24th Mar 2018


Belarus: Or, how to divide and rule

One beautiful June evening, I was sitting in the restaurant U Szwejka in Warsaw.

The beer terrace was buzzing with its regular evening noise. My two Belarusian companions, Andrei Sannikov and Natalya Radina, took their seats opposite me.

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  • Police round up activists on streets of Minsk (Photo:

The fact that Sannikov, a former presidential candidate, was in Warsaw came as a surprise.

He had been released from prison several months before. He was in Tallinn at the end of May to attend the Lennart Meri Conference, where he said that he would settle in London: Just another Belarusian politician in exile.

He told me London was going well. But he aims to spend half his time in Warsaw because it is home to the largest gathering of Belarusian activists.

Radina, the editor-in-chief of the independent news website Charter 97, is a good example.

She is young and brave.

She told me the story of her escape: Belarusian authorities jailed her for a month and a half in the crackdown following the 2010 elections. They let her go home to Kobryn, near the Polish border, but forbid her to leave the small town.

She took a risk and fled to Moscow. But in Russia she had to play cat and mouse with Belarusian security services who tried to hunt her down. She later fled to Lithuania, which granted her political asylum.

But in the end, Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski organised better conditions for her in the Polish capital.

She kept running Charter 97 the entire time.

Sannikov’s situation is more complicated. He has a wife, Iryna Khalip, and a child in Belarus. Khalip, a reporter for the independent Novaya Gazeta, has also endured prison and house arrest. She cannot leave Belarus because she is under a suspended sentence.

I gave the background of my interlocutors because, without it, one cannot fully understand what they said at U Szwejka.

First, they explained why they did not go to a recent conference in Warsaw on Belarus.

They said both the organisers of the event and the NGOs who sent people to it have fallen into a trap: The NGOs take European money, but they steer clear of activities that might genuinely harm Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

"All these people have made compromises with themselves. They are not free. They use the money coming from Europe, but they are very careful, because as soon as you touch fundamental and sharp problems, you cannot continue your work any longer," Sannikov said.

Fear and loathing

Some of the opinions that fly around in the Belarusian exile communities can get downright nasty.

Sannikov and Radina have not been accused of making any big compromises.

But at the same time, people say that Mikola Statkevich, another presidential candidate, is the real hero of the opposition.

He is still in prison and refuses to crack in any way. He is a former military officer, a tough guy, while Sannikov, a former diplomat, is considered to be softer.

This is what happens to people who live in dictatorships: Everybody begins to suspect everybody else.

One group makes no concessions to the regime. A second one makes small ones. A third one makes significant compromises. A fourth one sells out and serves the ruler. Others simply leave.

In fact, there are many more degrees of subservience and defiance: Tens, dozens. And a good manipulator knows how to play the groups off against each other.

From time to time, for example during elections, they form a united front. Some boycott the vote, some run as candidates - they try to show that, despite everything, there is a democratic alternative.

But when the reality of state repression bites, the opposition splits again.

Not everybody is ready to become a political prisoner. The end result is exhaustion and confusion. The cycle has repeated many times in Belarus.

Meanwhile, Sannikov and Radina did not hide their disappointment with European institutions.

"The Council of Europe often invites to Strasbourg experts and organisations that have little influence, sometimes it even invites people who directly co-operate with the authorities,” Radina said.

Her reproach is partly justified.

In its defence, the Council of Europe has hosted some of the biggest critics of the regime: Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition's joint candidate in the 2006 presidential election, and Ales Bialiatski, a human rights activist currently in jail in Belarus, have come to Strasbourg to speak out.

But it is not easy to support civil society in these conditions.

Diluting the agenda

The Council's requests for Belarus to abolish capital punishment and free political prisoners are simple and clear.

But as soon as you look around for an NGO with which to co-operate, problems emerge.

You cannot work with people who are in prison. You cannot have formal relations with an NGO which the authorities refuse to register. Registered NGOs compete with one another for funds, internships and conference invitations.

Meanwhile, opposition people who come to foreign events fear making political statements in case the Belarusian security services are listening.

And so the agenda is dominated by neutral issues of lesser importance: The environment, disabled people, the status of the Belarusian language.

Sannikov also told me that foreign institutions have too narrow a definition of "political prisoner" or "prisoner of conscience."

After he was freed, the British NGO Amnesty International defines 12 people in Belarus as prisoners of conscience. But this overlooks all those who defy local authorities or who end up in prison because they get in the way of oligarch business interests.

Here again, complications arise.

Being designated a political prisoner means you get more foreign attention, more pressure from bodies such as The Council of Europe for your release.

But in Belarus it also means you are treated worse than before.

In some cases, relatives plead with NGOs not to politicise the cases of their loved ones.

Belarus is often compared to Azerbaijan. But there are big differences.

For one, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has a lot more money than Lukashenko.

He recruits expensive PR companies, pays generously for the friendship of influential foreigners and creates Gongos (Government-owned non-governmental organisations) to make black into white.

In Azerbaijan, I am allowed to visit political prisoners and when I speak to authorities about them, it tends to improve their conditions to some extent.

But Lukashenko's chief resource is brutality.

His dictatorship has lasted too long.

The opposition, once united and full of energy has become fragmented and demoralised. Even some of the best are left merely to sit and wait for him to go.

From Warsaw to Strasbourg

Two weeks after my meeting at U Szwejka, I have a different set of interlocutors altogether.

So-called MPs of Belarus' so-called parliament sit opposite me at a meeting of the Political Committee of Pace (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg).

I speak politely. I ask if Belarus really wants to join the Council of Europe. We have a discussion that focuses on its potential abolition of the death penalty.

I mention political prisoners and whether I can go to visit them. But the MPs say almost nothing on this - the death penalty topic is for them much happier ground.

It has been the same story for several years already.

Belarus is failing to grasp opportunities to come closer to Europe, whether via a moratorium on executions or by letting Council of Europe rapporteurs visit its jails.

"Such decisions depend on one person [Lukashenko], and even if they have clearly made a wrong decision, nobody around them dares to convince them to reconsider,” I am told by those who know the situation in Belarus.

The writer is an Estonian politician. He is the head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's Estonian delegation and Pace special rapporteur on Belarus

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