Tuesday

9th Aug 2022

Business as usual for EU and Belarus despite violence

Diplomatic sources indicate that the EU will not react with any punitive measures to post-election violence in Belarus or to a judgment by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe that the vote was rigged.

Reports indicate that very few people came out on the streets of Minsk on Monday (20 December) following a massive protest by around 20,000 people on Sunday evening which ended in a violent police crackdown and the arrest of hundreds of people whose whereabouts remain unknown.

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The OSCE, the Vienna-based pro-democracy watchdog, in its preliminary verdict on the presidential vote said on Monday that Belarus "still has a considerable way to go" to meet international standards, pointing to the vote-counting process as the most corrupt element.

The US state department spokesman later the same day said "We cannot consider the election results yesterday as legitimate" and urged authorities to "release immediately those detained" and "to use restraint in the coming days and not to harm, threaten, or further detain those exercising their basic rights."

The statement by EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton was considerably more weak.

Ms Ashton said the violence was "regrettable ... unacceptable" and noted that the EU's "policy of critical engagement, through which the EU has offered a deepening relationship with Belarus ... is conditional on respect for the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights." She did not call for the release of prisoners or decline to recognise the election result, however.

"You've seen the Ashton line - it means we are going to do nothing," an EU diplomatic contact told this website. "If there had been 100,000 people on the street or some corpses in the square then it might have been different."

EU ambassadors will hold a preliminary discussion on the events in Brussels on Tuesday before issuing a formal statement at foreign minister level once the dust has settled in January.

The diplomatic source said Poland, the main custodian of EU policy on Belarus, a neighbouring country, is not interested in punishing President Aleksander Lukashenko because Warsaw believes it would achieve nothing in terms of democratic transformation or protecting Belarus' independence from Russia.

"The real shock was how many people came out on the streets. In a way, you could say the opposition provoked Lukashenko: If it had been 10,000, he could have let it go by. But with 20,000 or more he had to react," the contact said.

"He's the Fidel Castro of Europe - a real survivor. The regime will not last for ever but there is no credible opposition for now. You have to remember that 500,000 people work for the administration, that's five percent of the population."

"The KGB [Belarusian secret police] has thoroughly infiltrated the opposition. They knew exactly where and when Neklyayev was going to be," the source added, referring to Vladimir Neklyayev, a presidential candidate beaten and abducted by plain clothes officers.

Meanwhile, the incoming Hungarian EU presidency, which is to organise a summit of six post-Soviet countries, including Belarus, in Budapest in May, has not ruled out a Belarusian presence despite Sunday's events.

Hungary's foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, at a briefing in Brussels on Monday said only that Budapest is "following events very closely" and that "if things turn bad, it could create challenges and problems for the Eastern Partnership [the club of six nations due to go to the summit]."

Ms Ashton has on several occasions spoken in public of human rights as a "silver thread" that will run through her European External Action Service. In a behind-closed-doors speech to EU leaders last week she showed a more pragmatic side however, recommending the EU should drop its arms embargo on China because it is an impediment to good relations.

For his part, Mr Lukashenko on Monday derided the protesters as being unmanly for complaining about police beatings. "And you want to be President? You have to bear it!" he said.

He also threatened to publish details of financial donations made to opposition candidates in a Belarus-style WikiLeaks move designed to show foreign hands at work and to highlight the power of the KGB.

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