|Police suppress protests after the rigged election in December 2010. AP Photo/Sergei Grits.|
In a recent survey, only 1 in 50 people in Britain could locate Belarus on a map, perhaps this is why we ignore it.
With that statistic in mind it is small wonder that so few people are well-informed about the situation in Belarus. Here are some of the highlights: President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 18 years; the last elections in December 2010 were accompanied by mass violence, election fraud and the arrest of hundreds of political activists and demonstrators, some of whom are still in jail; speaking out against the regime is a crime, at least two people are currently in jail for unfurling the pre-soviet flag. The regime is propped up by a ‘secret’ police force which terrorises, tortures and arrests at its whim – having failed to change their name after 1991 they call themselves the KGB, presumably they wanted the Belarusian people to know who they were dealing with.
Condolezza Rice once called Belarus ‘the last true dictatorship in Europe’. Lukashenko is a real old school autocrat – earlier this year he responded to a similar accusation by the German foreign minister by saying that it was ‘better to be a dictator than be gay’.
This spat was part of a recent trend of anti-Lukashenko rhetoric within Europe. Earlier this year the EU withdrew its ambassadors from Belarus on the grounds of human rights abuses, including the torture and illegal detention of prisoners of conscience. After much posturing, Lukashenko released two political prisoners – 2010 Presidential favourite Andrei Sannikov (who had been in prison ever since despite signing a plea for release after being tortured and receiving threats to the lives of his children) and his campaign manager Dmitry Bandarenka. EU ambassadors are in the process of returning.
It is unclear what spurred this act of protest by the EU – certainly awareness about human rights abuses in Belarus has been rising over the past year with the release of the film Europe’s Last Dictator, which just won Best Documentary at the London Independent Film Festival, and the work of the UK-based Free Belarus Now campaign set us by Sannikov’s sister Irina Bogdonova. This type of work however, is currently left entirely on the shoulders of individuals such as Bogdonova and director Matthew Charles. The law is on their side, but they have no defence from the Belarusian authorities. Though Free Belarus Now focuses mainly on the release of political prisoners, it currently has a pending law suit waiting in the hands of law firms all over the world which means that no senior member of Lukashenko’s government can visit certain counties without being charged with being complicit in illegal detention and torture. This is backed-up by an EU travel ban – the head of the KGB recently had to travel to Rome in secret to avoid this. At the same time however, watching Europe’s Last Dictator in Belarus will get you arrested while the ‘Free Belarus Now’ website and their staff emails get hacked by the KGB every few days.
On 24th May Lukashenko made a statement which summarises diplomatic relations with Belarus: ‘I hear more and more statements that European diplomats wait for an amnesty, again raising the question of political prisoners ... We expect specific steps from the West and from the European Union. The ball is in their court.’ Lukashenko can blackmail the EU by holding political prisoners hostage – he knows he can because he has been doing it since his first rigged election, and because it works. The EU has placed a number of sanctions on the Belarusian government but the withdrawal of its ambassadors was the strongest step it had taken in a long time, the fact that they started returning as soon as Sannikov and Bandarenka were released showed that there was no subtle underlying politics to this trade-off and it showed that they have given up trying to make other sanctions hurt.
Undermining Lukashenko is not a lost cause. Even if publicly denouncing him counts as little more than a symbolic gesture, it would be one in tune with all of the principles Western leaders are desperate to stand by yet the fail to do so. The failure of Western leaders must in part be due to lack of awareness in the public. When the prisoners were released it was a huge story for Eastern European news outlets while in Britain only The Independent covered it – despite the urging of Free Belarus Now to many others. Angela Merkel rebuked Lukashenko over the gay jibe but that is the most there has been for some time. Russia alone has made its stance perfectly clear by announcing tighter border checks to stop the escape of political refugees and with Putin planning to make the first state visit of his new term to Minsk.
European leaders do not support Lukashenko, unlike mad dictators elsewhere in the world there is not enough distance to be completely disassociated with him, so they ignore him. It is clear to anyone that he is a deluded tyrant of the type which (unfortunately for Sacha Baron Cohen) are too absurd to make up. But if you read the news coming out of Belarus every day this neutrality is shameful. The Belarusian people have never escaped Soviet-style dictatorship yet dictatorship in Europe is ignored while those of the Middle East occupy our headlines and our politicians’ speeches. European leaders do not want another problem country to deal with but they are in a position to give the EU sanctions some teeth, as long as they preach a devotion to freedom and democracy they are surely under an obligation to do so.