Ales Bialiatski: In many respects, an optimistic scenario in 2015 depends on the activeness of Belarusians
The head of the Human Rights Centre "Viasna" and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights spoke about his mood and forecasts for the new year.
Last year became a year of dramatic changes for Ales Bialiatski: In June, he was pardoned after spending in prison almost 3 out of the 4.5 years to which he had been sentenced. On his release he immediately became involved in public activities. The former political prisoners spent the last six months in working trips both in Belarus and abroad, filled with numerous meetings and contacts, speaking at various international forums about human rights and political situation in Belarus in the context of our region.
- Indeed, after my release from prison I had to quickly adapt to civilian life, everything changed instantly, and there was little time for reflection. I had to quickly analyze the situation of public life in Belarus, from which I had been cut off despite my reading the newspapers and receiving letters in prison. Probably, meetings with people gave most information, making it possible to make some conclusions, which I have tried to share in the coming months. European officials and representatives of the international community have demonstrated quite a lot of interest to what I say. During the last six months I have been actively traveling, speaking, explaining, answering basic questions - what were the reasons for my release, what is happening in Belarus, what to expect from the authorities and citizens.
It was important to me to convey to the European Community accurate information about the situation in Belarus, primarily with political and social rights, because they have many questions, such as what to do with Belarus, whether to cooperate with the Belarusian authorities, in which direction the situation is changing in the country and so on. I had to explain that the Russian-Ukrainian War eclipsed Belarus and our internal problems, and it was extremely important for us to remain in the focus of attention in Europe and the United States.
- Many international human rights groups say that in Brussels there are talks about returning the relations with Belarus to the period of the "thaw" that was observed in 2008 - 2010. What impressions do you have on this matter?
- Brussels is wary of the new initiatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus and Minister Makei who is now actually actively meeting with various European officials trying to improve the image of Belarus in the eyes of the authorities in Brussels. These activities are related primarily to the alarming situation in the economy. Authorities need to seek new loans and get an opportunity to defer the payment of the old debts that they have gained and spent.
The second reason is that in 2015 there will be presidential elections and the Belarusian authorities want to appease the the non-acceptance of the results of the previous election by the international community the results of previous elections. They would like to see the lifting of sanctions imposed by the European Union against the officials responsible for violations during the elections and/or repression against opponents of the regime. Therefore, they are now actively distributing promises trying to resolve these issues in their favor, using various methods.
This is the way they also used the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The negotiations which were held in Minsk were presented by the Belarusian authorities as a personal achievement. In fact I am quite skeptical about the significance of the role of Belarus in these negotiations – it served just as a site, nothing more. As I see it, Belarus was chosen for the negotiations, primarily because it was the most advantageous for the Russian authorities, as they consider Belarus almost like their own territory.
Brussels, - at least, in the points in which I managed to find mutual understanding, is looking at what is happening in Belarus, but is not going to believe the words. The authorities are expected to take more substantial steps to democratize the situation in the country. First of all – to release political prisoners (we still have six such people), stop the persecution of social activists and put an end to obstacles in the work of the media. However, during the last few months the situation has only deteriorated.
As we can see, the task of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to improve the image of Belarus. Inside the country, other ministries and bodies, especially the Interior Ministry and intelligence agencies, are given another task – to prepare for elections and to restrain, stop all manifestations of social activity in Belarus. Two such incompatible tasks are assigned to different ministries (it is clear who puts them). And in a certain sense the both of them are unfulfillable. It is impossible to improve the image of Belarus without changing anything in the country. At the same time one can not completely suppress public activity, even tightening the screws, which we are witnessing now.
I believe that we shan't hope for any significant changes in the relations between the EU and Belarus. Even if someone officials from Brussels have some optimism (while some others are, on the contrary, tired of the fact that the situation has remained unchanged for a long time), this optimism will be dampened by new facts of the persecution against civil society in Belarus, journalists and human rights activists.
- Given that the situation in Belarus does not change for the better, how do you assess the effectiveness of EU sanctions imposed for gross violations of human rights?
