Robert Hårdh is Executive Director Civil Rights Defenders, an international human rights organisation based in Sweden. Here he tackles the current unsettled political situation in Belarus:
The foreign ministers in the European Union have agreed upon sanctions against the Belarussian leadership. A few days before the sanctions were announced several dissidents who have been detained since the presidential elections in December were released. The release is part of Alexander Lukashenka’s usual power game in which human rights are a commodity – used to extend the Belarussian dictatorial regime’s survival. The EU must constantly bear that in mind if they are to be able to contribute to the reform of Belarus towards democracy.
Lukashenka’s policy is in many respects so implausible that it should not work. Yet he continues to defy both the international community and the economic playing field that long ago should have put a stop to his rampage. His political intrigues provide him with air under his wings, enough to be able to manoeuvre between Russia and the EU’s political and economic pressure.
Civil Rights Defenders has defended people’s rights and empowered exposed human rights defenders in Belarus since the 1990s. What I witnessed in Minsk during the night of the presidential election on the 19th of December 2010 was by far the most brutal intervention so far by the Belarussian authorities. Heavily armed security forces ruthlessly beat peaceful demonstrators. Several hundred people were arrested, including seven of the nine opposition candidates. People sat locked up in the KGB cells for weeks without access to doctors or lawyers.
The violent attack came without warning. Prior to the Election Day Lukashenka’s relations with the EU and Russia had improved. In addition Lukashenka had, as usual, full control over the election process and everyone expected him to be re-elected. It was only a matter of what percentage of the votes he would choose to win with. During the weekend of the election the atmosphere was very calm. Yet he felt compelled to demonstrate his power by knocking down those who ventured out to demand their rights.
Lukashenka’s actions must partly derive from fear. He must sense the limitations of the policy he leads, not least financially. He should be frightened by the powers that, despite a decade of repression, still venture onto the streets to show their displeasure. But he is also aware of the fact that what it is now held to his disadvantage may soon turn to his advantage. By taking small steps to give back what he has seized he creates a bargaining space that he shrewdly manages.
On the 31st of January, the EU and USA decided to impose travel restrictions and financial sanctions against the Belarussian leadership. A few days before the decision was announced seven of the most well known regime critics, among them the presidential candidate Vladimir Nyaklyaeu and the journalist Irina Chalip, were released. They are, however, under house arrest and they are still under prosecution and risk long prison terms. Their release from the KGB prison should be seen as the start of a new round of political games by Lukashenka, once more with people’s rights at stake.
The Belarusian regime’s improbable journey goes on with an increasingly heavy baggage and it will inexorably come to its end. But we should not underestimate the power of a being that, against all odds, has managed to stay above ground this far. If it is going to succeed in bringing about democratic reforms, the EU must keep the pressure on Lukashenka and his closest advisors and not bargain with him about something that does not belong to him – the rights of his citizens.
Civil Rights Defenders is an international human rights organisation that defends people’s civil and political rights and empowers human rights defenders at risk. Civil Rights Defenders was founded in 1982 in Stockholm, Sweden, under the name Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.