27th Oct 2016

Belarus plays cat and mouse with EU

A 37-year old man who had spent more than a year in a Belarus prison cell for planting an opposition flag on a Christmas tree in 2010 was set free on Wednesday (26 September).

Over the course of his detention Sergey Kavalenka had staged a hunger strike and at one point weighed just 40 kilos. His wife said that prisoner authorities put pressure on him to sign a "pardon" after they sent him to a so-called punishment cell for an alleged prison violation.

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  • Another shake down of opposition people in the street, another day in Minsk (Photo:

Pavel Syramalotau, who was accused of an attack on the office of Belarus' state security service, the KGB, was also released on Thursday.

Eleven political prisoners remain behind bars.

Among them is Zmicer Dashkevich, head of the Belarus "Youth Front," an opposition group whose attempts to awaken society has drawn a large underground following. He was initially sentenced in 2006 but his refusal to comply with authorities has prolonged his captivity.

On 28 August 2012, he was sentenced to an additional year of imprisonment for "insubordination to the colony's administration demands." He has been on hunger strike for the past six days.

Nasta Palazhanka, another leader of the Youth Front movement, told this reporter in Minsk last November that young Belarusians keep a low profile in fear of arrest.

Young people vent their rage against the regime by staging concerts and gatherings in secret locations, organised through social media.

"The last time I was arrested and jailed without any reason," she said.

Belarus prison conditions are dire.

Andrei Bondarenko, a former business owner who ran for parliament, was given a seven-year sentence with hard labour for alleged tax evasion. He said the court had delivered the following verdict: "At a non-specific time at a non-specific place I received from a non-identified person an unknown about of money."

He was released in March 2011 but described the prisons as inhumane.

At first they tried to break him. They placed him at the Zhodzina penal where he refused to sign any confession or pardon. Prison authorities then put him in "a special cell" where new arrivals are beaten or raped by other inmates.

Ten minutes after the guards let in the other prisoners, Bondarenko started cutting his wrists with a razor which he had hidden on himself because he could not stand the brutality of the attack. The guards rushed in to stop him.

"I was unable to defend myself. They knew I was a political prisoner," he told this reporter.

Lukashenka's EU strategy

The EU slapped a visa and asset ban on hundreds of petty officials and on a few people close to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka following a violent crackdown on opposition protests in 2010.

The sanctions are now up for review on 15 October.

The blacklist contains the names of some the country's most powerful people, including Belarus oligarchs and weapons tycoons who bankroll the regime.

For its part, Belarusian Tribunal, a Dutch-based NGO, claims that Kavalenka's release is an attempt to bargain with the EU to ease the sanctions.

"It is expected that within some short time Lukashenka will try to restore dialogue with the EU within this usual strategy of 'geopolitical swing' between Russia and the West," it said.

Meanwhile, lucrative trade contracts between Belarus and Europe remain in place despite the EU's tough talk on Belarus.

The regime declared a €2.5 billion trade surplus with the EU in 2011 after trade increased by some 76 percent between the two sides.

Lithuania, one of Lukashenko's loudest critics, is a major transit hub for Belarus exports, including potash and oil-based products.

Belarus is also vying for another International Monetary Fund loan and aims to resume talks with the Washington-based fund in October.

The fund gave Minsk some $3.6 billion between January 2009 and April 2010, with repayments expected to peak sometime next year.

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