The political crisis in Belarus as a theater of the absurd
On July 6, a Belarusian court sentenced Victor Babariko to 14 years in prison (BelTA, July 6), perhaps the greatest political rival of President Alyaksandr Loukachenka. Babariko was arguably in the best position to win a free and fair presidential election against the incumbent president, had he been allowed to run last year (see EDM, June 10, June 23, July 29, 2020). In other circumstances, the allegations against Babariko, including that he accepted huge bribes while running a bank for 20 years, may have merited closer examination. But when a sitting president’s main rival is arrested less than two months before the election, the notion that the prosecutor’s decision was made for some reason other than political considerations, predictably, seems dubious. According to the late April survey just released by London think tank Chatham House (CH), Babariko continues to be the most popular politician in Belarus: 25% of 937 Belarusians surveyed said he would do so. the best president. (Chathamhouse.org, June 30th). However, given that CH internet opinion polls routinely undervalue Lukashenka’s base of support (see EDM, March 2), the most telling result of this survey is that the incumbent president is still ranked number one. two, with 23%. That is, even according to CH estimates, Lukashenka appears to have a solid base of support, which may well represent up to a third of the electorate.
In the meantime, however, Lukashenka’s retaliation against European Union economic sanctions continues unabated. Following the closure of German-funded institutions in Belarus (see EDM, July 7), the government closed the Minsk office of Euroradio (Reform, July 5), an active media outlet funded by USAID and based in Warsaw. In addition, the authorities blocked the website of Nasha Niva, a large online newspaper popular with Belarusian Westernists, and arrested three editors of this medium (Svaboda.org, July 8). The government’s actions amount to a widespread assault on every media entity that uses Western funds. Only Radio Freedom has not yet lost its Minsk office.
Reputable commentators like Artyom Shraibman continue to insist that sanctions against Belarus are risky and that “the logic of escalation [which these economic penalties help to prop up] rather push Loukachenka […] to reinforce in a demonstrative way the repressions, to seek and imprison new enemies inside the country. Perhaps the only effect of sanctions that is not counterproductive to their stated goals would be to make Lukashenka nervous, says Shraibman (Carnegie.ru, July 7). This last putative objective certainly seems to have been achieved. For example, on July 6, Lukashenka made an extremely awkward statement about Jews and the Holocaust, to the effect that ethnic Belarusians just need to be more assertive when they make the same claim that Jews have succeeded. to do before. That is, the Belarusians were also victims of genocide, but unlike the Jews, they showed humility and did not insist on such a qualification, only to be attacked again by Europe, that is, by sanctions, etc. The awkwardness of this statement is not only in throwing a frightening and opportunistic light on the Holocaust (New Belarus, July 8) but also by retroactively exempting Belarusian Jews, 800,000 of whom died during World War II, from the history of Belarus as a whole (Leonid Smilovitsky, Yevrei Belarusi do i postle Holocosta, 2020).
According to Shraibman (now based in Kiev), when the European Union imposed economic sanctions, “collateral damage, such as costs to ordinary Belarusians, was not taken into account.” You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, as the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, joked. Shraibman also observes that Russia, which still supports Lukashenka, “can help not only with new loans, but also with the circumvention of specific sanctions. For example, if the EU or Lithuania at some point completely ban Belarusian potash trade through their ports, Minsk will have no choice but to build a terminal in the Russian Baltic Sea. “The architects who exert pressure on Lukashenka through sanctions are unlikely to want such an outcome,” Shraibman points out, “but they have no other tools to react. [the Belarusian president’s] actions ”, the generally weighted commentator poses a little dubiously (Carnegie.ru, July 7). Moreover, as famed opposition-minded economist Yaroslav Romanchuk asserts, most of these Western sanctions are easy to dodge even without Russian help (SN, June 29), which effectively means that they are more symbolic than practical.
Surprisingly perhaps for those who do not follow the Belarusian political saga closely, anti-regime activist Roman Protasevich – whose capture in May was the purpose of the authorities’ forced landing of an airliner, which to in turn triggered European sanctions – was allowed to get a Twitter account (Marine, July 7). And with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, Protasevich is currently residing (under house arrest) in a suburban house (Media Brest, July 8). At the same time, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whom many in the West regard as the true ruler of Belarus, continues to demand that Western countries step up their pressure on Minsk (Svaboda.org, July 7), whether or not suitable instruments of such pressure are at hand. In addition, his office has been given a sort of “diplomatic status” in Vilnius, likely ensuring that Lithuania’s diplomatic presence in Belarus will soon be reduced to zero (New Belarus, July 9th). Even some European students from Belarus, such as Polish analyst Kamil Kłysiński, believe that the Belarusian opposition is least fit to demand sanctions due to the inevitable moral dilemmas such demands entail (Svaboda.org, June 29). Kłysiński seems to be on the right track: imagining these Vilnius-based exiles coming to power in Minsk is now more problematic than ever.
The flip side of all this drama of the absurd is the Manichean perspective, that good fights evil, and no nuances, uncertainties or side effects are taken into account. What is good on the one hand is often seen as bad on the other. It is therefore a question of who blinks first: Brussels or Minsk. There is only one happy spectator: Moscow. He can just sit back and wait, and he almost certainly likes what he sees.