a neo-author­it­ari­an, although not Com­mun­ist regime – a regime that he con­tin­ues to sus­tain with the help of Rus­si­an sub­sidies. The con­trast grows ever stark­er between Lukashenka’s ideas about Belarus­i­an cit­izens and the impress­ive way that Belarus­i­ans, who grew up with this state-author­it­ari­an sys­tem, are nav­ig­at­ing and devel­op­ing their full poten­tial with­in the polit­ic­al cul­ture of Ger­many and oth­er EU mem­ber states.

With respect to its stra­tegic pro­spects, the East­ern Part­ner­ship will remain largely inef­fect­ive until such time as it recalls the European Community’s pro­vi­sion in the Treaty of Rome of 1957, under which that Com­munity is to remain open to the mem­ber­ship of oth­er European states, and asserts the rel­ev­ance of that pro­vi­sion vis-à-vis East­ern Europe for coun­tries that acknow­ledge as their own Europe’s polit­ic­al, social, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al val­ues as they are reflec­ted in the European Uni­on and that are effect­ively pre­par­ing their coun­try for the frame­work con­di­tions of the European Single Mar­ket. By refer­ring to this fun­da­ment­al decision taken by what were then the six mem­ber states of the European Com­munity, the European Uni­on would be pro­claim­ing the legit­im­acy of the aspir­a­tions of oth­er, in this case East­ern European, coun­tries, to one day become mem­bers of the EU.

With respect to the East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries, there is a sense that the European Uni­on – for whatever reas­on – does not at present wish to call to mind some­thing that is an object­ive fact, which sews the seeds of dis­trust. Is this delib­er­ate? The sus­pi­cion that it is can­not be brushed aside.

The Par­is Charter, signed on 21 Novem­ber 1990 by the heads of state or gov­ern­ment of the coun­tries in Europe and North Amer­ica involved in the CSCE activ­it­ies, marked the begin­ning of a trans­form­a­tion pro­cess in East­ern Europe that can be hindered but can­not be stopped by author­it­ari­an, undemo­crat­ic­ally estab­lished gov­ern­ments and power con­stel­la­tions. It is a his­tor­ic­al pro­cess lead­ing to the eman­cip­a­tion of cit­izens from a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, law and power that is out­dated and is neither socially nor eco­nom­ic­ally sus­tain­able under glob­al con­di­tions as they now stand and one that is based on ille­git­im­ately obtained power and for­cibly main­tained pos­i­tions of power.

It may be the case that the European Uni­on, in view of the chal­lenges it cur­rently faces (Russia/​Ukraine, Euro crisis, move­ment of refugees), does not at this time have the strength to under­take a fun­da­ment­al course cor­rec­tion. This con­sti­tutes a tem­por­ary phe­nomen­on though – not an endur­ing shift of the tasks of the European Uni­on.

Belarusian Civil Society – A Powerful Force in Today’s Belarus

Belarus­i­an civil soci­ety is in the van­guard with respect to European Uni­on issues and takes advant­ages of its oppor­tun­it­ies in the East­ern Part­ner­ship Civil Soci­ety For­um. Imple­ment­a­tion of effect­ive fol­low-up pro­grammes has proven prob­lem­at­ic though.

There is an urgent need for action on the part of the European Uni­on in this area. One ser­i­ous con­straint lim­it­ing the cur­rent pos­sib­il­it­ies for civil soci­ety devel­op­ment lies with­in the nar­row lim­its restrict­ing the pos­sib­il­it­ies for such pro­gress in Belarus itself. The neces­sary lat­it­ude does exist though when part­ner­ships have the back­ing of Belarus­i­an offi­cials – as is the case, for instance, with the lan­guage train­ing pro­gramme of the Ger­man Aca­dem­ic Exchange Ser­vice (DAAD) and the civic pro­jects admin­istered by the IBB-Minsk (IBB: Asso­ci­ation for Inter­na­tion­al Edu­ca­tion and Exchange).

The ques­tion arises as to wheth­er it might be advis­able to put the role of civil soci­ety struc­tures in address­ing OSCE socio-polit­ic­al issues, such as gender equal­ity, elim­in­a­tion of dis­crim­in­a­tion on the basis of race, eth­ni­city or reli­gion, civil rights to fair and free elec­tions and pro­tec­tion of minor­it­ies, as a top­ic of gen­er­al interest on the OSCE agenda in the con­text of the Ger­man OSCE chair­man­ship in 2016. In the OSCE’s early years, i.e. the 1990s and the early years of this cen­tury, non-gov­ern­ment­al organ­iz­a­tions, such as asso­ci­ations estab­lished to carry out domest­ic elec­tion obser­va­tion, could attend the annu­al con­fer­ences of the ODIHR and make their own con­tri­bu­tions to the debate among gov­ern­ment rep­res­ent­at­ives.

