1. The situation in Belarus

Moscow – Minsk tensions

To shore up its pre­cari­ous stra­tegic situ­ation, the author­it­ari­an Lukashen­ko regime is pur­su­ing a policy of con­trolled cooper­a­tion with the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion. Under Vladi­mir Putin, the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion seeks to estab­lish a Moscow-steered Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on; Belarus plays an import­ant role in this. The devel­op­ment of this eco­nom­ic uni­on has been over­shad­owed by Moscow’s aggress­ive for­eign and mil­it­ary policy, which is accom­pan­ied by inter­ven­tion­ist nation­al­ist pro­pa­ganda tar­get­ing domest­ic and inter­na­tion­al audi­ences. This has giv­en rise to fears of war and of Rus­si­an polit­ic­al infilt­ra­tion in the post-Soviet coun­tries that share a bor­der with Rus­sia, such as Ukraine, the coun­try primar­ily effected by this aggress­ive policy, but also the Balt­ic states and Belarus. Rus­si­an radio and tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming with close ties to the state car­ries the Rus­si­an point of view into the homes of the peoples in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, where many seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tions reg­u­larly listen to/​view such pro­gram­ming. The Belarus­i­an regime is not alone in see­ing this as a threat to the country’s inde­pend­ence, and it has the back­ing of parts of the Belarus­i­an pop­u­la­tion in its wrangling over com­prom­ises with Moscow on eco­nom­ic and fin­an­cial issues, par­tic­u­larly as Lukashen­ko has recently been mak­ing a point of openly pro­mot­ing the Belarus­i­an lan­guage as a sym­bol of Belarus­i­an inde­pend­ence. Lukashenko’s refus­al to give up the state eco­nomy, dic­tated by his desire to remain in power, means that any attempt on his part to dis­en­tangle the coun­try from its eco­nom­ic and fin­an­cial depend­ence on Moscow is pre­destined to fail. By provid­ing logist­ic­al sup­port for Europe’s attempts to medi­ate in the Rus­si­an-Ukrain­i­an con­flict, the “Minsk Pro­cess”, Lukashen­ko boos­ted his inter­na­tion­al status and repu­ta­tion– not­with­stand­ing per­sist­ent cri­ti­cism of the con­tin­ued human rights abuses in Belarus from the European Uni­on, the Coun­cil of Europe and the USA.

Twenty years of the Lukashenko Constitution in Belarus

In Novem­ber 2016, the Lukashen­ko regime cel­eb­rated the twen­ti­eth anniversary of an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al revi­sion of the con­sti­tu­tion, the adop­tion of which was also forced through in an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al man­ner. In the interests of stay­ing power, the regime is adam­ant about retain­ing the state eco­nomy in the indus­tri­al sec­tor, col­lect­ive agri­cul­ture and state con­trol of trade and com­merce. In a bid to pre­vent the emer­gence of a self-organ­ising socially and eco­nom­ic­ally rel­ev­ant force, the regime has imposed strict lim­its on the economy’s rap­idly devel­op­ing inform­al sec­tor, which makes a sig­ni­fic­ant con­tri­bu­tion towards main­tain­ing an adequate stand­ard of liv­ing for Belarus­i­an fam­il­ies.

Continuing human rights abuses

At the rhet­or­ic­al level, the regime is now open­ing itself to cooper­a­tion with the European Uni­on. The reas­ons for this turn­around are stra­tegic in nature: the regime hopes to devel­op options in its efforts to safe­guard its inde­pend­ence in the face of Rus­si­an pres­sure and, if pos­sible, to carve out some lat­it­ude in the area of eco­nom­ic policy that would enable it to carry out urgently neces­sary mod­ern­isa­tion in the Belarus­i­an indus­tri­al sec­tor and expand into new sales mar­kets. Con­tacts with offi­cials with­in and out­side of the East­ern Part­ner­ship are on the rise. There is no sign, though, of sub­stan­tial reforms aimed at lib­er­al­ising the country’s polit­ic­al cul­ture or at safe­guard­ing the inde­pend­ent human rights of the indi­vidu­al.

The European Uni­on sus­pen­ded nearly all of its sanc­tions against Belarus in Feb­ru­ary 2016, fol­low­ing the release (in August of 2015) of the last oppos­i­tion fig­ures who were still behind bars. The only sanc­tions that remain are those imposed after the forced dis­ap­pear­ance of oppos­i­tion lead­ers in 1999/​2000 and those imposed in 1997, which include the sus­pen­sion of guest-status for Belarus at the Coun­cil of Europe and the freez­ing of rat­i­fic­a­tion of the cooper­a­tion agree­ment between the EU and Belarus in response to the uncon­sti­tu­tion­al con­sti­tu­tion­al coup of 26 Novem­ber 1996.

With trep­id­a­tion and dis­ap­point­ment, west­ern coun­tries have had to watch the num­bers of death sen­tences and exe­cu­tions rise since sanc­tions were lif­ted. On a more mundane level as well, the regime has been waging a mer­ci­less war on protest of any kind – wheth­er in the form of polit­ic­al protest, or eco­nom­ic­ally or socially motiv­ated action by cit­izens or busi­ness people – with admin­is­trat­ive pen­al­ties (mon­et­ary fines).