- These sanctions are primarily symbolic, and present a clear political signal: while in Belarus will continue the persecution of civil society, persons engaged in this persecution will be considered undesirable on the territory of democratic countries. In my opinion, the political significance of the sanctions is very important. This is a stronger version of a diplomatic note addressed to the Belarusian authorities. I think that sanctions are a tool that restricts the extent of repression in Belarus. After the introduction of these sanctions, several dozens of political prisoners have been released. This is a direct result of the sanctions. Therefore, I believe that the sanctions are reasonable as a political tool in cases of gross violations of domestic legislation and international agreements on human rights by the government.
- How do you think the economic crisis which, following Russia, is coming to Belarus, can affect the overall socio-political situation?
- Let's see how the events will develop. It seems that the economic situation will deteriorate as the Belarusian economy was tied to the Russian economy in an almost ultimative form. Enormous economic dependence of Belarus on Russia is the result of political and economic union of these states. Therefore, the current crisis is the result of conscious geopolitical choice of the Belarusian authorities. The less dependence on our unpredictable neighbor on the east, the more stable our economy would be. Above all, for the people who have been watching the internal socio-political processes in Russia over the past 20 years it is clear that the establishment of democracy there is incomplete and everything can turn around the other way at any moment. Unfortunately, that's what has happened recently. We see how fast the democratic space is shrinking in Russia and the country is turning into a classic authoritarian state. There is no hope for a durable good-neighborly relations with such a state.
Geopolitical calculations and economic benefits are going to the fore in Russia, whereas democratic values and human rights are relegated to a distant background and are not taken into account by the Russian authorities in building political alliances.
The economic crisis in Russia s hitting Belarus, which is a result of short-sighted policy of the Belarusian authorities. But there are much more stable, more democratic, more open, more secure interstate unions. And there is no need to go far: it is enough to look at our neighbors – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and what lies behind them up to Lisbon. Europe is a space that historically, mentally and culturally has always been connected with Belarus, with the exception of years of occupation by the Russian Empire, and then the times of the "prison of nations", the USSR. Certainly, the European Community has certain rules of conduct that require greater accountability from the authorities, greater transparency and democracy in government. There is a greater level of respect for its citizens. The unreadiness of the Belarusian authorities to show such attitude to its citizens brings on severe social, political and economic processes that shake Belarus.
As practice shows, an exacerbation of social and economic problems increases the activity of the whole society, as people get less social protection. And we see new laws that further reduce this protection, as salaries are reduced as a result of inflation. All this is the result of geopolitical and economic orientation of the Belarusian authorities, and the authorities should be responsible for their policies to the people. Another thing is whether this social activity will have any organized forms. As the experience of the late 1980s – early 1990s shows, when an economic crisis lasts for a long time we can expect a sufficiently serious social change regardless of the activity of opponents of the regime. Mass protests cannot be stopped, because hundreds of thousands of people come to the streets demanding freedom, democracy, social rights, struggling for a better life. Then whole society becomes an opponent of the authorities.
- What are your forecasts for 2015, the year of the presidential elections in Belarus?
- We can't expect no good this year. The pessimistic scenario is associated with a general impoverishment, more complex problems in the economy that lurk ahead, and with the tightening of the screws in the whole society. There are alarming signals indicating that the deterioration in the economic situation will force the government to apply all the more draconian measures in respect of the rights and freedoms of citizens. We, human rights defenders, will have to be more active and to call a spade a spade, to protest against the reduction of the rights of citizens. The same will be done by independent journalists, as it is their work to cover events in the country honestly.
The elections are likely to take place on the old scenario, that is, they, unfortunately, will again be rigged. Aliaksandr Lukashenka will receive more than 80% of "support". This means that the election results will not be recognized by the international community, and that the relations between Belarus and the EU will be difficult, tense. Accordingly, there is no hope for a special support of the Belarusian economy.
If we talk about a optimistic scenario for 2015, much of it depends on the activity of Belarusians and our readiness to defend our own rights. This is so worldwide: the people must fight for their rights themselves and do not believe that Russia or Europe will try to solve our problems. We have to solve our problems ourselves, this is my deep conviction.