President Lukashenko has been releasing political prisoners, notably the former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin. He also surprised public opinion by firing one of his top aides, Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman, believed to be one of the dictator's strongmen. He has even started allowing independent media to be sold at newspaper kiosks. So what's going on in Belarus? Is the so-called last dictator of Europe really turning into a democrat?
On the media front, things have certainly been changing. At the end of 2008 two independent Belarusian newspapers, Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva, were allowed back into the state subscription and distribution system. Svetlana Kalinkina, production editor of Narodnaya Volya, said that the paper's circulation soon increased from 9,000 to 19,000 copies. But it's still difficult to find in the newspaper kiosks: it sells out immediately and the state distribution services Soyuzpechat refuse to increase the print run. The circulation of Nasha Niva also increased - from 2,000 to 6,000 copies. It too has been refused permission to increase the number of copies printed.
For the independent press, a return to the state distribution system will not solve their problems. Economic conditions are less favourable for them than for state newspapers: printing and distribution costs are higher, no advertising is allowed and the journalists are obstructed in their work. Andrei Skurko, editor of Nasha Niva, does not consider the recent concession by the authorities means a return of free speech or liberation of the media. He cites several newspapers, which have only limited distribution and are still outside the state system.
The newspaper Tovarishch (Comrade) is printed in Smolensk (Western Russia). It too is still outside the system and the editor, Sergei Voznyak, maintains that the draconian requirements imposed on Narodnaya Volya make any attempt to get back in completely pointless. There will never be an even playing field with the state media. Subscribers will continue to have their names reported by the KGB to their employers, so that ‘appropriate measures' can be taken.
Journalists working for independent or foreign media still have problems with accreditation. Applications can take up to two months to be processed and are often refused on the flimsiest of grounds. The few journalists who are actually accredited have to be very careful about what they write. Andrzej Poczobut, Gazeta Wyborcza correspondent in Belarus, lost his accreditation because some of his articles were considered to be "tendentious and insulting to the head of state".
Belsat is a private satellite television channel financed by the Polish government. It was refused accreditation on the grounds of "incorrect documentation", so Belarusian journalists are not allowed to work with it. Journalist Tatyana Bublikova was told that complaints had been lodged against her for having failed to warn an interviewee that a Belsat interview would appear in the Polish media. "It's an interesting situation: the complaints from the outraged citizens were received by the prosecutor's office on 28 January, the reply from the Foreign Ministry was received on 19 January and the printouts from the Belsat website were at the prosecutor's office on 2 December. So they conducted the inspection beforehand, and only later received complaints from citizens," says Bublikova.
Lawyer Andrei Bastunets is a member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. He thinks the media situation will develop slowly, inconsistently and unevenly in 2009 along the lines of "one step forward, two steps back". "The financial crisis, the dialogue with Europe and the internal clash of interests and ideas in the government about the development of the country may catapult the situation from one extreme to another."
Internet and the new media law
In early February a new media law came into effect. When it was being debated in parliament, there were calls from influential press organisations, human rights and public bodies and Western politicians to prevent its passage and attempts to persuade the president not to sign it.
But to no avail. Bastunets says the law will create further headaches for media owners and publishers. "Firstly, there is no provision for the internet as part of the media and, therefore, regulated by the law. Secondly, the law stipulates the re-registration of the media. Thirdly, everything depends not so much on the new law, as how it is applied in practice. And experience tells us that they always interpret the law to their own advantage, so we cannot expect anything good to come from it."
His fears were justified. The fate of the newspaper Pressbol was a sign of things to come. It was sued for a comment posted on the site forum. The plaintiffs claim that posting and using information on the defendant's site constitutes distribution of information, i.e. it comes under the law "On the press and other media". The Minsk district court did not uphold the plaintiffs' demands, but appealed to the city court. The city court ordered a review of the case.
The editor of Pressbol, Vladimir Berezhkov, says the situation is absurd. "Current legislation does not hold the site owner liable for not immediately removing an anonymous visitor's comment! The law "On print..." says nothing about domains, and an internet forum is like the Wailing Wall -it's not part of the media," says Berezhkov.
Independent legal experts believe that this case may have unfortunate consequences and become a dangerous precedent. So the "sword of Damocles" still hangs over the media. It has simply been given a shiny wrapper so as not to get on people's nerves.
It should be noted here that Lukashenko has begun to select new people for the ideological front. In January he appointed 37-year-old Natalya Petkevich as first deputy head of the Presidential Administration. The newcomer's remit has been significantly widened: she has been given control of all ideological work in Belarus and asked to pay special attention to the media. Specialists think the President did this because he is displeased with the way the ideological battle has been going. He is clearly selecting new people because he is in urgent need of a bold, creative team who are not blinkered by Soviet stereotypes. There has been a sharp drop in the average age of the Presidential Administration recently for this reason.
On 23 April the President addressed the Belarusian people and the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus. He dotted all the "i"s as far as hopes for a better future are concerned.
"When I announced liberalisation, many understood this was a sign that anything goes. We are talking about economic liberalisation and not hindering the work of those who want to work. Some charlatans, outcasts and thugs understood it to mean they could do whatever they want. I'll walk down the street and turn cars upside down if I feel like it. The media understood it as a return to the status quo of the mid-1990s: the gutter press - and nothing else. I was even reproached by visiting diplomats for having ‘promised liberalisation'. I had to tell them to read what had been said not just by me, but by the government. It's not a free for all, nor is it the road to chaos, riots and economic destabilisation. We were talking about liberalising the economic life of the country. There is more than enough political liberalisation..."
Has Europe swalled the bait?
"Some people think", the President went on, "that by drawing Belarus into certain European processes and by liberalising these processes, conditions will gradually be created for a change in the existing system, in fact directly for the overthrow of Lukashenko. There will be no creeping revolution in Belarus! You've seen this for yourself. You remember the basinful we gave the various colour revolutions here. They couldn't even utter a squeak. Not because we're dictators and barbarians, but because our policies are dictated by the interests of our people".
Some of ‘his' people are indeed quite happy with "Batka" (Father), as he is called. Over the long years of his presidency they have got used to his eccentricity and love of shocking people (many people even like him for this).
Others understand that a leopard can't change its spots. Lukashenko cannot and does not want to change his attitude to anything - business, partners, neighbours, ideology, and certainly not the media. He is playing a cat and mouse game with public opinion and the international community.
There is no political will behind these actions. It's a game. He is not so much playing at democracy as playing with the democrats.
"If anyone thinks I'll take the bait and run like a rabbit, they're wrong - we will behave with dignity," Lukashenko said in December 2008, when he heard that the Council of Europe sanctions against him and a number of officials had been abandoned. Deep down he thinks that having made a few concessions, Europe has swallowed the bait.