Belarus: Let us not be fooled by the dictator’s Potemkin façade
On Sunday December 19, a presidential election is held in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship. On the surface this election is more democratic than the previous ones. But appearances are deceptive – the regime is still holding the Belarusian citizens in an iron grip and the improvements achieved are only cosmetic.
Sweden and other EU countries must not let themselves be charmed by the political game of the Belarusian dictatorship, but maintain the requirements for concrete improvements in regard to the respect of human rights. In the autumn
2008 the European Union initiated a so called “dialogue period” with Belarus. Since then, the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has worked hard to present his country as more democratic, without changing anything fundamentally. The EU held out a hand to Belarus by temporarily lifting a travel ban for Lukashenko and 35 other Belarusian politicians and officials. Lukashenko responded by trying to appear more democratic, which also coincided with worsening relations between Belarus and Russia.
The democratisation that the Belarusian regime pretends to support is highly controlled. The oppression is more sophisticated and therefore less visible. The regime is careful only to implement improvements which can easily be revoked. On the legislative side, nothing has changed for the better. On the contrary, for example a new decree to increase control over the Internet was introduced as late as 1 July.
Belarusian human rights defenders are still threatened by the infamous Article 193.1 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, according to which people can be sentenced to up to two years of imprisonment for membership in organisations without registration, which dissident organisations often lack. In other words, the tools for oppression remain, ready to be used if needed. In some cases they are used just to remind the dissidents which the country they live in.
Yauhen Shapchyts, Pavel Bandzich and Aleh Anufrienka recently received such a reminder. They made the short film “Hide your grandmother’s passport” which calls on people to hide their grandparents’ passports so that they will not vote for Zhyrafenka (a fictional character reminiscent of Lukashenko). All three lost their jobs or university places after the movie became a huge hit on YouTube.
Another example is the dissident artist Ales Pushkin who according to the police caused trouble with a stranger near his house. Just like in the days before the last presidential election, he was sentenced to about two weeks in jail and will be released shortly after the elections.
To seem complaisant Lukashenko has allowed each of his nine rival candidates two uncensored half hours in public radio and television. The opposition has been able to implement several rallies in central Minsk without being assaulted by riot police. Far fewer dissidents have been sentenced to one or two weeks in jail just before the election compared to previous elections.
But fundamentally this doesn’t change anything as long as there are no systematic and fundamental changes of the Belarusian society. The dictator Lukashenko will, as before, be announced as the unchallenged victor in the presidential election, and on Monday it will be “business as usual”.
We, who have followed the Belarusian dictatorship since its inception, have seen before how it for a period of time withdraws its claws and then suddenly turns around and shows its muscles.
Civil Rights Defenders calls on Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and others in power in the EU not to make too hasty conclusions by the relative calmness in Belarus. Cosmetic improvements are not a reason to turn a blind eye to the violations of people’s civil and political rights that occur daily in the country.
Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders (formerly the Swedish Helsinki Committee)
Robert Hårdh has followed the situation in Belarus for many years and has visited the country regularly. He is in Minsk from 17-20 December to monitor the elections. Robert can be contacted on +46 709 14 63 14 for a comment or an interview.