Last month I wrote about the pro-democracy protests that were rocking Belarus in the wake of Alexander Lukashenko’s rigged re-election. Back then it looked as if the resistance could reach critical mass and imperil his sixteen year old dictatorship. However, like so many democratic uprisings, it has been ruthlessly crushed by security forces and its lead players have been thrown into jail. Tragically the people of Belarus were unable to succeed where the people of Tunisia so spectacularly did just a few weeks later.
And so today Lukashenko was formally sworn in as President once again and began his fourth term in office. In many ways it is a strange throw-back to days of the USSR, when ruthless European dictators were regularly shoe-horned into power as their political opponents were beaten and imprisoned. The geopolitical similarities run far deeper: the Russia-Belarus Union State originally formed in 1996, has been the subject of renewed enthusiasm by Lukashenko, Putin and Medvedev in recent years, including talk of developing it from a regional political grouping into formal unification.
However, there are also significant differences from the Cold War days that provide the European community with critical opportunities to aid the Bealruasian people in their struggle for human rights and freedom. Lukashenko’s current Russian patrons are nowhere near as powerful as their Soviet predecessors –nor are they unfalteringly supportive of his regime. Over the pasts weeks an economic spat over energy prices has driven a clear political wedge between the two states that, if exacerbated, could leave Lukashenko estranged from his only true ally. Even if this specific incident is ultimately resolved, it is not beyond comprehension that future disputes could dampen long-term Russian support for Lukashenko.
The 58 year old tyrant may accordingly turn away from Moscow somewhat and gradually look towards the rest of Europe; providing an historic chance to influence him. Of course whilst any such chance should be seized, it must also be handled with extreme care. Firstly, efforts for democratic reform should be led by Belarus’ immediate neighbours- lest the perception of ‘Western European interference’ isolates Lukashenko or antagonises Russia. Secondly these efforts must be correctly targeted; for example specific sanctions on the dictator and his close associates until measurable targets are met will be far more effective than indefinite economic sanctions that could inadvertently harm the Belarusian people.
Already there are positive developments along these lines, including the unilateral travel ban imposed by Poland on Belarusian government officials. If this was adopted by other European states- with the promise of lifting it when the detained oppositions candidates and those arrested during the protests are released - it would be hard for Lukashenko to ignore. Other devices including bank account freezes could be combined with high-level dialogue and summits to secure results such as protest rights, Red Cross access to political prisoners and moves away from the death penalty.
Making Belarusian rights an issue in negotiations with Russian authorities, especially during trade negotiations, could also provide a valuable channel for influence, allowing for progress even if Lukashenko’s relationship with the Kremlin returns to its usual amicable state. This is a long shot fraught with issues, but it its not beyond comprehension that given the right circumstances and negotiation Russia may provide something of a route towards progress rather than an outright obstacle. If nothing else this is an avenue worth exploring.
Then again – the inevitable change may not come from ‘above’ at all. Although many of those leading the demonstrations back in December are now locked away from the eyes of the world- most likely suffering from the beatings, starvation and denial of medical care prevalent in Belarusian jails – their inspirational acts have reverberated across the nation. December’s protests were the largest in decades and with the grievances wholly un-addressed a repeat is by no means off the cards. What’s more, the security forces have only been able to detain a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands who took part – there are many new leaders still out there and many more prepared to follow them. Sooner or later Europe may see its very own Tunisia moment.