Tuesday

28th Jan 2020

EU to help Belarus dictator diversify income

  • Exile Natallia Radzina: 'The situation in Belarus is the same as it was in Poland in 1980' (Photo: Marco Fieber)

EU states are preparing to help Minsk reduce financial dependence on Moscow, but activists say it's a "bad idea" that'll lead to more repression.

The plan, endorsed by EU ambassadors last week, was drawn up by the EU foreign service.

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It envisages suspending visa bans and asset freezes on 171 of the 175 names on the EU's Belarus blacklist, including its authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashanko.

The suspension, diplomats say, is to last from 31 October until 28 February, but can snap back into force at any time.

It's to be enacted at the end of the month, unless presidential elections, on Sunday (11 October), prompt fresh jailings of political opponents.

The four names to stay on the list are linked to political murders. The EU will also uphold a Belarus arms ban.

The suspension will let Lukashenko’s nomenklatura repatriate any frozen EU assets.

It will also free 14 Belarusian firms on the EU blacklist to do business in Europe.

Lukashenko’s biggest money-makers, his potash and petroleum products exporters, weren’t sanctioned in the first place.

The moves will be accompanied by financial aid.

The EU has drafted 29 economic measures, which include easier access to capital on EU markets and to loans from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, an EU source said.

“The thinking is to create alternatives for Belarus in the economic field … We’re not saying it should stop cooperation with Russia, but we want to give it new options on the economic front”.

Bad idea?

The EU plan is billed as a reward for Belarus’ release, in August, of six political prisoners.

It comes amid a slump in Belarus-Russia relations and amid a geopolitical tug-of-war on the future of former Soviet states.

Lukashenko, this week, said he “doesn’t need” a proposed new Russian airforce base, which would limit his control of defence policy.

He has criticised Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of east Ukraine.

He’s also turned a blind eye to Belarusian nationalists, such as the so-called Pagonya Squad, going to fight on Ukraine's side against Russia in east Ukraine, Belarusian sources say.

The slump is due to concern that Kremlin revanchism could one day target Belarus.

But EU diplomats are under little illusion that Lukashenko will break his alliance with Russia or end internal repression.

“It’s hard to get into his head and to know what he’s thinking. But he appears to be somewhere in between, to be choosing cooperation with both sides [the West and Russia], according to who might be useful for what”, the EU source said.

“Nobody expects Belarus to become a democratic state overnight”, he added.

Belarusian activists are even less hopeful.

Natallia Radzina, who works in exile in Poland for the Charter97 NGO, called the EU move a “bad idea”.

“Lukashenko can’t go to the West because he’s too dependent on Russian oil and gas subsidies … He will build the Russian air base despite his words, because if he says No, it’ll mean the end of his regime”, she told EUobserver.

“He also can’t do it [go West] because democratic reform would end his rule”, she added.

“The sanctions move will just lead to more repression. He’ll see it as an EU carte blanche”.

Fear

Mikola Statkevich, one of the men freed in August, has called for protests in Minsk on Saturday, with between 2,000 to 5,000 people expected to come.

But Lukashenko’s re-election is a foregone conclusion.

Most opposition leaders have boycotted the vote, which, they say, will be rigged, leaving only state-picked candidates to run against him.

Opposition is also weak, Radzina said, because “people are really afraid”.

“If you challenge the government you can be jailed for five or six years. You can be beaten up in the street. You can even be killed”.

She said pro-Western feeling is kept in check by Belarusian and Russian propaganda, which monopolise media.

She noted, for instance, that Thursday's news of the Nobel prize win by Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich got 23 seconds on TV, followed by three and a half minutes of material on state cultural projects.

Ray of light

Radzina said the Nobel award is a “ray of light” after “20 years of darkness” for Belarusian society, however.

“It reminds me of when [Polish writer] Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel prize”, she said.

“It gave people some pride, at a time when they were facing a very difficult political situation. The situation in Belarus is the same as it was in Poland in 1980”.

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