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20 December, 2011  ▪  The Ukrainian Week

Belarus and Human Rights

The Foreign Ministers of the Germany, Poland, Sweden and the UK have expressed concern about continuing repression in Belarus.

In a letter published in the Independent, Guido Westerwelle, Radoslaw Sikorski, Carl Bildt and William Hague said:

"On the evening of 19 December we saw riot police brutally beat those who took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully against the rigged re-election of Lukashenko. Before the election, there had been encouraging signs of a change of heart by Lukashenko in favour of step-by-step moves towards substantive pluralism and reasonable European standards. The European Union welcomed these signals, offering to open new areas of co-operation with Belarus should those improvements materialise. We want nothing more than to see Belarus building a democratic, prosperous and secure future and working normally with the European Union and its other neighbours.

Instead, we saw hundreds of innocent protesters locked up and scores sentenced to politically-motivated prison sentences in flawed trials, amongst them several Presidential candidates whose only crime was to contest Lukashenko’s presidency.  What followed was the remorseless persecution of members of the opposition, independent media and civil society representatives, which dared question the legitimacy or approach of the regime. Students were expelled, workers lost their jobs, homes were searched, and computers confiscated from NGOs and the offices of independent media outlets. 

Not content with oppressing all political dissenters, Lukashenko has now turned his gaze on those who have tried to defend them, jailing the respected human rights defender, Ales Byalyatski, for four and a half years on a trumped up charge of tax evasion, adding one more political prisoner to the list.  And he has changed the law to further squeeze the almost non-existent space for political expression and civic activism.
Belarus is reduced to a country driven by fear. Brave individuals are suffering inhumane treatment in prison because they refuse to give in to attempts to make them ‘confess’ to crimes they have not committed. We are very concerned about their plight, including Andrei Sannikov, Mikalai Statkevich, Zmitser Daskevich and Dzmitry Bandarenka.

The wider consequences for Belarus of this crass and selfish policy are clear. Distracted by its campaign to suppress all resistance, the regime took its eye off Belarus’ ailing economy and took no steps to plan for economic growth through modernisation. The result is runaway inflation and a severe devaluation of the currency, causing living standards to plummet. 

With all pretence of political legitimacy gone, Lukashenko has sought to defend his economic legitimacy by starting to sell off Belarus’ assets to feed his dysfunctional state-dominated economic model. The $2.5bn raised from Russia for Belarus’ gas transit network will help keep the economy afloat for a short while. But unless fundamental economic reforms are carried out, as proposed by the IMF, Belarus will not be able to escape hyperinflation. A sensible privatisation policy and encouraging private enterprise would be key to putting the Belarusian economy on a sustainable footing, but Lukashenko refuses to do this.  Around 70% of Belarusians work for the state and most are subject to renewable one-year contracts. This is a formidable weapon of quasi-totalitarian control – any worker showing signs of dissent risks losing their job. Were business allowed to develop normally in Belarus, Lukashenko would lose his power over this large section of the population.  And he would also lose control over the state finances that allow him to reward the elite to keep them loyal.

In the face of Lukashenko’s continuing repression against his own people, we have no choice but to argue for a strengthening of EU policy towards Belarus, both in terms of the sanctions regime, and in terms of EU support for Belarusian civil society. 

We will push for harsher EU sanctions, targeted at those responsible for serious human rights abuses and those who back the regime financially – not ordinary Belarusians. At the same time, the EU will further increase its support for and dialogue with civil society organisations and the democratic forces in Belarus, helping them to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the regime and to voice their concerns. And we will step up our engagement with ordinary Belarusians, including through strengthened people to people contacts.

We will strive to get the message to ordinary Belarusians that there is an alternative path for Belarus. We will make clear our vision of a European Belarus: a self-confident Belarus that is a respected international player and a positive factor for regional security and prosperity. The EU is not seeking to replace Belarus’ regional relations, but to widen and complement them. We need to enhance the package of EU measures and assistance to help Belarus, once it has chosen the path of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. 

In the meantime, we will work to overcome the regime’s resistance to the full amnesty and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and the attempts to increasingly isolate Belarus from its European neighbours.
There can be no bright future for Belarus as long as the leadership drags the country down. It should be up to the people of Belarus to decide what future they want. We will continue to push for the conditions in which they can be allowed to make that choice freely."


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