Belarus is quite possibly the lesser known of all European countries, despite its close relations with the European Union. The reason for this is the country’s authoritarian regime imposed by its long-standing president, Alexander Lukashenka.
Critics of Lukashenko’s regime accuse it of violating any and every notion of rule of law and democratic freedoms. The media complain of being under constant attack and elections are only a show. Democrats are routinely intimidated or imprisoned and political parties of the opposition, as well as civic organisations, are rendered illegal.
All the while, the EU, which is financially assisting Belarus, does not seem to press the regime for democratic reforms.
European Interest interviewed Vital Rymasheuski, the co-chair of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party. He was a candidate in the 2010 presidential elections in his country and has extensive experience in pro-Democracy militancy which dates back to 2005.
Rymasheuski tells European Interest how the regime operates and why it avoids any attempt of democratisation. He also describes the economic situation of his country, explaining Russia’s role. And he is quick to note his disappointment with the EU for its lack of a determined political position in Belarus.
European Interest: Mr. Co-chair, Belarus held local elections last February. If I am not mistaken, the international community as well as the Democratic opposition in the country hoped the regime would give a slight sign of opening by respecting democratic procedures. But quite the opposite occurred. The regime yet again showed signs of manipulating the electoral campaign and vote. Why do you think the regime in Minsk is so keen to prevent any change?
Vital Rymasheuski: For 20 years the Belarusian regime has consistently been tightening the screw on basic rights and freedoms of the Belarusian citizens. Short periods of the thaw were associated exclusively with the response of the official Minsk to the strong demands of the democratic countries of the world to stop the attacks on human rights and repressions.
Presently there is a new warm-up period in the relations between the Belarusian authorities and the Western world. Therefore, the representatives of the Belarusian authorities declare readiness for democratic changes. However, in practice, the level of repressions over the past year has grown in all areas. There were mass arrests, detentions of democratic activists, huge fines, dispersal of peaceful demonstrations.
Freedom of speech should be given special attention, since in 2017-2018 independent journalists have been detained hundreds of times, they have received numerous fines for their work. Two largest Internet resources were closed down: Belarusian Partisan and Charter 97. The closure of independent Internet media is a new trend of the Belarusian regime; this has not been the case for the last 20 years. This means that the Belarusian authorities launched an complex attack on the freedom of the Internet.
In the last local elections, only one candidate from the democratic forces has been elected. It is a candidate from the Belarusian Christian Democracy from a small village in the Belarusian Polessie. It happened because it was supported by 100% of the inhabitants of this village and representatives of democrats were included to the election commissions. In the rest of the country elections were held with gross violations, there were brutal falsifications in the votes’ counting. The Belarusian authorities did not implement a single recommendation of the OCSE on the changes in electoral legislation and the law enforcement practice of holding elections.
Why, despite the fact that there is a warm period between Europe and the Belarusian authorities, the Belarusian authorities do nothing to democratize the country?
The answer is simple: because now the European Union does not impose strict requirements on democratization of the country and continues to increase cooperation with the Belarusian regime; more and more funding is being allocated for cooperation with the state authorities. At the same time, the democratic opposition, unregistered civil society organizations are deprived of this support.
The main thesis of Europe is not to frighten Alexander Lukashenka, so that he does not fall under the total dependence on Putin. Therefore, when there is no external pressure, and the police and internal troops are ready to suppress the protests of the Belarusian people, the authorities do not consider it necessary to follow the path of democratization.
The authorities are afraid of free and fair elections, because they understand that they can lose to democratic forces and independent candidates.
The introduction of free elections would mean a revision of the entire system of government of the country, since a total system of falsification dominates in Belarus – all deputies are appointed or coordinated with the Belarusian special services. In fact, Belarus is a strict authoritarian regime, where there is no independent legislative and judicial power. There is only an executive vertical, subordinated directly to the Presidential Administration. The parliament and the courts serve only as decorations.
The West has an image of a compact Lukashenka regime with a firm decision to maintain the political status quo. Is this accurate? Or, are there centrifugal tendencies already growing within the regime?
Alexander Lukashenka’s power in Belarus rests solely on the loyalty of the security forces. The national security, defence and law enforcement agencies supervise regional officials, business and elections. Undoubtedly, over the past decades many people among the Belarusian officials and leaders started to believe that the rapprochement with the West is necessary; that it is necessary to reform the model of public administration in the Republic of Belarus. However, the final decision is made by Alexander Lukashenka, and as long as he has enough resources to ensure a high level of income for the employees of the security structures, he will personally control the power and prevent any possibilities for his replacement.
Therefore, we can distinguish the following political groups within the Belarusian elite. The radicals, who are ready to support the accession to Russia and the rigid suppression of democracy in the country; it is the security bloc. And the other part is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, business people, some officials, economists, who are in favour of gradual liberalization. Both of these blocs try to persuade Alexander Lukashenka to make certain decisions, but in any case, the final word remains for him.
How do you think the shift in the EU’s strategy in the region (from transformational to transactional) will impact domestic politics in Belarus?
As I said earlier, this shift has already influenced the domestic policy of Belarus. In fact, the repressions against the civil society have intensified, the regime has gone on to attack independent media and the Internet. It feels its impunity and understands that the European Union is not ready for a tough reaction to the violation of human rights. Indeed, there is no significant reaction that would be painful for the Belarusian authorities, neither after dispersal of the demonstrations, nor after the Internet media shutdown.