It must be noted that the sus­pen­sion of sanc­tions has not res­ul­ted in any eas­ing of the regime’s vari­ous wars – on report­ing by the inde­pend­ent media or on the assembly of cit­izens for the pur­pose of protest or on the pub­lic expres­sion of views – wars that are now cer­tainly motiv­ated by con­cerns about Moscow’s polit­ic­al and indir­ect attempts to inter­fere in the form­a­tion of polit­ic­al opin­ions on the part of the popu­lace in the coun­try, as well as by fears about aspir­a­tions.

It is appar­ent that the West­ern gov­ern­ments are cul­tiv­at­ing more intens­ive rela­tions on and with Belarus – with the aim of bol­ster­ing the coun­try in its deal­ings with Moscow, rather than out of some mis­guided expect­a­tion that the regime itself might evince the slight­est indic­a­tion of a major change in domest­ic policy.

The elec­tions to the 110-seat Nation­al Assembly on 11 Septem­ber 2016 were con­duc­ted as an integ­ral ele­ment of “form­al­ised polit­ic­al con­di­tions of the author­it­ari­an pres­id­en­tial sys­tem”, without com­ing even close to meet­ing the European stand­ards of trans­par­ency for vote count­ing and without allow­ing any chal­lenge to the dom­in­ance of state offices in the elec­tion com­mit­tees. The president’s com­plete lack of polit­ic­al instincts for or even under­stand­ing of the polit­ic­al cul­ture of a demo­crat­ic­ally struc­tured state mani­fes­ted itself in the rigged elect­or­al vic­tor­ies of two inde­pend­ent can­did­ates, who now serve along­side 108 of the president’s faith­ful sup­port­ers in the Nation­al Assembly and will cer­tainly come under pres­sure soon.

Those polit­ic­al parties whose plat­forms are rooted in European val­ues eke out a lam­ent­able exist­ence on the mar­gins of the state man­aged soci­ety.

The same applies for the inform­a­tion sec­tor: only by tak­ing notice of Inter­net pub­lic­a­tions can Belarus­i­ans devel­op a rel­at­ively com­pre­hens­ive pic­ture of what is hap­pen­ing in their own coun­try or on the inter­na­tion­al stage. Tellingly, both the Levada Cen­ter and the IISEPS, two insti­tutes known for dec­ades for their inde­pend­ent research on pub­lic opin­ion, had to cease their activ­it­ies in both Belarus and Rus­sia– an irre­place­able loss for the form­a­tion of pub­lic opin­ion in the coun­tries and on the inter­na­tion­al stage. In the absence of inform­a­tion about the dif­fer­en­ti­ated pro­cesses shap­ing the opin­ions of people in the author­it­ari­an sys­tems, it will grow ever more dif­fi­cult for West­ern coun­tries to gain a pic­ture of the situ­ation in those coun­tries that reflects real­ity and to gain a sense of the mood of the pop­u­la­tions in ques­tion. For­eign journ­al­ists have already come under pres­sure in Moscow and in Minsk due to charges of a neg­at­ive bias against Moscow and Minsk in report­ing in Ger­many.

Thriving cities” and citizens in need

Des­pite the country’s eco­nom­ic and fin­an­cial prob­lems, Minsk and oth­er cit­ies present a pic­ture of what look, from the out­side, like afflu­ent soci­et­ies. The pic­ture is mis­lead­ing. The state is able to carry through on the bene­fits it has prom­ised – with respect to hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, occu­pa­tion, health and secur­ity in old age – on paper only, no longer in real­ity. Plug­ging the gaps in the fin­ances of fam­ily house­holds requires great effort on the part of cit­izens, in the way of autonom­ous eco­nom­ic activ­ity or by tak­ing employ­ment abroad.

The tax bur­dens on non-state enter­prises have ris­en again – a devel­op­ment that runs dia­met­ric­ally counter to the state’s announced inten­tion to pro­mote the private sec­tor, and one that will fur­ther dam­age the invest­ment cli­mate.

In the tra­di­tion of the Soviet and Rus­si­an capa­city to endure suf­fer­ing, the gen­er­al pub­lic is tol­er­at­ing the restric­tions on their rights and eco­nom­ic and civil liber­ties. When in doubt, the Belarus­i­ans pin their hopes on help from Rus­sia: depend­ency on Rus­sia is a part of lived real­ity in Belarus, and one that is casts doubt on the pre­ser­va­tion of Belarus­i­an inde­pend­ence giv­en the Krem­lin party’s new neo-nation­al­ist drive for dom­in­a­tion. His­tor­ic­al ties to lib­er­al and open soci­et­ies are now of no more than mar­gin­al rel­ev­ance in the minds of the country’s cit­izens. Defamed by the pro­pa­ganda dis­sem­in­ated by the state-run media, the European mod­el does not strike many as an obvi­ous altern­at­ive.

