Just one week into 2011, the situation in Belarus continues to worsen. The severe crackdown following disputed elections in late December has resulted in hundreds of new political prisoners, gagged media, and regular police raids of various organizations and institutions. Democracy is no longer in the vocabulary, and by contrast even Russia enjoys greater respect for certain basic rights. Even the most cynical critics of dictator Alexander Lukashenko were taken aback by the brutality of the repression, especially following a period of relative opening. In order to carry out this bald-faced affirmation of the authoritarian nature of his government, President Alexander Lukashenko had to carry out a delicate balancing act, settling disputes locally and playing outside countries off each other in order to fund his grip on power. This week we interviewed the Belarus expert and author Andrew Wilson to discuss these issues and the developing situation in Minsk. Interview with Andrew Wilson, author of the forthcoming book for Yale University Press “Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe.” Q: Some 600 people were arrested in the post-election crackdown. What’s the current situation for political prisoners in Belarus? Andrew Wilson: In the aftermath of the crackdown, we’ve seen extraordinary pressure placed upon the local media, and news about what exactly happened on election night and the status of the detained is leaking out via social media. Although one of the jailed opposition candidates has been released, it looks like Lukashenko clearly intends to keep as many people in jail as possible to use as bargaining chips with the West. He has played this game before, and we shouldn’t get drawn in. Release of detainees should be a pre-condition for any talks with the US or the European Union – not a subject of such talks.
Q: How has the political opposition been affected by the election?AW: They are significantly weakened at this point – and none of the opposition candidates from the 2006 election (Kazulin, Milinkevich and Haidukevich), participated this time anyway. The opposition in Belarus has always been extremely disorganized and disunited to begin with, in part because of their own natural internal divisions, and also because Lukashenko’s preferred method of control has been the insertion of agents inside every major party. There’s two types of opposition in Belarus – the government controlled opposition, who directly or indirectly serve the interests of the president, and the real opposition, which acts more or less independently from the state. On election night, a number of rash and foolish statements by leading politicians provided a script for the crackdown – as well as provocative actions by apparent agents provocateurs , despite the vast majority of the crowd conducting itself peacefully and bravely.Since the election, Lukashenko has reorganized the government, which saw the hard-line siloviki and old-style Russophile bureaucrats gaining influence, such as the new Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich, while the reformist ‘technocrats’ lost ground.Q: When was it apparent that Lukashenko was going to turn away from his thaw with the West?AW: The key event was the meeting with Medvedev a week before the vote, when Russia made key concessions on oil tariffs and the customs union. Moscow’s policy toward Belarus had switched to carrots from the stick used earlier in the year, and apparently this offer to Lukashenko was more attractive than the one made by Poland and Germany during their last visit to Minsk, promising financial aid if free and fair elections were held.A core feature of Lukashenko’s ability to hold onto to power is whether he can fund a balance of payments deficit which currently amounts to 14% of GDP or about $7 billion a year. If this is the amount that he needs to run the country, the Russian deal it is a big contribution (according to some Belarusian estimates it could be worth $2 to $3 billion), if not the full amount.Q: In what sense is Lukashenko still able to play a game of ‘balance’ – including between Russia and the West?AW: Lukashenko has for years displayed a native cunning, and a talent for juggling a number of issues. But although he has recently attempted to balance between Europe and Russia, it’s not necessarily an equal balance. His aim is not to be equidistant between the two powers, but rather to use the West to extract concessions from Moscow – not the other way around. That game has been broadened in the past few years with the addition of China and Venezuela to provide alternative support and options.During a trip to China last October, Lukashenko said, “”China’s investment has never had any political strings attached; therefore we are more than willing to see China speed up its investment in Belarus on a larger scale.” In fact, Beijing has contributed the most to Belarus in terms of economic assistance and trade credits, totaling about $6 billion over several years. The talk with Venezuela has been mainly about importing oil, but there is still a big question mark as to whether this is even economically feasible.Lukashenko also has to juggle and balance many internal issues. He has to maintain something of a social contract with the people, whereby job security, and, increasingly, basic consumerism were provided in exchange for the lack of political freedoms. But there is also growing pressure from the elite on the president to privatize assets, although Lukashenko has always said that there would be no large-scale privatizations on the scale of Russia in the 1990s.The third balancing act relates to the level of political repression: this latest crackdown was more harsh and immediate than most people expected, and it may indicate political weakness or a struggle around the president. The modest growth in civil liberties and opening of the past few years was suddenly reversed.Q: What do you believe should be done in Europe and elsewhere to produce more positive policy outcomes in Belarus?AW: Before the elections, a strong case could be made that first isolation and then unclear conditionality hadn’t really worked: nor had the policy of mainly engaging with the opposition. But this election obviously makes any policy of engagement with the regime much more difficult. The EU is rightly considering re-imposing its visa ban, and even adding more names to that ban. An inevitable return to some level of sanctions is advisable, and the EU may be wise to follow the US example. Since 2004-2006, the U.S. has had economic sanctions, particularly on trading with specific companies. Targeting the economic interests of those particularly linked to the crackdown could be an effective policy, allowing for a twin track diplomacy by helping to address issues which matter to the common citizen. Hit the elite hard with visa restrictions, but liberalize access to and reduce or eliminate charges for travel visas for ordinary citizens – as Poland is already considering.Q: Do you perceive a strain on the relationship with Russia? Would the Russian government ever consider pressing Belarus for a change in leadership?AW: The relationship with the Kremlin had become extremely strained over the last two years because of Lukashenko’s foreign policy balancing game – in particular because Belarus refused to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This was very frustrating to the Russian leadership, as it allowed everybody else in the region to get off the hook (if even Lukashenko won’t recognize them, why should we….?). Belarus was also dragging its feet on the customs union, and there was a growing sense, especially during the recession, that the economic subsidy paid by Russia to prop up Lukashenko was not worth the investment. A third factor which has caused problems in the relationship is that a number of Russian companies close to the state have had their eyes on assets in Belarus; like the rest of the gas transit system, the oil refineries, the petrochemical and metallurgical plants, and auto manufacturers. The relationship has its ups and downs, but in previous elections Lukashenko always succeeded in gaining Russian support, sometimes even promising privatizations that never materialized. It remains to be seen whether Russia has extracted more solid promises this time.It’s actually quite difficult to envision any scenario in which Russia would push for a change in leadership in Belarus, as any successor could immediately make considerable headway with the West on the merit of simply not being Lukashenko.I think the thing to take away from these events is the recognition that the stakes are much higher for everyone involved, and that the status quo is no longer an option. In the months leading up to these elections, the mood music indicated the early stages of rapprochement with the West, so many people are genuinely shocked and surprised. Many hard choices are going to have to be made in the economy, such as the deeply unpopular recent increase in heating prices, so we are looking at a very bumpy ride in 2011.Photo credit: Alexander Lukashenko at a news conference on Monday, Dec. 20, 2010. The banner reads: BeLARus with the middle letters reading: Lukashenko Alexander Ryagorievich (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)