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A turbulent twelve months in Belarus

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This Monday marked a year since Belarusians staged a peaceful protest (brutally suppressed) against rigged presidential elections. Although the regime has not been overturned, and the economy has managed to teeter on collapse without fully imploding, it is clear that Belarusian politics are now in a different place, writes Janek Lasocki

Janek Lasocki
21 December 2011

On 19 December 2010, millions of Belarusians went out into the snow and thronged polling stations across the country to cast their vote for the presidency. It was an unusual contest for Belarus — in many ways the freest it had been for many years. Throughout the pre-election campaign, volunteers stood on main streets collecting signatures for opposition candidates and people, in turn, queued up to show their support. The candidates travelled the country: they talked to ordinary people, appeared live on state television and secured popular recognition unthinkable a short time before. The apparent political thaw no doubt had a lot to do with a $3 billion carrot being waved by EU foreign ministers (and the unmentioned stick of international isolation).

With no united opposition candidate, and institutional resources in the hands of President Lukashenka, no one seriously thought the incumbent would be subjected to a simple defeat at the polls. But neither did anyone believe results would be so blatantly rigged. When the truth unfolded, thousands of Belarusians felt a duty to go to the streets to protest. They gathered in the streets as the polls were closing, unfurled the old (banned) national Belarusian flag and party banners, and made their way towards the city’s central square. Many were stopped or couldn't make it to the "ploscha" in time; those that did lacked much of a plan. When the protest began, the atmosphere was almost carnival like: one group even managed to hang their flag off a wall of the KGB headquarters.

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The anniversary of last year's presidential election in Belarus did not pass unnoticed in the British capital London. On 19 December Belarusian expatriates and their British friends gathered in front of the Belarusian embassy to demonstrate their solidarity with political prisoners of the Lukashenka regime (photo: http://kilgor-trautt.livejournal.com/)

What happened next was caught on film by journalists and citizens alike, and is probably best summed up by these images. Rows of riot police marched on the crowd and showed little restraint beating those who couldn't run fast enough. "Order" was re-imposed by force and over 700 peaceful demonstrators were arrested, including most presidential candidates (this even before election results had been announced). 19 December 2010 was a traumatic night for anyone in Belarus concerned about the fate of their country.

The twelve months that followed have been far from uneventful and can be characterised by two trends: increased repression and security measures, and the visible meltdown of the Belarusian economic model.

In a first instance, hundreds greeted the New Year behind bars. Some, like prolific blogger Tatiana Bublikova, were released in January. Others, like 20-year old 'For Freedom'  activist Mikita Likhavid, were given lengthy sentences. Likhavid, sentenced to three and a half years for attending a protest rally, began a hunger strike in March and became recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He was eventually released and 'pardoned' in September as arbitrarily as when he was put away.

‘Behind the authoritarian crackdown, an unprecedented crisis in the country's economy had also been brewing ... The Belarusian leadership initially responded by isolating itself further: unprepared to fulfil political conditions set by the West or to compromise with Moscow. But then, as reality dawned, the question became whether Belarus would turn East or turn West for help rescuing the fast crumbling economy, and what was the price Lukashenka would have to pay for it.’

The presidential candidates themselves have various stories. Yaroslau Romanchuk was broken by the KGB, released to then appear alongside Lukashenka condemning his fellow oppositionists. Many felt betrayed, but who are we to judge a man tested to his limits? Ales Mikhalevic described in detail the methods used by these interrogators (condemned by the UN Committee Against Torture), and is now in exile in Prague.  Most former candidates faced farcical show trials which continue. Mikhail Statkevich and Andrei Sannikau remain in jail (the late Vaclav Havel wrote one of his last letters to them).

Long after the elections there are countless examples of state-sponsored repression. Reports persist of student expulsions for political activity. Journalists are regularly threatened or silenced: online writer Vital Pratasevich was stopped and fined by police in October on his way to cover an opposition gathering in Homel.  Earlier in the year Andrzej Poczobut, from Hrodna, who writes for the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza was arrested and eventually sentenced to three years, suspended for two years, for insulting the President.

Those wanting to show solidarity with political prisoners have been punished. The Director of Viasna Human Rights Centre, Ales Bialatski, was arrested in August — a development that caused considerable international uproar, but there seems little hope of overturning his 4.5 year sentence. Activists’ families have been especially targeted, often being detained during the night and having their apartments turned over in arbitrary searches. The lasting images of this year are of the wives and families crying and protesting the innocence of their loved ones during the show trials. 