Belarus’ new mil­it­ary doc­trine, issued on 20 July 2016, reflects the stra­tegic ambi­val­ence of the situ­ation in which the Lukashen­ko regime now finds itself. The doc­trine emphas­ises the defens­ive nature of the country’s armed forces and affirms a com­mit­ment to the peace­ful res­ol­u­tion of con­flicts in a man­ner ana­log­ous to the West­ern secur­ity doc­trines. Tellingly, Belarus con­duc­ted exer­cises in the defence against hybrid attacks in 2016 – a reflec­tion of cur­rent Rus­si­an mil­it­ary doc­trine and prac­tice.

The gov­ern­ment and the pub­lic are aware of Rus­si­an media’s vari­ous opin­ion-shap­ing influ­ences; which may played a role in the incid­ent involving the Rus­si­an flag car­ried by an (unof­fi­cial) mem­ber of the Belarus­i­an team at the Para­lympics in Rio de Janeiro, which, some believe, was inten­ded as a polit­ic­al pro­voca­tion – to dam­age Belarus.

2. Recommendations

In view of the threat to Belarus and to the East European region posed by Rus­si­an neo-nation­al­ism and the expan­sion­ist power polit­ics asso­ci­ated with it, and of the only halt­ing pro­gress of reform pro­cesses in the East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries, the fol­low­ing recom­mend­a­tions for the policy of the EU and its mem­bers seem appro­pri­ate:

  1. Pri­or­ity should be giv­en to sup­port­ing the imple­ment­a­tion of the asso­ci­ation agree­ments con­cluded under the East­ern Part­ner­ship (Ukraine, Geor­gia, Mol­dova).
    Strength­en­ing cooper­a­tion under the Civil Soci­ety For­um East­ern Part­ner­ship is of no little sig­ni­fic­ance in this regard – these efforts can res­ult in the form­a­tion of issue-ori­ented net­works based on per­son­al con­tacts that can be highly influ­en­tial over the long term for the devel­op­ment of the polit­ic­al cli­mate in the East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries. In brief: the dis­cus­sion about the society’s shared val­ues will serve as not only as a found­a­tion for the demo­crat­ic order in these coun­tries, but also as a found­a­tion for socio-eco­nom­ic con­di­tions with­in the eco­nomy that can ini­ti­ate and foster a mar­ket eco­nomy that is well anchored in soci­ety.
  2. Strength­en­ing the extern­al pro­gram­ming of West­ern inform­a­tion sys­tems in the region’s lan­guages – this is needed to counter the Rus­si­an-man­aged pro­pa­ganda from Moscow inten­ded to influ­ence opin­ions.
  3. Strength­en­ing mul­ti­lat­er­al cul­tur­al and youth exchanges.
  4. Pro­mo­tion of ini­tial and con­tinu­ing edu­ca­tion and train­ing of gen­er­a­tions cur­rently in or enter­ing train­ing and of young per­sons at the start of their pro­fes­sion­al careers.
  5. Cre­ation of “for­ums for the future” for and in these coun­tries. Pos­sible top­ics: intern­al and extern­al secur­ity; migra­tion and integ­ra­tion, dual voca­tion­al edu­ca­tion and train­ing, social mar­ket eco­nomy, devel­op­ment and reform in the European insti­tu­tions).
  6. Advising and form­a­tion of an opin­ion con­cern­ing the EHU.
    In Novem­ber, experts under­took a crit­ic­al review of pro­gress made since Belarus­i­an insti­tu­tions of high­er edu­ca­tion were admit­ted, on a tri­al basis, to the Bologna Pro­cess in 2015: the review clearly showed that the gov­ern­ment has been unwill­ing – due to the fear of los­ing con­trol of the sphere of aca­dem­ic teach­ing and research – to make any con­ces­sions at all in con­nec­tion with real­ising the frame­work con­di­tions for the Bologna Pro­cess. The tri­al peri­od will expire in 2018. Free­dom of aca­dem­ic teach­ing and research is a pre­requis­ite for admis­sion to the Bologna Pro­cess. No such free­dom exists in Belarus at this time.
    There are there­fore mul­tiple grounds for desir­ing the EHU – the exiled inde­pend­ent European Human­it­ies Uni­ver­sity (Vil­ni­us) – to serve as a mod­el for the respect for aca­dem­ic free­dom in its depart­ments and insti­tutes. How­ever more than a few experts have expressed ser­i­ous doubts as to wheth­er it can do so. The European Uni­on, the most import­ant source of EHU fund­ing, must thor­oughly invest­ig­ate these uncer­tain­ties. Fin­an­cial audit­ing, while in itself essen­tial, is not suf­fi­cient to ensure the pri­or­it­isa­tion of and respect for European val­ues in research and teach­ing activ­it­ies or in the university’s admin­is­tra­tion.

Ber­lin, Novem­ber 2016

Dr. Hans-Georg Wieck, Former Ambas­sad­or, Chair

Stefanie Schif­fer, Deputy Chair

Chris­toph Beck­er, Treas­urer

Stephan Maleri­us, Advis­ory Mem­ber