On the situ­ation in Belarus and recom­mend­a­tions for act­ive meas­ures to be taken by the European Uni­on and its Mem­ber States

I. Confrontation in Eastern Europe

The Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion has failed to recog­nise the resig­na­tion of Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Yanukovych, which was forced by the Maidan demon­stra­tions in Feb­ru­ary 2014 after he – under Rus­si­an pres­sure – had refused to sign the Asso­ci­ation Agree­ment with the European Uni­on on the eve of the Sum­mit of the East­ern Part­ner­ship in in Vil­ni­us (21st Novem­ber 2013), post­pon­ing it indef­in­itely. In response to the polit­ic­al tur­bu­lence in Ukraine, which led to Petro Poroshen­ko being elec­ted the new Pres­id­ent of the coun­try at early elec­tions on 25th May 2014, Moscow con­tra­vened inter­na­tion­al law by using mil­it­ary force to annex Crimea and, in Don-Bass, in East­ern Ukraine, Moscow has also estab­lished a sep­ar­at­ist move­ment, which, des­pite fierce res­ist­ance from Ukrain­i­an mil­it­ary forces, main­tains sep­ar­at­ist centres with Rus­si­an mil­it­ary sup­port, cre­at­ing arti­fi­cial Rus­si­an interests with­in Ukraine in order to give Moscow polit­ic­al influ­ence over the future devel­op­ment of the coun­try. Pres­id­ent Putin’s aim is the estab­lish­ment of an inde­pend­ent East­ern Ukraine entitled “Novorossiya”. The suc­cessor states to the Soviet Uni­on and sev­er­al cent­ral east­ern European states see the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion under Putin as a threat to their inde­pend­ence. The Kremlin’s Ukraine policy has, as a res­ult of its viol­ent approach to Ukraine and its annex­a­tion of Crimea, had a dan­ger­ous and dra­mat­ic impact on rela­tions with the European Uni­on and its Mem­ber States, as well as with the USA and, by exten­sion, with NATO. It is hard to over­es­tim­ate the extent of this dam­age. A large major­ity of the Gen­er­al Assembly of the United Nations con­demned Russia’s annex­a­tion of Crimea as being in breach of inter­na­tion­al law. The new East-West crisis rocks to the core the pos­i­tion and future of an – as yet – inde­pend­ent Belarus: Con­trary to Lukashenko’s expect­a­tions, the pro-Rus­si­an pro­pa­ganda from Moscow is also hav­ing an impact amongst the Belarus­i­an people. Lukashenko’s aim is, by pro­pos­ing Minsk as the place of nego­ti­ation for the tri­lat­er­al Con­tact Group Ukraine-Rus­sia-OSCE, as well as for the most recent meet­ing of the Cus­toms Uni­on, EU and Ukraine, to main­tain Belarus’ inde­pend­ence, whilst keep­ing its spe­cial rela­tion­ship with Rus­sia intact. Belarus has recog­nised the new polit­ic­al lead­er­ship of Ukraine without com­ing into dir­ect con­front­a­tion with Moscow. Its eco­nom­ic depend­ence on indir­ect Rus­si­an sub­ven­tions lim­its Belarus’ dip­lo­mat­ic free­dom when deal­ing with Moscow, and the strict oppres­sion of polit­ic­al oppos­i­tion and inde­pend­ent civil soci­ety organ­isa­tions in Belarus lim­its its options when deal­ing with the West, which insists on the release of all polit­ic­al pris­on­ers and on free elec­tions observed by both inter­na­tion­al and inde­pend­ent domest­ic elec­tion mon­it­ors. There has been no short­age of attempts to test the polit­ic­al and admin­is­trat­ive waters, such as the nego­ti­ations on relax­a­tion of the visa regime, which have, how­ever, been blocked by Minsk for a long time. The bru­tal sup­pres­sion of the demon­stra­tions and the pro­sec­u­tion of Pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates after the manip­u­lated Pres­id­en­tial elec­tions on 19th Decem­ber 2010 con­tin­ue to sour the atmo­sphere of rela­tions between Belarus and the West. New protests from the oppos­i­tion or even from the broad­er pop­u­la­tion against the Lukashen­ko regime could give Moscow a pre­text for dir­ect and force­ful inter­ven­tion. The eco­nom­ic per­spect­ives of the coun­try remain prob­lem­at­ic: The state-con­trolled Belarus­i­an eco­nom­ic mod­el per­sists in its refus­al to carry out the required mod­ern­isa­tion. The coun­try has a high trade defi­cit of 10%. This has led to cur­rency reserves shrink­ing over the last year by 2 bil­lion USD to around 6 bil­lion USD, which is the equi­val­ent of less than 1.5 months’ imports. The eco­nomy has a strong export focus, mak­ing it highly depend­ent on the eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments in export mar­kets, above all in Rus­sia, which has been stag­nant for a long time. Fol­low­ing the cur­rency crisis of 2011, wages have now returned to pre-crisis levels. Real wage increases of 15–20% per year are, how­ever, detached from any devel­op­ment in pro­ductiv­ity. At the same time, infla­tion is high at 18%, which leads to high interest rates, which in turn restrict invest­ment. Each uncon­trolled relax­a­tion of interest rates or dis­pro­por­tion­ate increase in wages, such as is often brought in before elec­tions, can lead dir­ectly to a spir­al of infla­tion and devalu­ation, just as happened in 2011. Lukashen­ko has traded the country’s entry into the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on, planned from 2015, against oil export tax con­ces­sions to the value of around 1.5 bil­lion USD and a loan of 2 bil­lion USD. Nev­er­the­less, Rus­si­an reform of its oil tax­a­tion could again jeop­ard­ise this tax rev­en­ue for Belarus. In total, Rus­si­an sup­port for the regime in Belarus in the form of low-cost energy sup­plies and loans runs to around 7.7 bil­lion USD per year, mak­ing up around 10% of the Gross Nation­al Product of Belarus. In spite of this heavy depend­ence on Rus­sia, Lukashen­ko shows great tac­tic­al acu­men in nego­ti­at­ing from a pos­i­tion of strength and man­aging to extract such immense sup­port from Rus­sia. Stra­tegic­ally speak­ing, how­ever, he is lead­ing the coun­try down an eco­nom­ic dead end because he has, for years now, been shy­ing away from the neces­sary mod­ern­isa­tion. If Rus­sia were to break off its sup­port, the Belarus­i­an eco­nom­ic model’s inab­il­ity to com­pete would cause it to implode with­in a mat­ter of weeks or a few months.

