Neuws from elsewhere…the Belarus crisis

Alexander Lukashenko, right, with Vladimir Putin (Wikimedia Commons)

Philip Cole provides his regular look at how Europe is reporting on itself…and on us…

This bulletin: the Belarus crisis and the European Union’s response…

‘A far-off country of which we know nothing’, as Neville Chamberlain (almost) said about Czechoslovakia. But the foreign press has been monitoring the situation closely. (Latvian Public Broadcasting) announced that President Egils Levits had met organisers of a civic protest in support of Belarusian people that took place in Riga. He said: ‘I think it is very important for Latvian civic society to show its solidarity: when we fought for democracy and national independence thirty years ago, such solidarity was crucial for us, as well.’ He and the presidents of Lithuania and Poland (neighbours of Belarus) and Estonia had agreed to release a joint statement calling on the Belarusian government to de-escalate the current situation; stop all forms of violence; ensure all human rights, including freedom of assembly and freedom of expression; and restore dialogue with Belarusian society”.

On the same day Le Monde published an eye-witness account by Russian journalist Nikita Telyzhenko in Minsk of ‘people spread out like a live carpet in a sea of blood’. He was arrested on 10 August and held overnight before being released after Russian intervention. While in jail he noticed that some of the detainees had fractured arms, legs and even spines because the least movement caused them to cry out in agony.

On 14 August lrt (Lithuanian National television) reported that prominent Lithuanians were calling for a human chain, reminiscent of the 1989 Baltic Way to show support to Belarusians facing repression. It was believed that people in Belarus were planning a similar event and would like to connect symbolically. The former and current Lithuanian Presidents also planned to take part in the event. The original Baltic Way was a landmark protest on 23 August, 1989, when millions of people formed a human chain from Vilnius to Tallinn via Riga to demand independence from the Soviet Union.

Germany’s Die Zeit reported on 15 August that Lukaschenko had been in contact with Putin. The former warned the latter that the protests represented a threat not just to Belarus. In his own words, Lukashenko was looking for ‘solidarity’. ‘Defending Belarus’, he added, would be a signal to others. He blamed the riots on ‘foreign elements’, including – bizarrely – Russian opposition politician Alexej Navalny. Putin had written to Lukashenko congratulating him on his election victory. Moscow’s interest in propping up the Belarus dictator stems from the fact that Belarus is an important transit point for oil exports to the West, and also a buffer against NATO.

On the same day the Swiss NZZ reported on the planned EU sanctions against Belarus. The sanctions are against individuals, with the possibility of punishment for the people responsible for falsifying the election results. The opposition in Belarus takes a sceptical attitude: sanctions against individual politicians would make it harder for the EU or the Belarus opposition to engage in dialogue with the authorities.

Prague Radio reported (on 17 August) the Czech Prime Minister saying the EU must encourage Belarusians not to fear their own ‘velvet revolution’. In his weekly Sunday video speech, Andrej Babiš criticised the Belarusian president and compared the situation in the country to episodes in Czech history, saying: “What is happening there is an absolute catastrophe. Right now it is being decided how this will end. Whether like our Velvet Revolution in November 1989, with real free elections not manipulated by a dictator, or, following yesterday’s call between President Lukashenko and Putin, it could end up as in 1968, when Russian tanks destroyed the Prague Spring.” Meanwhile the foreign minister said that the Czech Republic could consider acting unilaterally if EU discussions were to stall.

At the end of an extraordinary summit of EU leaders called to discuss the bloc’s reaction to the disputed election in Belarus Polish TVN24 quoted (19 August) Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, who said the EU would redirect €53 million earmarked for Belarus away from the government and towards civil society, victims of the state crackdown on protesters, and the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Lukashenko asked Western countries not to ‘nod at Belarus’ and to concentrate on their own problems: ‘Those who today, especially abroad… are plotting against us, will get a serious rebuff’, although he did not spell out what this might entail.

On 19 August the Dutch Volkskrant published a profile of Lukashenko. Now 65, he came to power in 1994, having previously managed a collective farm. His plan to turn the whole country into a gigantic collective farm was initially very popular amongst the people who feared chaos with the transition from communism to capitalism. It was an approach that worked: salaries and pensions were paid on time, unemployment was low, and at the end of his first term Belarus had one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In return for co-operation with Russia instead of the West he got cheap oil and gas – and is now fully dependent on it.

But he is out of step with the times, and has blocked any attempt at reforming the market. However, he is proud of creating ‘for the first time in our history a sovereign, independent country’. This didn’t stop him threatening a bloodbath of people demonstrating against his rigged election; he is also known for having announced that ‘it’s better to be a dictator than a queer’ and has written off demonstrators as ‘rats’, ‘druggies’, ‘the workshy’, alcoholics’ ‘provocateurs’ and ‘traitors’.

On 20 August UNIAN (Ukrainian news) announced that Belarus was launching a criminal investigation into the attempted ‘seizure of power’ by the opposition Coordination Council, set up by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

DELFI (Lithuanian news) reported on 20 August that Lithuania had drawn up a list of national sanctions on 32 members of the Belarus establishment; Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said these were persons who had ‘used violence and excessive force, the heads of the institutions responsible for those actions and those who rigged the election’.

Back to NZZ: A leader article on 21 August maintained that ‘Lukaschenko is playing a dangerous game but his days are numbered’. He wants to turn the crisis in Belarus into a confrontation between Russia and the West. But Europe and America should not fall into the trap. Six years ago the Russians had intervened militarily in Ukraine, seizing parts of the country. Voices have been raised in Moscow in support of similar intervention in Belarus but – in contrast to the Crimea and the Don basin – there is virtually no support in Belarus for incorporation into the Russian Federation. Moscow would have to reckon with resistance, if not a partisan war.

On 21 August Die Zeit reported that the Belarus opposition had called on employees of state enterprises to go on strike again. Lukaschenko has threatened to sack anyone who does so. Bank accounts have been blocked to prevent money being transferred in support of the pro-democracy movement.

A Latvian foreign policy expert says Lukashenko has strong bureaucratic support, reported (Latvian Public Broadcasting) on 21 August. Andris Sprūds, foreign policy expert, said in an interview on Latvian Television that as long as OMON and the bureaucratic structures support Lukashenko as president, he will remain in position. But the question is whether and at what point will Lukashenko be abandoned by the Belarusian bureaucracy.

Luxembourg’s Tageblatt reports (22 August) on the Belarus régime stepping up reprisals against demonstrators. There have been dozens of arrests and rumours of intervention by Chechen and Russian special units. On 19August hitherto loyalist MP and police lieutenant Mieczeslaw Grib called on his colleagues in the security forces not to use violence if they themselves are not threatened. On social media platforms there have been videos of police officers burning the own uniforms. There has been a shortage of foreign currency at numerous bureaux de change. The normally stable Belarus ruble has fallen to an all-time low against the euro and the dollar.