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Release of political prisoners: a lot of questions and one answer

Release of political prisoners: a lot of questions and one answer
Grigorij Mesežnikov

The EU must not let dictators push it around. It is necessary to require strict compliance with democratic norms and principles.

The law of conservation of authoritarianism

History has many examples of extraordinary ingenuity of authoritarian regimes seeking to prolong their existence as much as possible. History also shows that it is very difficult to get rid of non-democratic regimes after they came to power with visibility or real elements of democratic legitimacy (for example, as a result of the elections). Usually, it takes time to educate the society, to form a force capable of offering a real political, programmatic and powerful alternative, to mobilize citizens in support of such an alternative.

The ruling authoritarian regimes are doing everything in their power to prevent changes; they use for this the force of the state apparatus and repressive system of levers, media advocacy channels, the economic capabilities of the state, its foreign relations, diplomatic service, etc.

An authoritarian regime usually perceives the activities of political forces able to organize a movement for change as the main threat to its existence. Therefore, it seeks to prevent the formation of a democratic political camp, and if it has already appeared - the regime seeks to limit the possibilities to strengthen it. The regime "tramples down" the political field and denies freedom of action to the potential (or actual) leaders of the democratic camp (and often simply deprives them of personal freedom by throwing them in jail) or squeezes them out of the country. And sometimes it destroys them physically, hiding the traces of the crimes committed. Today we can see how this process is developing 'live', online, in Russia.

But not only Russia today can serve as a good example of the reflexes of authoritarian government seeking to preserve itself as long as possible and prevent its departure from the scene. A similar situation currently exists in Belarus.

The release of Belarusian prisoners: the meaning and context

In 2010, after the non-free presidential elections held with numerous forgeries, the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko dealt with the leaders of the protest movement by harsh repression - arrests, convictions for large terms, ill-treatment in prison. In Belarus it is hardly surprising, given all the previous experience and the overall development of the country, where authorities consolidated their positions and tightened the conditions for any activity that was considered unacceptable in terms of the prospects for its survival. In turn, in the West no one was surprised that the EU and the US responded to the actions of the official Minsk by strengthening sanctions and demanding the unconditional release of wrongfully convicted people as a condition for easing the sanctions.

Some Belarusian opposition activists, thanks to the international pressure and solidarity movement, after a certain period of time managed to get released; others were forced to leave the country. However, some of the convicts had been behind bars until very recently. Belarusian democrats together with Western leaders demanded their release, while the European Union and the United States contributed to progress in relations with Minsk and their release.

A few weeks ago Alexander Lukashenko pardoned six political prisoners. They have already been released, some after serving in prison long enough terms.

The reasons that forced the Belarusian autocrat to release his political opponents shortly before the appointed presidential elections were analyzed in detail by many observers - both Belarusian and foreign (see, for example, the article Jörg Forbrig at Charter-97).

Observers note that the calculation of the Belarusian head of state is clear. He hopes that the West will perceive the release of the six opponents of the regime as a significant progress and against this progress will not find fault with everything else – uncontested elections, concentration of power in the hands of the president, actions of law enforcement agencies in relation to the opposition and to all the current political system of Belarus. Therefore the reaction of the West to Lukashenko's actions in this regard is very important.

Are there any signs of change?

The release of political prisoners is certainly a positive thing, a step in the right direction, which is to be welcomed. The suffering of unjustly convicted ended, they are finally free, returned to their loved ones and are slowly beginning to live a normal life.

There arise, however, serious questions about the broader social context. Does the fact that Lukashenko amnestied political opponents will lead to such a turn of events that will lead to profound changes in Belarus? Is there evidence that the move constitutes (or will be in the near future) fundamentally new trends in socio-political life of the country?

Are there any signs that the regime really started to search for ways of its internal reform, or at least reformatting? Does Alexander Lukashenko think of the changes, which would promote the inclusion in the social life of the country various views from various ideological trends and values?

Unfortunately, there is no such evidence yet. After the release of six political prisoners there was not observed anything that would - even at the level of verbal declarations, even remotely - herald the development in such a hopeful direction.

So far we have not seen it. A preparation for the presidential elections that are to be held based on the ready-made script (that means re-election of the current leader for another term unopposed) is in full swing. So, apparently, the reason for optimism is not here yet.

Europe's response

And how are the events in Belarus evaluated by individual states - members of the European Union? The single positive reaction to the release of prisoners was expected. This is understandable. It is the European Union that insisted on their early release. Quite symptomatic here is the reasons that led to the release of the opposition, proposed by some EU countries, such as Slovakia.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic made a statement which described the release of prisoners as a very positive result of the long-term dialogue between the EU and Belarus, in which the Slovak side made an important contribution through numerous negotiations with Belarusian partners at different levels. Of particular interest here is the wording, according to which the issue of release of political prisoners, which, as we know from experience is solved with one stroke of the president's pen, had to be discussed in the framework of "long-term dialogue," in numerous negotiations and at different levels.

Undisguised optimism is evident in yet another part of the statement of the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which states: "We believe the release of such persons to be an important step of Minsk on the claimed way of gradual normalization of its relations with the EU and EU Member States, that we have seen signs of for a few months. We believe that this trend will continue in the coming period and will allow the European Union, including Slovakia, to respond positively to the efforts of the Belarusian side."

The statement of the Slovak Ministry said that "this development will contribute to strengthening mutual trust in the future, will provide more intensive and effective cooperation in a wide range of areas."

Authoritarianism and European integration of Slovakia: how it was actually

One can only welcome the fact that the Slovak diplomat took an active part in the liberation of the Democrats persecuted in Belarus, having allegedly insisted on the implementation of the EU requirements. Taking into account the values on which the European Union is based, and adhering to a common EU line, they, however, should not stop there. Who else but the Slovak representatives should know and remember that their country was able to realize their European dream only thanks to the principled position of the EU, which did not allow an authoritarian national-populist leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the nineties, fool people with declarations about the need for European ways while he was building a semi-democratic regime in which the state destroyed a nationwide referendum, the government was satisfied with the surveillance of opposition using the Secret Service, and kidnapping and taking the unwelcome president's sons abroad in a car trunk.

The EU did not let Meciar push it around, it demanded strict observance of democratic norms and principles, and when it became clear that they would simply not get it from Meciar, it clearly said: "The European dream will come true only when democracy is fully restored instead of sweet talk about it and Europe." Meciar did not understand it, and as a result of the elections was removed from his post, democrats came to replace him leading the country into the EU.

Without the democratization the European dream will not come true

Slovakia, states of the Visegrad Four and other EU countries must understand that true European perspective as an optimal scenario for Belarus (and this is best achieved through the Eastern Partnership), as well as an update of the all-round cooperation between the EU and Belarus cannot result of individual, albeit positive steps, which the regime has to take maneuvering under the pressure of circumstances, but as a result of serious political changes of a systemic nature, which completely exclude the possibility of a repetition of the 2010 events with the people recently released by Alexander Lukashenko. Starting with a successful story of the prisoner release, the European Union must insist on further, equally important steps in the direction of the broad democratization of Belarus.

Grigorij Mesežnikov, director of the Institute for Public Affairs (Slovakia), specially for charter97.org

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