II. Policy recommendations for actions towards Belarus and its civil society

Assum­ing there is no dra­mat­ic deteri­or­a­tion in the secur­ity situ­ation in East­ern Europe as a res­ult of the mil­it­ary activ­it­ies in Ukraine, which are as yet con­fined to the region, the fol­low­ing pos­sible courses of action can be presen­ted for the approach to be taken by the European Uni­on and its Mem­ber States, as well for civil soci­ety organ­isa­tions with­in the EU:

1. The European Union and the Belarusian state given the current situation

In con­nec­tion with the Rus­sia-Ukraine crisis and Moscow’s expan­sion­ist strategy of dom­in­ance, Belarus is cur­rently pur­su­ing a policy of self-asser­tion, which makes it an import­ant factor with­in Europe’s secur­ity and extern­al rela­tions frame­work. Neither the European Uni­on nor the Mem­ber States want to ignore this aspect. Hav­ing a large num­ber of con­tacts, includ­ing those at state level, can be con­sidered essen­tial. Giv­en the exist­ing oblig­a­tion, bind­ing for the entire European region since the Par­is Charter of Novem­ber 1990, to base state order on unin­hib­ited human rights and not to degrade cit­izens to objects of arbit­rary state policy, sanc­tions against state des­pot­ism towards its cit­izens and manip­u­lated elec­tions are an essen­tial policy require­ment in deal­ings with the ille­git­im­ate Belarus­i­an state, as is the demand for the release of polit­ic­al pris­on­ers, who are forced to live behind bars by manip­u­la­tion of the judi­cial sys­tem. Agree­ments on the relax­a­tion of visa policy are also desir­able, as are – in some cir­cum­stances – uni­lat­er­ally estab­lished relax­a­tions in the area of visa reg­u­la­tion. The expan­sion of private eco­nom­ic freedoms and the estab­lish­ment of leg­al secur­ity for cit­izens and cor­por­a­tions are extremely desir­able com­mod­it­ies with­in the real social-eco­nom­ic situ­ation in Belarus. The EU and the Ger­man Gov­ern­ment must, how­ever, not lose sight of the region­al con­text when assess­ing decisions regard­ing sanc­tions against Belarus, in par­tic­u­lar in deal­ing with the states in the GUS region which cooper­ate with­in the frame­work of the East­ern Part­ner­ship. The cur­rent sanc­tions against Belarus are cor­rect and must be main­tained so long as the coun­try is hold­ing polit­ic­al pris­on­ers. In view of the rad­ic­ally deteri­or­ated human rights situ­ation in Azerbaijan – also an East­ern Part­ner­ship state – which is cur­rently exper­i­en­cing an unpre­ced­en­ted wave of repres­sion and destruc­tion of polit­ic­al and civil soci­ety oppos­i­tion, and where nearly 100 polit­ic­al pris­on­ers have already been sen­tenced, it is man­dat­ory for the inter­na­tion­al com­munity to make its stance clear. Cred­ible reports speak of polit­ic­al bribery being used to pre­vent Baku-crit­ic­al res­ol­u­tions being passed by the Par­lia­ment­ary Assembly of the Coun­cil of Europe. Without the European Insti­tu­tions express­ing cri­ti­cism by dis­tan­cing them­selves polit­ic­ally from Baku, the sanc­tions against Belarus are bound to appear arbit­rary and lack cred­ib­il­ity. The European Uni­on must not devel­op a repu­ta­tion of apply­ing double stand­ards to the states in the European Neigh­bour­hood. If the inter­na­tion­al sanc­tions against Belarus are to remain cred­ible, then the inter­na­tion­al