At the same time, the regime is trying to implement some economic reforms, most likely, focusing on the Chinese model of economic liberalization without political freedoms. However, so far this strategy also does not bring any significant results.
Many argue that the IMF’s engagement has had little impact on Belarusian politics. Do you agree?
I agree. The IMF has provided several loans to Belarus. They helped to stabilize the economy during the crisis time, but did not lead to any significant economic reforms inside the country.
The IMF makes quite specific and stringent demands for economic liberalization, but the Belarusian regime is not ready for such steps. That is why cooperation with the IMF is difficult at the moment, the allocation of new loans has not been granted and the Belarusian authorities even say that they need no loans.
On February 2, a Belarusian court sentenced three Belarusian journalists with pro-Russian views to five years in prison (with three years suspended sentences). It is the first time the authorities filed a criminal prosecution suit against pro-Russian propaganda. Does the regime in Minsk fear a complot orchestrated by Moscow? Is it possible the Minsk regime intends to lean more to the West in the future? Is there a controversy, since both the EU and US underline the importance the democratic structures in a state?
The trials over the three pro-Russian bloggers in February, as well as the fact the celebrations of the Freedom day in Minsk and several regional cities on 25 March 2018 in honour of the centenary of the proclamation of independence of Belarus were authorized by the authorities, shows that they understand the danger of the hybrid war that the Kremlin is waging in the media, through the cultural expansion, through the imposition of ideological symbols.
The celebrations on 25 March, which were sanctioned by the authorities, prove that the authorities are ready to revise their attitude to the Belarusian history, and to accentuate it on the moments that show the real, historical, cultural independence of Belarus from Russia. This happens due to the fear of Russia’s interference into the internal affairs on the example of Ukraine. However, this does not mean that the Belarusian regime is ready to change its course and cooperate fully with the European Union and the US, because for this purpose it is necessary to democratize the entire country. The Belarusian authorities still want to maintain control by the authoritarian methods. At the same time, they insist that the relations between Belarus and the EU and the US should be normalized. They use as arguments the cooperation of the European Union with Azerbaijan, China and other countries in which human rights are violated, there is no democracy, but unlike Belarus, the leaders of these countries are recognized by the West and the West does not react to the human rights violations in these countries in any significant way.
Belarus has the highest rate of industrial state ownership in Eastern Europe. Do you think the economic crisis will change the balance between the public and the private sectors? In this perspective, could this shift also facilitate a democratic change?
The economic crisis can contribute to the economic reforms in our country, but in itself it will not lead to automatic reforms.
The Belarusian authorities are accustomed to cope with the economic crisis through external loans or indirect support, such as the supply of cheap oil from Russia and loans from the IMF, as well as by increasing taxes and levies on the private businesses. It means that until now the costs of inefficient work, the losses of state enterprises were covered by the external loans or by additional contributions from the Belarusian private business.
In mid-February, the Belarusian Ministry of Justice suspended the process of considering the application for legal registration of the Belarusian Christian Democracy. Since the action of all opposition parties and movements is obstructed by the regime, what do you think is the most effective way to apply pressure on the regime?
The most effective way to apply pressure on the regime is the consolidation of the protest groups within the country and conducting national civil campaigns with the requirements of specific changes in the law. A positive example of this are the civil protests in the spring of 2017 against Decree No. 3. This decree required citizens of the Republic of Belarus who are not officially employed to pay an annual tax of more than 200 € to the state for being unemployed. Tens of thousands of people joined the protests all over the country, demanding that the state authorities abolish the decree. As a result, it was cancelled.
The second part of the successful strategy of achieving changes in Belarus is international solidarity. The demands of the Belarusian political parties, civil society and citizens should be supported by the international community. In this case, the Belarusian authorities will have to make concessions.
Can you please outline the immediate and realizable aims of the Belarusian Christian Democracy?
Belarusian Christian Democracy has the positive experience of introducing changes into the national laws, as well as of successful local campaigns in many regions of the country. We have made these changes by proposing alternative draft laws and organising public campaigns to support those. We have influenced the changes in the health care law, regulations on advertising of alcohol products, and have reduced the level of repression of the Belarusian religious minorities.
In 2018 we give priority to the following campaigns – the reforms of the electoral legislation and the reform of the judicial system of Belarus. We have prepared the necessary formulations of the changes to the laws, we have held meetings with citizens in all regions, and we have begun a massive collection of signatures of citizens in support of our proposals.
We hope that this year we will be able to achieve the release of many unjustly convicted citizens in the Republic of Belarus. Some points of criminal law should be amended for this purpose. Not only political activists, but also ordinary citizens suffer from the unjust judicial system in Belarus. Tens of thousands of people are thrown into prison on unfair sentences. We hope to change this situation.
In addition, the Belarusian Christian Democracy sets the task of strengthening its influence in the regions. And we have planned numerous local campaigns in different localities of Belarus. In 2019 a new election campaign is coming up. Presently we are setting the task of preparing strong candidates so that they can conduct successful campaigns. And we will seek to amend the election law so that these people can have a chance to be elected.
The next presidential elections in Belarus are due in 2020. We started the work on nominating a single candidate from the Centre-right Coalition of the democratic forces of the country. We hope that other political democratic organizations will join us, and the opposition will act as a united single movement in support of an alternative candidate for the presidential campaign in 2020.
In the situation of the absence of an independent Parliament and an independent judiciary system in Belarus, we see our party’s mission in protecting the interests of the citizens, in helping the citizens to organize public campaigns to fight for their rights and improve the economic conditions of life. This is the main strategy of our party in the periods between the elections.