22 January 2018, Monday, 2:58

David Marples: Meeting with Lukashenka - cynicism or naivety

Well-known researcher of Belarus doesn't understand why the American Foundation rushed to support Europe's last dictator.

Meeting of American political scientist and Lukashenko has been controversial both in Belarus and abroad. David Marples tell about it in the interview to Pavol Demes, fellow of German Marshall Fund.

- You are one of the best known Western authors on Belarus. You also contribute regularly to the prominent Jamestown Foundation website . The President of this Foundation and two contributing analysts were recently received by Alexander Lukashenko, which created outrage among the Belarusian democratic community. Were you considering being a part of this team? How do you assess this visit?

- I was not informed about it at any time. Grigory Ioffe and I have the same status at the Jamestown Foundation, i.e. we are freelance contributors on Belarus. Thus the presence of Prof. Ioffe at the meeting with the president of Belarus is his own affair. But the fact that the meeting included the president of Jamestown and the chief writer for the Eurasian Daily Monitor indicates that it was not completely informal. People do not simply drop in on Aliaksandr Lukashenka. And a reciprocal visit is not possible because the president of Belarus is not allowed at present to set foot in the United States. Thus the US representatives were meeting with a man their own government has deemed persona non grata. Why? Were they pleading for the release of Mikalai Statkevich, Paval Saviarinets, or Dzmitry Dashkevich? Evidently not. I have read three reports of the encounter and they all emphasize that the visitors stressed that Lukashenka has an image problem in the West, which is largely the fault of an irresponsible media; that he has released prisoners who have not "even" asked for a pardon; that both sides should be realistic and start to consider a new dialogue.

I have to confess that when I read the comments about the Western media, the images from December 19-20, 2010 came to my mind - presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov lying on the floor on Independence Square, unconscious; his wife beaten against the windshield of a car; Niakliayeu beaten and then later dragged from his hospital bed; 7 of the 9 candidates in prison cells on the night of the election day. And it was a similar situation in March 2006. And what has changed exactly since? Dashkevich's sentence was just increased, Sannikau and Mikhalevich have joined Pazniak and others as refugees from their homeland, the editor of ARCHE, the only free intellectual journal in Belarus, has now taken the same route. Hundreds of Belarusian students now study outside the country and have started to form sizeable communities in Warsaw, Vilnius, and other cities. I did not see any of these names featuring in the conversation. And whether anyone asked for a pardon is surely immaterial - a pardon for what, exactly?

In my view, the visit shows either astonishing naivety or a deep cynicism concerning the need to respect fundamental freedoms. Why single out the president of Belarus for such benign treatment?

- Under what conditions should Western analysts accept invitations from Alexander Lukashenko or other authoritarian leaders? Would you consider it acceptable if they were hosted by similar leaders?

- I think it might be acceptable if the invitation included current and former political prisoners, as well as opposition leaders in a round-table setting. But this should happen only in a situation in which Belarus responded to basic requests for the release of all prisoners, a free media, and freedom of speech and assembly (in every sense of the latter word). And then the question arises of the circumstances of the recent meeting--why then and why in such a format? Why would a think-tank like Jamestown throw-ostensibly-support behind the most brutal regime in Europe? At the very least it suggests a basic disagreement with US (and EU) policy.

- How do you see the role of Western analysts in the human rights area, namely in releasing political prisoners? Did the recent visit by the Jamestown delegation address this issue?

- I think it's a topic that we have to treat with caution. Analysts cannot be advocates. We cannot openly take sides without losing some credibility. In the past I have not taken part in meetings with the opposition or in public demonstrations in Minsk and other places. I try to conduct research--and I am an historian as well as someone who analyzes contemporary politics, so that is the logical way to behave. But I think we have an obligation to report honestly on what we see, however limited by lack of access and shortage of time. We do not live in Belarus, and perhaps we do not comprehend some aspects of everyday life. Even when we are there we move in certain circles. We communicate with intellectuals and academics rather than collective farmers or industrial workers. Yet we still get an impression, and by reading and through conversations we can reach some understanding of society.

In my view, this meeting implicitly criticizes many from the West who know (and love) Belarus and try to assess honestly the internal situation. I have spent extensive time in my career in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. It is possible to make comparisons. And Belarus is somewhat less "criminal" than its two neighbours in terms of things like stealing natural resources, but undoubtedly more brutal and vindictive. Russia today has been said by some to have "adopted" Belarusian policies or "Lukashism." Admittedly it has become increasingly authoritarian under Vladimir Putin. Ukraine is not really on the same page, although the current leadership is astonishingly corrupt. Russia and Ukraine have both had several presidents. Belarus has had only one. True, this is not the worst dictatorship on the planet, but it has become worse, rather than better, over time, particularly during harsher economic times, when the president no longer has access to cheap Russian supplies of oil and gas. The enhanced power of the KGB, especially, but also the internal police, are a cause of deep concern.

From the published reports, these issues never came up in the meeting. Instead, whatever critiques were launched pertained to the "sanctions" and the Western media. The question why the West should start a new dialogue with official Minsk was never broached, but presumably it was linked to two perceptions:

1) that Belarus and Lukashenka serve as some kind of bulwark or buffer state against Russian expansion or influence westward--the image of a bold leader standing up to a rapacious bully out to steal its resources.

2) that the EU and Belarus must operate as equals - Belarus should not be treated like a child, a comment I cited recently from German analyst Alexander Rahr.

The first perception is nonsense. Lukashenka serves only himself and his own authority. Regarding the second, perhaps there is an element of condescension in the tone with which Belarus is addressed today. But that arises naturally from intra-European discussions, of which Minsk is a part, and voluntarily so. When the country joined the Eastern Partnership, then it accepted certain principles, including an agreement to reform its society, introduce more democratization, etc. So Western analysts cannot now turn around and say it is being treated unfairly. And I agree that sanctions are not an ideal policy. Yet some response to the outrageous events in Belarus is necessary. What kind of world would we have if we simply took the view: it's an internal affair, let us simply accept Belarus for what it has become and welcome Lukashenka as a friend into the parliaments of European capitals. Not only would this be a dereliction of duty, it would be grossly insulting to those who have tried to work within the Belarusian system, in elections, in opposition parties and movements, in cultural societies, and in NGOs to change society.

That they have thus far failed reflects less a lack of popularity than the fact that they regime has singled them out for various kinds of harassment. Thus I see little reason for these modern-day appeasers to be offering soothing advice to the "misunderstood" president.