What’s Going On in Belarus?

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Victory Square, Minsk, Belarus © KavalenkavaVolha

Human rights violations go largely unnoticed in “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

Amid protests and police violence in Belarus, with the biggest rally taking place on March 25 in Minsk and the country’s larger cities against the so-called “social parasites” law, the country has once again appeared on the global media radar. A nation of 9 million has a tendency of popping up on the news only during unstable periods; more often, human rights violations go unnoticed in what has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

The country’s unchanging president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been maneuvering between the European Union, the US and Russia for over two decades. Lukashenko, known for his Soviet-style policies like a stand against privatization and a resurrection of collective farms, has been especially careful about maintaining close connections with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin; he co-founded Eurasian Economic Union in exchange for closer ties and cheaper gas supplies from Russia.

But the war in eastern Ukraine has made significant adjustments in the direction Belarus was taking. Recently, Lukashenko has been pushing for closer ties with the EU and promotion of national culture, which has been largely repressed in the previous years.

Bad and Worse

Although Lukashenko has been one of Putin’s closest allies over the past few decades, the relations between the countries worsened in recent years. Due to the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, the Belarusian president has been trying to keep both good relations with Kremlin and to improve his image in the West by decreasing the pressure on political opposition. This led to another challenge for Lukashenko — potential aggression from Russia, which currently takes form of media attacks and trade disputes.

“In the second half of 2016, Belarus has become a target of a conspicuous Russian disinformation campaign,” Andrei Yeliseyeu, research fellow at the Eurasian States in Transition, a Warsaw-based think tank, tells me in an interview. “Big media outlets, including state channels, claimed that the country is ‘going down the Ukrainian path’ and talked about the rise of nationalism and anti-Russian mood.” The media attacks seemed like a logical follow-up of other disputes that intensified between the countries.

“In early 2016, Minsk unilaterally decided to pay the price for Russian natural gas less than the bilateral contract specified,” Yeliseyeu adds. “Kremlin instead demanded to pay the debt on its gas bill, which by 2017 exceeded $500 million.” In June 2016, Russia cut oil supplies to Belarus, which brought economic losses to Minsk. Russia also started restricting imports on Belarusian dairy products, claiming they did not meet quality standards.

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A new development came in February 2017, when Russia introduced a border regime with Belarus. Belarusians, who can enter Russia with national IDs, now have to get a special permit from a Russian border committee to remain within 30 kilometers from the border between the two countries. Yeliseyeu believes it to be a reaction to the visa-free regime that allows nationals of 80 countries to enter Belarus without visas for five days through Minsk airport.

The worsening relations can be a sign of Lukashenko’s fear of Russia’s possible aggression. According to a 2015 survey conducted shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent involvement in eastern Ukraine, around 47% of Belarusians said they would adapt to Russian rule if the country was to occupy Belarus, and 17% would welcome the new leaders. The numbers, although subjunctive, raise worries among Belarusian authorities. As a result, Lukashenko has become more supportive of Belarusian culture and language, giving his first public speech in Belarusian in 2014, something he has not done in years. He emphasized the importance of national identity that he tried to suppress in the previous years by promoting Russian language and culture. This has led to a sharp decline of Belarusian speakers in the country since independence.

As a result of these tensions, Lukashenko ignored Russia-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union summits in 2016. After meeting Putin in 2017, he agreed to pay the gas debt while getting a small gas discount and new Russian loans, a move that was perceived a failure for Belarusian foreign policy. The countries have other unresolved issues like the construction of Russian military base that the Kremlin wants to have in Belarus.

Enemy Media

Hoping to improve the relations with the EU, Lukashenko released political prisoners in 2015, but there was no progress with overall situation on human rights or electoral standards. During his speech in parliament in 2016, the president made it clear that he wanted more EU investment in the country. The EU also sought to improve relations with Belarus amid tensions in the region, seeing Lukashenko as a source of country’s stability. As a result, the EU intensified its cooperation with Belarusian authorities at the expense of previous cooperation with independent NGOs. Now, the EU has to agree with Belarusian authorities on local candidates participating in European projects, which allows the officials to limit the movement of many activists.

Another challenge is the one faced by independent media in Belarus. The Ministry of Information can issue official warning letters to outlets in case they violate media-related laws. If an organization receives two or more warnings per year, the court can shut it down. In practice, the law is mostly used to threaten independent media and censor freedom of speech. In 2011, two of the country’s largest newspapers, Nasha Niva (Our Field) and Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) faced the threat of closure, having received more than two warnings. Because of social pressure, the court did not shut down the publications, but they were forced to pay large administrative fees. The ministry also managed to shut down a number of regional media outlets that did not comply with the state rules.

Currently, Belarusians are exposed to a majority of Russian channels and a smaller amount of state-owned Belarusian media that depend on the government. The country’s only Belarusian-speaking channel, Belsat, is funded by the Polish government, but it faced financial struggles last year when the authorities decided to cut the channel’s financing from approximately $4 million to $1.2 million. “At the moment, we are not sure about the funds, but we do have the word of polish prime minister that their government will not stop supporting the channel,” Alaksiej Minchonak, Belsat’s general producer in Belarus, says in an interview. “From 2017, we are completely funded by Telewizja Polska.”

