Don't Be Fooled by "Liberalisation" in Belarus
(Transcript from the 2010 Liberty Ball in Brussels)

After the Soviet empire collapsed, many European countries joined the family of free nations. But unfortunately Belarus remains as probably the last country on this continent where political freedom is missing, and the citizens have to fight a repressive state machine for their very basic rights.

Alaksej Janukevich
Chairman of the Partyja BPF in Belarus.

Some say that Belarus is still living in the USSR. In a way that is true, but there is one essential distinction: the Soviet regime was based on ideology, while current Belarusian regime is built on the personality of one single man.

Belarus experienced a short period of relative democracy in 1991-1994. But after Lukashenko came to power, we experienced a permanent backlash on democracy. Since 1996 [when Lukashenko consolidated his power], the situation has only grown worse. The human rights centre Viasna, whose annual publication of human rights violations had grown from brochures of about 60 pages in 1998 to serious books of nearly 600 pages, was closed down by authorities in 2001. New criminal cases, frequent administrative arrests, and the passage of new laws seriously restricting freedoms and rights of people continue to occur throughout Belarus.

The regime applies pressure and persecution onto any appearance of protest and has monopolized the mass media. Let me show several vivid examples of impediments on democracy in practice.

As a populist, Lukashenko realizes information is an efficient tool for influence and control. That’s why he monopolized the mass media and created obstacles for dissenting voices. Independent newspapers were either liquidated or removed from subscription catalogues. Printing houses invent ridiculous excuses not to print independent newspapers, which are taxed at a considerably higher rate than those published by the state. Consequently, total circulation for independents has fallen to 100,000 copies weekly, compared with a daily circulation of 450,000 for Sovetskaja Belorussia, a single state run newspaper.

Economic levers are also pulled to discourage democratic activists. For a democrat, it is almost impossible to find job – especially in the provinces, where the situation is catastrophic. Democrats cannot be employed by a state-run enterprise, and about 80% of the enterprises are state-run.

Blackmail is also common: If a person is involved in civic activities, the government will threaten to take away jobs or university places from his family members.

Another technique used by the regime is to make “preventive” arrests. Absurd reasons – petty hooliganism or using bad language in public places, for example – are invented to place people in jail for up to 15 days in advance of important political events.

In the past year, the question of democratization in Belarus has been discussed a lot. These discussions were provoked by several steps the current regime took during 2008, including: the release of some long-term political prisoners; the granting of permission for the printing and distribution of two independent newspapers; and a reduction in the number of administrative arrests of democratic activists. In response, some politicians began talking about “democratization” or “liberalization” in Belarus.

But I have to say: there is no democratization in Belarus at all. Democratic activists are still under the [Belarusian] KGB’s pressure. Through the media, the government continues its furious campaign against dissent, calling the opposition “public enemies”.

New types of pressure are now employed. Among them is the forced conscription of young activists. Leaders of Partyja BPF’s youth organization have been taken, one by one, into the army. Leaders of other democratic youth organizations have been drafted as well.

Another type of political pressure is economical. During recent years, the rent of our party’s office has increased tenfold. Confiscation of democratic organizations’ property also occurs.

To receive support from the European Union, Lukashenko tries to create an illusion of liberalization. Unfortunately, some European politicians speak with Lukashenko today without pushing any political change, explaining that to hope for democratization it is necessary to involve Lukashenko in the European context. But without any conditions, the current trend of improving relations between Minsk and some European capitals is advantageous only for Lukashenko, not for Belarus or European Union.

We are concerned with the idea that, in order to preserve the independence of Belarus from Russia, one must cooperate with the current Belarusian authorities without any strings attached. This attitude seems strange and artificial. Indeed, the Kremlin obviously exploits the temporary weakness of Belarus in an attempt to regain control over our country. Russia continues to be a serious external threat to the independence of Belarus.

But there is no such choice to be made. The Lukashenko regime is a permanent internal threat to Belarusian independence, and this threat will be stopped only by the abolition of this regime.

We believe there is no alternative to dialogue between Minsk and Brussels, but this dialogue must have conditions.

Changing the regime and turning Belarus to the path of freedom will be difficult, but these are our concerns, and the Belarusian issue can only be solved in Belarus. But your moral support gives us more strength and feeds our faith in our victory.


The 2010 Liberty Ball

Friday, March 5, 2010