Pragmatism and Principled Positions

Prag­mat­ism appears to be indic­ated in deal­ing with Belarus. There are lim­its to this prag­mat­ism though, and when the gov­ern­ment employs its instru­ments of power against dis­sid­ents in an inhu­mane man­ner it deprives both sides of oppor­tun­it­ies for cooper­a­tion that would be in the interests of both – wheth­er that be in the area of grant­ing of visas free of charge or of civil soci­ety activ­ity on behalf of genu­ine human rights or social work (e.g. work with the dis­abled). The asso­ci­ation Human Rights in Belarus devoted enorm­ous effort toward estab­lish­ing a Centre for Trans­form­a­tion Stud­ies at the European Human­it­ies Uni­ver­sity (EHU), cur­rently in exile, and thereby open­ing a new field for cooper­a­tion with the European Uni­on that would have endur­ing socio-polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic res­ults and intro­duce thus a sem­in­al new dimen­sion. The pro­ject gen­er­ated broad-based interest – in the European Uni­on and among found­a­tions. As a res­ult of intern­al prob­lems with the appoint­ment of a new rect­or and also pos­sible fin­an­cial mis­con­duct on the part of the EHU admin­is­tra­tion, the pro­ject has been vir­tu­ally put on ice. If the reports of fin­an­cial and admin­is­trat­ive mis­con­duct should turn out to be cor­rect, this may have con­sequences for the EHU’s fund­ing from the EU, which cur­rently rep­res­ents the most import­ant part­ner in the con­text of the university’s inter­na­tion­al fin­an­cial sup­port. An audit is cur­rently being under­taken by the Nor­d­ic Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, which as an admin­is­trat­or of European funds inten­ded for the EHU is act­ing as the EU’s “agent”.

In August of 2015, Human Rights in Belarus held an eight-day sum­mer school with­in the frame­work of a pro­gramme for civil soci­ety cooper­a­tion with East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries and Rus­sia fun­ded by German’s Fed­er­al For­eign Office. The sum­mer school on the top­ic “The sig­ni­fic­ance of the social mar­ket eco­nomy for the trans­form­a­tion pro­cesses in Ukraine and Belarus” was atten­ded by stu­dents and young pro­fes­sion­als from Belarus, Ukraine and Ger­many. Over 170 applic­a­tions were sub­mit­ted for the 12 sum­mer-school places avail­able.

With its ossi­fied struc­tures of a state-con­trolled eco­nomy and polit­ic­al author­ity, Belarus is char­ac­ter­ized by immob­il­ity with respect to its intern­al situ­ation and stra­tegic depend­en­cies on Rus­sia with respect to its extern­al situ­ation that could one day con­sti­tute, or may already con­sti­tute exist­en­tial threats.

In order to coun­ter­act Belarus’ depend­ency on Rus­sia and the Euras­i­an Devel­op­ment Bank for fin­an­cing and cre­ate incent­ives for sub­stan­tial eco­nom­ic reforms, the European Uni­on and its mem­ber states should grant the coun­try scope for bor­row­ing.

Belarus is also char­ac­ter­ized by a pop­u­la­tion that – irre­spect­ive of the uncer­tainty it dis­plays vis-à-vis the concept and the real­ity of open soci­et­ies and plur­al­ist demo­crat­ic state struc­tures – demon­strates innov­a­tion as well as qual­ity and autonomy on an indi­vidu­al and entre­pren­eur­i­al basis, and does so with due regard for rigid envir­on­ment cre­ated by the author­it­ari­an state. The fact that they do so con­veys to those who vis­it the coun­try, or engage in dia­logue or busi­ness with Belarus­i­ans, a gleam of hope for a bet­ter future for the coun­try and its cit­izens in Europe.

The European Uni­on should encour­age the open­ing of Belarus­i­an soci­ety through intens­ive exchange and to that end should intro­duce – uni­lat­er­ally if neces­sary – the most extens­ive facil­it­a­tion of travel pos­sible.

Ber­lin, Decem­ber 2015

Dr. Hans-Georg Wieck

Stefanie Schif­fer – Chris­toph Beck­er
Deputy Chair

Stephan Maleri­us
Board Mem­ber