18 January 2018, Thursday, 20:43

Andrei Sannikov: Business in dictatorial country leads to prison


Foreign businessmen sooner or later face repressions on the part of the authorities in Belarus.

Latvian media IR reports about the contacts between Riga and official Minsk (translated by charter97.org). Journalist Pauls Raudseps notes that their number has recently grown. Recently the speaker of Latvian parliament expressed her satisfaction with the activation of the political dialogue at a meeting with the Belarusian ambassador; and the Minister of Economy Daniel Pavluts and Belarusian Minister of Transport and Communications Anatol Sivak agreed to encourage mutual investments.

The media tells about the international conference that took place in Riga in September. Representatives of Belarus’ official authorities were invited. The leader of the European Belarus civic campaign Andrei Sannikov also took part in the conference. The media notes that he spent almost one and a half years in prison for opposing the dictator in the presidential elections of 2010. “He saw the face and cruelty of the Lukashenka regime in all its manifestations – from an arbitrary arrest to the threats of death in prison”, - the Latvian journalist writes, noting that the politician was only released due to sanctions and the pressure on the Belarusian authorities on the part of the EU.

The media published Andrei Sannikov’s article on the relations between Belarus and Latvia. Below is the article in full:

- The Eighth Riga Conference that took place in September was a high-level forum, where topical issues and problems of modern days were discussed. The organizers emphasized that its goal was to discuss “the creation of a proper environment for supporting and strengthening transatlantic relations on the basis of common values”.

This is actually so, but this year there was one alarming aspect about the conference. The organizers changed Belarus’ participation format. Among the reporters there was a representative of “Europe’s last dictatorship”.

Previous conferences in Riga were the platforms for support and solidarity with Belarusian democrats even when the signs of realpolitik were noticeable in the European Union. Belarusian democratic activists could inform the participants about the actual state of affairs in our country. We listened to and heard, there was no space for the official propaganda, which is Belarus MFA’s main function today.

The decision to let a representative of the Belarusian government take part in the panel is, unfortunately, a misunderstanding. Latvia consistently implements the policy of lobbying in the EU with the aim of softening the position on the dictatorship at its border. It has even gone as far as to creating loopholes for Belarusian businessmen, sanctioned by the EU, and then provides them with an opportunity to use these loopholes for exports through its ports.

Latvia’s officials explain this by the necessity to consider the interests of the business community, which has strong ties with the Belarusian economy. Latvia has actually gone quite far in terms of protecting and encouraging these interests, while the EU should cut down the contacts with Belarus for the sake of saving the lives of political prisoners.

An invitation of a representative of the dictatorship is exactly what Lukashenka needs – recognition and legitimization of his regime by Europe, additional investments and disregard to blatant human rights violations. He desperately needs the West’s money for supporting his repressive machine, which is becoming increasingly more expensive. Placing economic interests above values is a pernicious way, which in no way meets the actual economic interests of a country dealing with a dictatorship. In the state, where the rule of law is absent, foreign business will inevitably face negative consequences.

When I was in custody in Belarus, serving a term for challenging the dictator in the latest presidential elections, I met many businessmen from other countries. Their stories were similar. Their companies were seized or destroyed at the moment when they started being profitable and became attractive for raiders. Every one of them was put pressure on and had criminal charges brought against, every one of them ended up in prison unwilling to submit to such actions on the part of the authorities. Even behind bars they kept being a subject for racketeering. There were businessmen from Latvia among them.

History teaches us that dealing with any dictator may bring short-term dividends, but in the end the negative consequences outweigh any “quick money” benefits. The long-term personal and business risks are very high, leave alone the high reputation costs.

Latvia has managed to achieve significant success in its development and is currently a full member of the European Union. At the same time Latvia knows what it means to live in a totalitarian system and under a dictatorship. Latvia’s successes are firmly grounded in the country’s democratic development and European Union’s common values.

In the framework of the European Union Latvia keeps speaking the common language of respect to human rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, when it becomes the matter of its south-east neighbor, the rhetoric changes. Human rights disappear from it, but the theses of “a dialogue and cooperation” with the dictator and the necessity to protect business-interests of a small number of Latvian businessmen.

On 12 October an amateur hockey team, comprised of Latvian parliament members, played against Lukashenka’s team. On the following day independent media noted that “the dictator had won over the Latvian parliament”. Latvian authorities try to assert that “business has nothing in common with politics”. Latvian parliamentarians keep saying that “sport is beyond politics”. Actually, such an approach has become a part of Latvia’s policy.

Lukashenka is not a fool. This is exactly what enables the regime to survive. He diligently tries to separate economic from human rights: “Repressions, tortures, murders of opponents, imprisoning the innocent has nothing to do with economic interests, which are more important to you. Become my lobbyists in your countries in order to make your governments lobby for my interests in the EU. Let’s be friends, do business and make money together”.

At the same conference in Riga I was very glad to meet the president Valdis Zatlers, whom I greatly respect. When he was Latvia’s president, we met at different international fora, and I always felt his genuine interest to the situation in Belarus. He told me how difficult it was to sustain the pressure on the part of the business-lobby that aimed for softening Latvia’s position on the Belarusian authorities. He also said that he had not given in to this pressure.

Andrei Sannikov,

leader of the European Belarus civic campaign,

2010 presidential candidate,

prisoner of conscience in 2010-2012.