22 September 2017, Friday, 14:29

German Expert: Belarus Should Hold Serious Government-Opposition Talks

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In the interests of the EU, the goal of such negotiations should be free elections.

On May 10, the discussion on Belarus with the participation of experts from all over Europe took place in the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, the analytical institute of the EPP. Executive Director of the Center Tomi Huhtanen; representative of the Belarusian National Congress, leader of the “European Belarus” civil campaign Andrei Sannikov; representative of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Vital Rymasheuski; and MEP Artis Pabriks (Latvia) participated in the discussion. The event was moderated by Political Director of the Center Roland Freudenstein, the Charter97.org correspondent informed.

Andrei Sannikov said during the discussion:

- Belarus is facing today the heaviest crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, because of absense of reforms, because of lack of any kind of restructuring which is badly needed. The crisis is mainly manifested by the lack of money, a very serious balance of payment crisis. And that also kind of explained what the regime is trying to achieve, because it is trying to get money from anywhere. First of all, it counts on the Western assistance. So this lack of money prompted the policy that we are seeing today – without any reforms, and Lukashenka himself stresses every time he speaks publicly that there will be no reforms in Belarus.

In a situation like this, there are two ways of getting money from inside the country: the heavier burden on the people, like these taxes on the “social parasites”, all kind of fees, duties, taxes are being introduced to get money from the population, and besides the taxes on social parasites we are now talking about the fining, or even imprisoning, persecuting of those whom they call social parasites. The second way is to squeeze money from the businessmen. There are hundreds times more imprisoned businessmen than oppositionists now.

The people reacted to such policy with the most massive protests since the collapse of the USSR. The protests happened not only in Minsk and the regional centers, but in the district towns as well. The authorities, the regime reacted with the only known instrument – repression.

I can tell you there was no liberalization, and this “non-liberalization” was definitely over in February. According to the most prominent human rights center “Viasna”, in 2016 there was seven times more repression than in 2015. In 2017, there were dozens times more cases of repression than in 2016. Lukashenka unleashed repression again, and it was unnoticed by the West completely, despite the promises of our friends and partners. Leader of the European People’s Party Joseph Daul said back in March that sanctions will be introduced if repression continues and people remain in jail, but it didn’t happen. This prompted Lukashenka to go further.

We have 18 people in prison for so-called “case of patriots”. They are trying to fabricate a criminal case against them. The regime doesn’t show any signs of improving the situation. The repression is getting more brutal, violent, without any pretend of legality, the people are being kidnapped, the relatives are not informed – for one, two, three days the relatives don’t know about their whereabouts. Still, I think that the protests will continue despite the severe reaction of the regime. We saw really people’s protests in Belarus, with political demands.

The opposition was supporting this. The first protest was organized by the Belarusian National Congress in mid-February. Other political forces supported the people’s protests, for instance, in the regions.

Russia’s role. For many years our friends in the West said, let’s not be hard on Lukashenka because we will see Russian tanks in Belarus. Now you will see the Russian tanks, and what will you do? The situation is very scary. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus was asked whether the Russian troops will leave Belarus after the “West-2017” exercise, and he said “probably”. This is real danger for the Belarusian independence and sovereignty, and this is dangerous for the regime as well. Russia is most likely working on the scenarios for replacing Lukashenka, choosing between the Crimea and the Donbas.

The regime didn’t change, and despite all the repression that we are facing, I am supporting the only solution which is realistic and doable – election, free election under the international control, because otherwise we will face the situation of war, of conflict. The best way out is to hold negotiations between the government and the opposition for conducting fair election, - the “European Belarus” leader said.

ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN AND ANDREI SANNIKOV

Vital Rymasheuski noted during the discussion that the EU was holding a dialogue but had no strategy with regard to Belarus:

- It’s a big problem for us. The strategy proposed by the BCD and the Center-Right coalition is, first, solidarity with political prisoners, the demand to release political prisoners and to stop pressure on the civil society. Second, preparation of the election law reform; holding local election in accordance with the OSCE standards; and simultaneously we should prepare the basic agreement on cooperation between the EU and Belarus, which would have the “road map” of political and socio-economic reforms, the preparation of which should be carried out with the participation of the political opposition and the civil society.

The regime will continue repression, because it is scared by the economic crisis and Russia's behavior. This gives us new chances, as the importance of the regime’s cooperation with the West grows. It is necessary to include the opposition and the civil society in the process of this dialogue and be more firm in the issues of observance of human rights. It is very important how the session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will go in Minsk. If there is no opposition there, this will mean support for the regime.

As for the danger of Russia's invasion in Belarus, Europeans should not worry, because Russia has no more acceptable power in Belarus than Lukashenka. Through him they carry out their interests, " - Co-Chairman of the BCD party said.

MEP Artis Pabricks belives that the European Union faces a classical dilemma in Belarus: how to deal with the weak authoritarian state, the independence of which is endangered by a more powerful authoritatian or totalitarian state.

- I have no ready answers. The only thing I'm sure of, we can not behave passively and observe how the chances for a democratic Belarus are diminishing and Russia is gradually absorbing it. I agree that Europe should create a situation for peaceful transformation through democratic elections. It should be understood that Russia will resist such a peaceful scenario. We need to think in advance about decisive measures to curb possible aggressive actions of Russia and provide the same support for democracy as the West provided to the Baltic countries in its time, - the MEP is convinced.

Political Director of the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies Roland Freudenstein summarized the discussion in the following way:

- The Belarusian economy is in bad shape, the potential of instability is growing.

- Whatever the role of Russia is with Lukashenka, it considers Belarus part of the sphere of its interests, which is something we cannot accept.

- It is possible that we will see a Crimea or a Donbas-like scenario with regard to Belarus even this year.

But the most important point is the EU should use its leverage to encourage, to pressure the government in Belarus to actually start serious talks with the opposition and the civil society, and somehow aim towards free elections.