Lukashenka, meanwhile, has begun introducing measures to toughen his security services. He plans to establish a new 'territorial defence army' and a new investigative bureau answerable to him personally. He has strengthened the KGB, and also introduced new laws banning public assembly and foreign grants. If it was hard for civil society to get organised before, now it has now become that much harder.

Yet behind the authoritarian crackdown, an unprecedented crisis in the country's economy had also been brewing. For years Lukashenka had largely succeeded in maintaining a pseudo-Soviet economy, but this was clearly at the expense of economic competitiveness. Recent years saw both public debt and the trade deficit rocket, resulting in an economy totally dependent on outside subsidy. Unable to secure international help, ordinary Belarusians began to see how fragile their country really was. The spring saw people queuing through the night to change their roubles. Banks ran out of foreign currency. Shops stopped selling some staple foods, which lead to panic buying. People emptied their bank accounts and tried to buy durable goods or gold. In the months since, prices ballooned and the value of savings plummeted (the result of two devaluations, most recently in October, and inflation of almost 100%). Ratings agencies have twice downgraded Belarusian debt to junk grade.

The Belarusian leadership initially responded by isolating itself further: unprepared to fulfil political conditions set by the West or to compromise with Moscow. But then, as reality dawned, the question became whether Belarus would turn East or West for help rescuing the fast crumbling economy, and what price Lukashenka would have to pay for it.

‘The social contract that guaranteed employment, stability and economic growth in exchange for political indifference has been ripped to shreds. People have witnessed a near-collapse and are unable to blame anyone but their government.’

Speculation finally ended when the Belarusian leadership signed two deals with Russia on 18 and 25 November, resulting in what is effectively a $14 billion bailout and a guarantee of economic stability that will allow the country to function normally again. The price for this stability has been to sell remaining control over Belgtransgaz (and with it the gas pipelines) to Gazprom. In the short term, this means Belarus will be able to pay its bills and pay less for energy, so overcoming the current crisis. In the long run, however, it only serves to delay much-needed reforms, whilst increasing significantly Minsk's dependence on the Kremlin. The deal suits Russia just fine, giving Putin the ability to show solidarity to members of his embryonic 'Eurasian Union', which he is currently trying to sell to the Russian people. It's also a small financial price to pay for a guarantee of loyalty. The EU's leverage has also been significantly diminished — to the point, many believe, of it only being able to offer half-hearted sanctions and weak words of condemnation. The EU is also seen as hypocritical: why condemn and sanction Belarus, but not Russia or Azerbaijan?

So: stricter repression, a return to Russian subsidies and a weak opposition. The reader may well ask if anything has actually changed since December one year ago. Actually, there are reasons to believe they have.

The most reliable polling shows how people have felt the crisis of these turbulent twelve months. Well over 70% feel their financial situation is getting worse, and a similar number do not see it at all improving. And most significantly, over 60% find the president personally responsible. The social contract that guaranteed employment, stability and economic growth in exchange for political indifference has been ripped to shreds. People have witnessed a near-collapse and are unable to blame anyone but their government.

There are caveats. The same polling, for example, shows these same people do not then go on to transfer support or trust to any of the established opposition groups. While a growing number imagine a better Belarus without Lukashenka, they cannot see anyone to replace him (or to represent their own views). Moreover, Belarusians are far less likely to protest than other nations. Thus far, popular protest has been limited to occasional campaigns such as the silent clapping protests, which were organised via social networks over the summer. Although these were ruthlessly put down, and the young organisers now live in exile, the innovation seemed to catch the Belarusian imagination.

Parliamentary elections likely to be held in the spring will give an opportunity for opposition to organise itself and potentially benefit from this atmosphere of distrust. 2012 will also see the EU and Russia looking increase their presence in Belarus, albeit in very different ways. With the EU facing its own not inconsiderable internal crisis, and Russia facing an unanticipated but growing protest movement, we can be sure that neither will revert to previous politics.

In the short term, the prospects for Belarus are not good. Increased dependence on Russia will stop real reform and Lukashenka will feel little inclination to compromise on his crackdown. But the Russian cash injection is at best a stop-gap solution, and this year he has worn down the trust of Belarusians, which he will not be able to rely as he did before. There will be interesting times ahead.

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