An Unwanted Guest
Easing international pressure on Aleksandr Lukashenko could allow him to continue human rights abuses.
The European Union finds itself in an awkward position at the moment: hoping that an invited guest finds reason to stay away. Last week, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, acting on behalf of the EU, invited Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, to a May 7 summit in Prague to formally launch the EU’s Eastern Partnership with six eastern neighbors: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. Even if Lukashenko, often described as Europe’s last dictator, declines the invitation and sends someone in his stead, the invitation represents Lukashenko’s wholly undeserved return to the international stage, which is a serious setback for the promotion of political liberalization and human rights in Belarus.
In a recently released report, the U.S. State Department notes that the Belarusian governments human rights record last year "remained very poor" with "frequent serious abuses" against NGOs, political parties, and opposition activists. The government has yet to account for politically motivated disappearances, including the late husband of one of the authors of this article. Lukashenko has "consolidated his power over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, manipulated elections, and arbitrary decrees,” the report says.
Past Western pressure on Lukashenko has produced positive results over time. In 2006, following Belarus’s fraudulent presidential election and a serious crackdown against opposition figures, the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, including a visa ban and asset freeze. As the situation inside Belarus deteriorated with the detention of a number of political prisoners, the U.S. in 2007 and early 2008 imposed additional sanctions targeted against Belarusian state-owned companies with links to Lukashenko and his cronies. This goaded Lukashenko a year ago into expelling all but five Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.
At the same time that Western sanctions were taking effect, Russia sought to end its energy subsidies for Belarus, leaving Lukashenko no lifelines east or west. To relieve pressure from Western sanctions, he finally relented and released all political prisoners (five in early 2008, the rest last August). In addition, the Belarusian regime allowed two independent newspapers to distribute through state-controlled outlets and registered a civil society NGO, "For Freedom."
In response, the United States immediately lifted some sanctions against state-owned enterprises (the visa ban and asset freeze remain in place) until the end of next month, pending further review by the Obama administration. The EU, just two weeks after Belarus’s disastrous parliamentary election last September -- which international monitors deemed neither free nor fair -- suspended its asset freeze and visa ban, initially for six months. In mid-March, it extended this suspension until the end of this year.
What has the policy of easing pressure on Lukashenko produced? Mostly negative results. The Belarusian government has rejected other independent media requests for distribution and refused registration to several other NGOs and trade unions. New criminal cases have been brought against a number of opposition activists, including previously released political prisoners, and some have been rearrested. Another previously released political prisoner, Artur Finkevich, was abducted and beaten last December, while activist Artyom Dubski reportedly was beaten in jail after being detained two months ago. Security forces have violently responded to several peaceful demonstrations, and several youth activists have been forcibly drafted into the military. The Lukashenko regime, in other words, continues to engage in human rights abuses even as relations with the West warm up.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk has not been allowed to return to its previous staffing levels and still is not permitted an ambassador. In addition, Belarusian authorities continue to deny proper medical treatment and access to an imprisoned U.S. citizen arrested and convicted last year in a secret trial on suspect charges. And the Belarusian parliament holds open the possibility of recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, separatist regions in Georgia that Russia recognized last year.
In light of these serious, ongoing problems, it’s hard to understand why the EU would welcome Lukashenko to Prague. But a number of EU leaders mistakenly think they can lure Belarus away from Russia. Even before Schwarzenberg’s visit, Minsk has seen a steady stream of high-level European visitors, including EU representative Javier Solana and the foreign ministers of Poland and Spain, among others. Yet Lukashenko is a master at playing Russia and the West off of each other, delivering little to neither.
Many Belarusian opposition leaders believe the EU, by inviting Lukashenko to Prague, is giving up its leverage to push for improvement in human rights in Belarus and handing the dictator a major diplomatic victory. Further Western engagement with Belarus makes sense, but only so long as the Lukashenko government takes more positive steps in the area of human rights. It takes two to tango.
The EU’s 2006 plan of action outlined 12 steps in the area of human rights Minsk needed to take for normalization of relations, yet most of these remain woefully incomplete and recent developments in Belarus run in the opposite direction. Worse, the 2006 plan seems to have been abandoned by the EU itself. The strange half-measure of inviting Lukashenko to Prague with fingers crossed that he won’t come is neither smart engagement nor principled policy.
David J. Kramer was most recently assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and, before that, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, in the George W. Bush administration. Irina Krasovskaya is president of the We Remember Foundation.