com­munity must react to the wide­spread human rights viol­a­tions in a state such as Azerbaijan. The react­iv­a­tion of fin­an­cial sup­port mech­an­isms for Belarus by the inter­na­tion­al fin­ance insti­tu­tions – IMF, World Bank, European Devel­op­ment Bank should remain tied to the imple­ment­a­tion of sta­bil­isa­tion meas­ures with­in Belarus­i­an budget­ary and fin­an­cial policy, as well as meas­ures of lib­er­al­isa­tion with­in the eco­nom­ic-indus­tri­al sec­tor. Pres­id­en­tial elec­tions are planned in Belarus for 2015. At present, a large por­tion of the Belarus­i­an pop­u­la­tion sees Lukashen­ko as a “guar­an­tee” for Belarus­i­an inde­pend­ence from pos­sible polit­ic­al or mil­it­ary inter­ven­tion from Moscow – not­with­stand­ing the fact that the country’s eco­nom­ic per­spect­ives are not par­tic­u­larly prom­ising. Advant­ages could emerge for Belarus as a res­ult of eco­nom­ic and fin­an­cial sanc­tions which have been imposed between Rus­sia and the West. The oppos­i­tion in Belarus is aim­ing to agree on a con­sulta­tion pro­cess for determ­in­ing a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. Should this be suc­cess­ful, the ques­tion would remain wheth­er the can­did­ate would receive full sup­port from all sec­tions of the oppos­i­tion. For some time, it has been com­mon prac­tice in author­it­ari­an states in East­ern Europe – that is in the post-Soviet sphere – to elim­in­ate oppos­i­tion can­did­ates as early as the regis­tra­tion phase, so that the choice presen­ted to the pub­lic at elec­tions becomes noth­ing more than a pub­lic pro­cess of con­firm­ing the power of rul­ing class, and even the semb­lance of a free elec­tion is no longer main­tained.

2. Civil Society

Giv­en the lack of free­dom in cooper­at­ing with the author­it­ari­an sys­tem of power, the cent­ral focus of our interest must be on the sup­port of civil soci­ety, which is in a pos­i­tion to secure more and more eco­nom­ic free­dom as the state is no longer able to provide state funds even to meet those pub­lic needs which it itself has defined – wheth­er this be liv­ing wages and pen­sions, health­care or the qual­i­fied edu­ca­tion of young people. Sup­port­ing civil soci­ety in this way should also be made a pri­or­ity when the struc­tur­al reg­u­la­tions which the author­it­ari­an sys­tem has put in place are aimed at mak­ing such sup­port impossible. It is a mis­take when European act­ors refrain from sup­port­ing civil soci­ety ini­ti­at­ives just because these ini­ti­at­ives have no chance of form­al regis­tra­tion accord­ing to the arbit­rary rules of the Lukashen­ko gov­ern­ment. This provides a back-door for legit­im­ising the regime, which is in no way deserved. Cit­izens learn to take respons­ib­il­ity for their lives into their own hands – one of the most import­ant pre­requis­ites for a free soci­ety as we under­stand it and for people being able to act accord­ing to their free will. When polit­ic­al par­ti­cip­a­tion is freely denied, as is the case in Belarus, civil soci­ety must organ­ise itself in order to secure its live­li­hood using the means and meth­ods avail­able. One aspect of this, as well as pro­fes­sion­al qual­i­fic­a­tion and entre­pren­eur­i­al ini­ti­at­ive, which exist in many cases, above all in the IT sec­tor, is a crit­ic­al approach to the trans­form­a­tion pro­cesses which have taken place thus far.