Besides unstable financing, Belsat faces pressure from the Belarusian government for its independent position. During mass protests in the spring of 2017, police searched the channel’s office and took away company computers. Formally, the search took place because of “illegal usage of a trademark”; a satellite company, Belsat Plus, sued the channel for using its brand.

“It’s hard to tell whether the satellite company is a real one, but it does have an office, and there is an ongoing conflict about the brand name,” says Stanislau Ivashkevich, a journalist at Belsat, in a Skype interview. According to Ivashkevich, the reporters currently work from home because there are no computers at the office. “We don’t get new computers because there is a fear they will be taken away too,” he says.

Journalists have also been charged a fine for live-streaming protests without media accreditation. As Ivashkevich explains, it is nearly impossible to get accredited. Since Belsat is registered in the EU, reporters usually work under the accreditation of Telewizja Polska, partly because local officials refuse to speak with Belsat employees. “Authorities do not want to give us comments because they will get fired or receive much criticism from top officials,” Ivashkevich adds.

Belsat is among few independent media still operating in Belarus, but the situation is getting more challenging for independent journalists. The tendency is especially threatening due to decreasing foreign funds for local channels; for example, USAID’s Belarus fundcould be cut to zero in 2018 from $7.9 million in 2017, according to Donald Trump’s initiative.

Social Parasites

The financial cuts took place in the wake of mass protests shaking the country during 2017. The cause is the notorious decree on social parasites” passed by Belarusian parliament in 2015. According to the law, citizens, who work less than six months per year have to pay a fine of €180 for being unemployed. The unemployment laws in Belarus are such that people do not receive substantial government support and many prefer not to report to the agencies if they lose a job. Due to economic decline the country has been experiencing for three consecutive years, the sum creates another strain for already impoverished citizens.

Although the law has been in place for two years, the major protests began in February of 2017, when the unemployed faced the deadline to pay the tax. In Belarus, nearly half a million people have to pay the fine, including those who have undergone medical treatment, individuals living on the income of their relatives and those in seasonal jobs.

The protests started in February and continued for two months, with constant repression from the government. Besides anti-protest campaigns on state media, the authorities also started high-profile criminal cases against activists and journalists, who were detained for participating in unauthorized events and detained for up to 15 days. On March 25 alone, also called Freedom Day, the authorities arrested nearly 700 people.

The rallies quickly turned political, with people voicing their criticism of Lukashenko and his policies. The government claimed that the mass gatherings were organized by nationalist groups, and that foreign parties were involved, specifically that a car with weapons was heading from Ukraine to Belarus. As a result, nearly 30 people were arrested on charges of conspiracy and preparation of mass riots. The incident was called the “case of patriots” since most detainees were well-known human rights and political activists who oppose Lukashenko.

“How can the government respond to the protests? Only by giving fines and arresting people,” says Piotr Markiełaŭ, an activist and a member of civil-political organization Dzeya (Action). The initiative aims to promote freedom and national identity in the country through educational events. “One of our co-founders, Aleś Łahviniec, was arrested before 25 of March and beaten up, but during court hearings police claimed that he harmed himself when riding a police car,” Markiełaŭ continues. He, too, was arrested for live-streaming police detaining anarchists and charged with participating in a demonstration, wearing a mask and resisting police. “There are videos which show that I didn’t wear a mask, and that I did not resist,” Markiełaŭ explains. “But the court did not even consider the evidence.”

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According to the activist, the number of people who oppose the regime is growing, mostly thanks to social media, but the recent rallies failed to shake the country dramatically. “This isn’t the first protest wave with no consequences, and people are already used to that,” Markiełaŭ says. “Fifteen people from the ‘case of patriots’ are still in prison, and they are facing criminal charges and long sentences.”

While the interest of foreign media has slowly faded, there is little international pressure on the authorities to release political prisoners.

Another challenge, related to Lukashenko’s long rule, is the impact he has had on the younger generation, who does not see an alternative for its country. “It’s hard to work with youth in Belarus because you cannot use classic tools of going to universities or participate in a festival,” Markiełaŭ says. “Youth organizations are forced to join Belarusian Republican Union of Youth, state’s main ideological tool to manipulate youngsters.”

At the present moment, the country lacks strong political opposition, which is the result of ongoing repressions and lack of fair elections. Lukashenko has removed presidential-term limits from the Belarusian Constitution and has served as president for five consecutive terms. This makes him the longest serving leader in Europe, with nearly 23 years in office. He had succeeded in raising an entire generation of Belarusians, who have grown up with no alternative, and nearly crushing all political opposition in the country. While local activists attempt to use digital tools and external support to pressure the president for more democratic changes, his rule remains stable, the overall public passive.

To change the entrenched political regime it would take more independent media, better digital connections and networks of activists, and actual pressure from democratic neighbors using economic factors and political influence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: KavalenkavaVolha

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