The outright political repression in Belarus shows no sign of abating and the protestors don’t appear likely to give up. Due to the intransigence of the Belarusian and Russian leaderships there seems to be little scope for mediating the crisis. Despite this, the offer of mediation from the OSCE and UN should always be on the table and the EU should be firm and decisive about its actions in response to major human rights violations.
As the Belarusian political crisis rumbles on protests ranging from the small to huge continue and state repression ramps up. Students protesting at the Minsk State University were arrested on the campus while mass demonstrations in the tens of thousands in Minsk have seen arrests, threats and beatings, media suppression and forced departure from the country. There is only one leading figure from the Opposition Committee that hasn’t been locked up or had to leave the country. This sorry state of affairs where peaceful protests and dissent are brutally suppressed is to the surprise of no one, least of all the people of Belarus. In 2017 protests had also resulted in a crackdown. The protestors had a very good idea of what they were getting into when they began protesting and went ahead and did it anyway.
Protests aren’t exactly unique to Belarus. 2019 was a year of protests: in Chile they began over the raising of Santiago metro prices, in Iran the trigger was petrol prices, and the protests in France were a general movement for economic justice. In Hong Kong protests broke out over an extradition bill that was withdrawn and protests in Sudan brought about the demise of the country’s leader, Omar al-Bashir. 2020 hasn’t been a whole lot better either. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic keeping people at home, the United States has been best by the Black Lives Matter protests, which have also taken place in the United Kingdom. Russia has not been spared either; protests in the eastern region of Khabarovsk began in July after Moscow ordered its governor’s arrest. As to whether any of these countries have covered themselves in glory in how they handled their respective protests is open to debate. The point is that protests are a normal part of any government that is accountable to its people. They are rare in Belarus for reasons that have been self-evident since Belarusians decided that they hadn’t re-elected Alexander Lukashenko as President on August the 9th of this year. They were probably fully aware that they hadn’t elected him the previous four times either but had kept quiet because they live in a dictatorship and it was to be expected. We should note that the protests in Belarus have been overwhelmingly peaceful and will no doubt continue in this vein: in the face of absolute power nonviolence exposes the illegitimacy of the powerful and their claim to authority is lost.
Neighbouring states are worried and not only because of the violations of human rights that are going on across the country. The EU and member states, the US, UK, Canada and others have already condemned the violence. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have imposed travel bans on Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials. The EU is openly talking of sanctions and doesn’t recognise the results of the 2020 election. In Russia, or more accurately, the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin is probably aghast at developments: Lukashenko has been a difficult ally but he is an ally nonetheless and there is concern that his demise could pull Belarus out of its union with Russia and threaten Putin’s presidency as well. The EU approach is cautious and they have not offered to mediate, clearly wary of providing ammunition for Lukashenko’s lurid claims of foreign influence on Belarusian politics. Nor do they want to provide an excuse for a Russian intervention. The approach from the Kremlin has been to support Lukashenko and dominate the media in both Russia and Belarus (note that we can’t rule out Lukashenko being dumped if he continues to be a problem). If this sounds like a dangerous confrontation along a dividing line between the EU/NATO and a Russian sphere of influence then that is because it is (see the previous blog for why this shouldn’t matter but might).
The question here is who exactly does mediate, given that the protestors are very clear that they want Lukashenko to step down and the security forces are busy brutalising them? It is not a great start and gets worse given that the Opposition Committee is calling for the end of political repression and that the perpetrators are brought to account for their actions. Trusting in a Kremlin that openly backs Lukashenko is too much of an ask, trusting in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as an arbitrator effectively means Russia (or the Kremlin, still too much of an ask) and the basic fact that Belarus and Russia are supposedly in a Union State means that the bigger brother will claim the right to arbitrate (Russia again, so the Kremlin again). The natural affinity between Russians and Belarusians that we talked about in part two suddenly doesn’t seem so great after all. We are left with a dictatorship backed by an autocracy, which is where we began in the first place. If the Kremlin lumbers in on the situation too heavily then the Eastern Partnership with the EU looks a little brighter and, perversely, Lukashenko comes out of it a little better for resisting Moscow’s encroachment into Belarusian affairs all along. So, where to go now?
There are other places to go for mediation, not to mention election monitoring and addressing violations of human rights. One is the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and another is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The OSCE is already involved to a degree, having tried to monitor the 2020 elections it has offered to mediate, but has called for fresh elections. Further impetus can be added by triggering the ‘Moscow mechanism’ to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations (this requires 10 member states, so is not inconceivable). In order to involve the UNHRC a resolution has to be passed which tasks the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to become involved (Lotte Leicht, HRW). An open letter from civil society organisations to convene a special session on human rights violations before, during and after the elections has already been published. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, from exile in Lithuania, has addressed the UN Security Council via video-link and called for it to stop the repression in Belarus.
This is all weighty stuff, which unfortunately has little impact on Mr Lukashenko and has repeatedly failed to trouble the Kremlin as well. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has openly spoken of the failure of the OSCE to monitor the 2020 elections in Belarus, effectively shunting the blame from Lukashenko to the OSCE, which he described as in crisis and in need of reform. He also stated that Moscow and Minsk will suppress attempts to destabilise Belarus via multilateral platforms and promised a response to those who would seek to tear Belarus away from Russia. There was also condemnation of foreign countries that support the opposition and the Presidential election was deemed valid. The ‘initiative’ by Lukashenko to carry out constitutional reform was promising and the political process could become a useful platform for national dialogue. The message was quite clear: stop interfering in Belarus and leave Lukashenko to sort the situation out. This is hardly a promising start, more a conclusion. Nor is it a negotiating tactic, this is probably where Putin stands on the matter.
Despite this, the OSCE and UN should still offer to mediate and press on with investigating major human rights violations. The EU may have to tread carefully so as not to escalate the situation in Belarus further but it should also be sending clear and unequivocal messages to the leaderships in Minsk and Moscow that there will not be any normalisation of relations with either Belarus or Russia while the human rights of Belarusians are being trampled underfoot. They should also be sending a loud and clear message that the EU has no interest in Belarus except to guarantee the fundamental human rights of its citizens and that Belarus isn’t a piece in a geo-political game but a sovereign country. The EU may not be mediating but there is no reason for it not to talk directly to Minsk and Moscow. This is diplomacy, and so more akin to negotiation rather than mediation, but lines of communication should be kept open and the consequences of the Belarusian crisis spelt out. This also applies to member states and other countries. As for the protestors and political opposition within Belarus, they may be in it for the long haul and are clearly up against it, but they have changed the political situation more than they realise. The façade has cracked and the truth that was known but unspoken is finally getting its voice.
Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.