  • Trans­form­a­tion stud­ies

At the EHU (European Human­it­ies Uni­ver­sity), which cur­rently oper­ates in exile in Vil­ni­us, the concept of a “Centre for Trans­form­a­tion Stud­ies” has been developed in cooper­a­tion with “Human Rights in Belarus” and with the help of fund­ing from the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States. The Centre com­bines the neces­sary reforms in the area of state insti­tu­tions with those in the eco­nom­ic and social order, and ini­ti­ates and integ­rates the devel­op­ment of cap­able, com­pet­it­ive small and medi­um-sized enter­prises which make use of the dual appren­tice­ship mod­el for aca­dem­ic and prac­tic­al careers. The trans­form­a­tion stud­ies should provide cross-bor­der exper­i­ence for the devel­op­ment of self-sup­port­ing nation­al eco­nom­ies and social struc­tures, which can then lay the found­a­tions for the estab­lish­ment of plur­al­ist­ic polit­ic­al orders and inde­pend­ent courts – this is as a res­ult of recog­nising the need for such exper­i­ence and not as a favour to for­eign crit­ics or fin­an­cial spon­sors.

  • For­eign edu­ca­tion

Of no less import­ance is, as was already emphas­ised in the pre­vi­ous strategy paper for 2013, the exten­sion of the edu­ca­tion oppor­tun­it­ies in all fields which are offered by EU Mem­ber States to young people from Belarus. Their exper­i­ence gained abroad gives them the chance to secure their live­li­hoods and to achieve a cer­tain level of polit­ic­al free­dom. Of all the vari­ous part­ners of Belarus­i­an civil soci­ety, the Ger­man polit­ic­al found­a­tions and the polit­ic­al found­a­tions from oth­er coun­tries play a lead­ing role. Highly sig­ni­fic­ant is the pro­vi­sion of unbur­eau­crat­ic help for cit­izens’ groups, as is suc­cess­fully provided by the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States. Of no less import­ance is the pro­vi­sion of sup­port in crit­ic­al areas of soci­ety such as social work, employ­ment sup­port for young people and people of all ages who live with dis­ab­il­ity, as well as care for the eld­erly. These are areas in which state care in author­it­ari­an states and soci­et­ies is, for ideo­lo­gic­al reas­ons, par­tic­u­larly defi­cient. The polit­ic­al found­a­tions should also pro­mote the aware­ness of cli­mate-related and envir­on­ment­al aspects of mod­ern industry and con­sumer soci­et­ies, and they should pay par­tic­u­larly atten­tion to these issues in their work for and with Belarus­i­an civil soci­ety. In con­clu­sion, it can be said: Our state and civil soci­ety struc­tures should make it their busi­ness to provide sup­port to the pro­cesses of self-heal­ing in Belarus­i­an civil soci­ety, which was des­troyed by the social­ist sys­tem, and they should thereby also build up poten­tial for a crit­ic­al approach to the author­it­ari­an regime – a task with both short and long-term impact. This concept of self-heal­ing should enrich the work of the “Civil Soci­ety For­um” of the East­ern Part­ner­ship and also provide it the basis for its exist­ence – inde­pend­ent of wheth­er pro­gress can be made in the oth­er mul­ti­lat­er­al for­ums of the East­ern Part­ner­ship or not. This concept can only be “pushed through” if it is made a top­ic of dis­cus­sion at expert con­fer­ences and polit­ic­al for­ums. Ber­lin, Novem­ber 2014 THE BOARD Human Rights in Belarus

Hans-Georg Wieck Stefanie Schif­fer Chris­toph Beck­er Stephan Maleri­us