Standing from left; Piotr Kiszkiel, Stanislau Shushkevich, Artur Michalski, Valentin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Arlau. Sitting: Peter Johnsson and Valery Karbalevich.

Conference reports Belarus. Discussion for Bringing about Change

A number of representatives of the opposition in Belarus participated in a seminar “The Way Forward for Belarus”. The seminar addressed such issues as the difficulties experienced by the opposition in working for democracy and human rights in Belarus and what the outside world can do to support their work.

Published on on May 5, 2011

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The Belarusian elections on December 19 proved not to be the step towards democracy that many in Europe had hoped for. Instead, President Lukashenka has tightened his grip on the apparatus of power by way of wiretapping and interrogation regarding people’s activities and resorting to violence and punishment regarding those in opposition.

“Since December 19, conditions in Belarus have become far worse where human rights are concerned. The softer image put across before the election was merely playing to the gallery; there were no real changes. The same structure of control has been in place the entire time. After December 19, the grip tightened. ”

So says Valentin Stefanovich, vice president of the civil rights organization Viasna (Spring), which was set up in 1996 and publishes regular reports on violations of human rights in Belarus.

Like several other actors working for change towards democracy in Belarus, he came to Jonsered Manor on April 26 to discuss the situation in Belarus with invited guests from such institutions as Swedish universities and government departments. *

Viasna was set up in reaction to the events of 1996 when Lukashenka, with the support of Russia in the wake of a referendum, succeeded in dissolving the old parliament and replacing it with a parliament under his complete control and one which in practice outlawed any opposition.  Stanislau Shushkevich, who participated in the seminar and who had up to the time of Lukashenka’s victory in the presidential election of 1994 been the country’s head of state,  described the events of 1996 as a coup d’état. This meant the end of democracy in Belarus.

Lukashenka a hostage to himself

Valery Karbalevich, an independent professor of political science, has recently published a book about Lukashenka in Russian. The book is currently being translated into several languages, including Polish and German. A second edition is also planned in Belarusian. He believes that justifying Lukashenka’s gains in the democratic election of 1994 on the grounds of socioeconomic or political factors is not sufficient; one must also take into account psychological factors.

“When the Soviet system collapsed, many people felt the rug had been pulled from under their feet. After living in a controlled society many felt abandoned and lacked direction. It was then easy for Lukashenka to gain the ear of the people and their support by promising simple solutions and stability in uncertain times.

He sees himself as a man of the people. The fact that he reacted so fiercely to the action of the opposition during the election in December is probably in part because he had in fact thought until then that the opposition consisted of a small group of people who had support in the West. He then realized he’d misinterpreted the situation; there is a sizeable opposition against him. Why did he react with so much violence when people gathered on the streets? He became nervous. He can control elections, but controlling people on the streets is harder, and that’s why he used force. The events in North Africa had shaken him as well. He has already declared that is prepared to send in the military against the people should anything similar happen in Belarus. Finally, he has another problem: the state of Belarus’ currency.”

Valery Karbalevich believes that Lukashenka’s time in power is drawing to an end. However, he believes that Lukashenka will not relinquish power voluntarily. During his term of office he has been in breach of laws for which he will be answerable if he relinquishes power. There is no one on whom he relies and to whom he can hand over power. He is a hostage to himself.

Is he then prepared to accept reforms? According to Valery Karbalevich, this is a question many people are asking themselves today.

“The present status quo is a hazardous one: he’s sitting on the lid of a simmering pot which can explode. But all the reforms come with their own risk too; they can lead to increased social tension. It’s a tragedy: he’s trapped in a system of his own making.”

The opposition needs support

Stanislau Shushkevich, in his capacity as head of state of Belarus (1991-1994), was one of the signatories to the historic document leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the coexistence of the “three brothers”: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Today he is one of the leading figures of the democratic opposition.

“Lukashenka has had total power in his hands since the coup d’état of 1996. As the opposition, we are reduced to holding small gatherings, having verbal communication, knocking on doors. We have no political arena, no organization,” Stanislau Shushkevich says with emphasis.

It is like Lech Walesa trying to implement what he did in Poland without having Solidarity behind him, to quote a comparison made by the opposition in order to illustrate its difficulties.

The fact that conditions are difficult for the opposition to work under is also clearly demonstrated in the description given by the historian and author Uladzimir Arlau of the way in which the state controls information and the dissemination of knowledge.

“School books contain biased descriptions of our friendship with Russia. The fact that Stalin executed one hundred thousand Belarusians in the forests outside Minsk in the years between 1937 and 1941 is hushed up; it’s made out that there’s no proof as to who was responsible for these mass graves.”

Uladzimir Arlau believes that the big problem today is reaching out in terms of information and knowledge, given the huge amount of state disinformation and propaganda.

Siarhei Varankevich is president of the youth organization Civil Forum. He explains that there are ways of getting information out. There are younger forces ready to take over.

“In the virtual world, we are big. But it won’t be until we’re able to see people face to face and arrange meetings in reality that we can bring about real change. Many people can’t speak English. What is needed is knowledge and education. Contacts with the West are essential,” he says with grave emphasis.

Russia or the EU

Something has happened in Belarus which many see as a turning point in terms of the attitude that Belarus is a part of Europe and should join the EU. Valery Karbalevich explains that an opinion survey in March showed that over fifty percent of the Belarusian people supported membership of the EU, while one third desired integration with Russia. It was the first time the distribution had been to Europe’s advantage. Previously it had been the opposite. So something has happened, Karbalevich maintains.

Stanislau Shushkevich has experience in trying to lead a newly independent country. He knows it is not easy once one assumes power. Therefore he urges the opposition to prepare itself for the day Belarus becomes a democracy.

“We must prepare ourselves for the time that’s coming. Now is the time we must make decisions and guarantee what we will do when we come to power, guarantee that we will introduce a state governed by law and a market economy. Once in power there will be many temptations – look at how things have gone for Ukraine. We must learn from our own mistakes and not blame others. In 1996, we in opposition made a mistake. In 2000, we made yet another when we boycotted the elections. We must now formulate a strategy for the future on the basis of what we have learned.”

Opposition representatives are clear about the fact that they need support and help from the West in order to succeed in working for democracy and human rights in Belarus. Today they are lacking the resources and a platform.

What can the outside world do? Artur Michalski, director of the Eastern Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Poland, wants to base Polish efforts on a two-pillar approach: in part support civil society in the form of helping the people to develop and survive, and in part support sanctions against the government to penalize the powers in Minsk.

“This is the most difficult situation in twenty years. Within the EU we are discussing sanctions, and in Poland we have already doubled our support for civil society and made it easier for Belarusians to acquire a visa to come to Poland. Lukashenka often plays up the antagonism between Russia and the EU. We must free ourselves of this logic and help civil society, and not view everything as a geopolitical game. We are to help create a democratic state in Belarus. Then it’s up to the Belarusian people to choose the way forward: Russia or the EU.

* The seminar at Jonsered Manor April 26, was part of a collaborative project between the University of Gothenburg,  the City of Gothenburg and Baltic Worlds as well as the Swedish International Liberal Centre.

NOTE: Please also read other articles on Belarus: