by Katherin Machalek
Research Analyst, Nations in Transit
Last week, the authorities in Belarus executed two young men who had been convicted of an April 2011 subway bombing in Minsk. While the deeply flawed trial and the swift, primitive nature of the men’s deaths may have disturbed the international community, they were not unusual for Belarus, which has consistently hovered close to the worst possible ratings on issues like the rule of law in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World and Nations in Transit reports.
Regardless of the doubts surrounding their conviction, Kovalyov and Konovalov were each executed with a bullet to the back of the head within four months of their sentencing. They were buried in secret locations, and officials informed their families of their deaths only after the fact.
Multiple diplomatic efforts over the years have sought to convince President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime to conform with democratic standards, but Belarus remains a place where horrific incidents like the recent executions regularly occur. Since coming to power in 1994, Lukashenka has prevented the country from developing politically or economically, even when compared with the meager progress of its fellow former Soviet republics. The pressure from democratic countries and international institutions has been notably undermined by condition-free loans, subsidies, and diplomatic cover from authoritarian partners including China, Venezuela, and—despite an occasionally frosty bilateral relationship—Russia, which all have an interest in opposing foreign “interference” on human rights issues.
Attempts by democratic leaders to wring concessions from Belarus are complicated by Lukashenka’s need to maintain a strong, inflexible image. Bulgarian foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov thought he had negotiated a deal last August under which the Belarusian government would release all political prisoners and engage in a dialogue with the opposition. Lukashenka appeared to comply with the alleged agreement when, at a teachers’ congress immediately after the meeting with Mladenov, he said that “all opinionated people, … regardless of their political camp, should sit at a round table, look each other in the eye and make a realistic assessment of … what can be done to effectively improve the situation in the country.” The statement caused an immediate reaction in the international press, which published reports suggesting that Lukashenka was finally giving in to pressure from the European Union and impending economic turmoil. The opposition similarly took it as an invitation to dialogue, forging a common position with the EU that talks would only begin once all political prisoners were released.
A few days later, Lukashenka dismissed the reports of an agreement, saying the whole thing had been fabricated by the West. It remains unclear whether he ever intended to cooperate with Mladenov, but Lukashenka certainly didn’t like how the incident made him look, telling the Belarusian press, “Allegations that Belarus is trying to negotiate the support of the West in exchange for the release of those convicted of rioting in the December 19, 2010, [postelection demonstrations] is complete nonsense.”
Isolating the regime by cutting off diplomatic ties has also yielded little. Recently, the EU imposed sanctions on 21 jurists and policemen accused of mistreating political prisoners as part of a planned travel ban affecting over 200 government officials. The president responded by recalling Belarus’s envoys from Brussels and Warsaw and asking the EU and Polish ambassadors to leave the country. (Poland was seen as a driving force behind the sanctions.) Then, in a rare unified action, EU member states voluntarily withdrew their representatives from Minsk to show Lukashenka that his behavior would leave him more isolated. However, he appeared unfazed. His government simply ramped up the repression of its own people, banning 148 opposition activists from leaving the country.
Even the Kovalyov family’s entreaties to the international community for support in lobbying for a presidential pardon may have only roused Lukashenka’s pique. Kovalyov’s mother and sister led extensive online and offline campaigns, hoping that the world would take up their cause. But a former Minsk executioner told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that turning to critical foreign governments for help rather than appealing to Lukashenka directly could have provoked him.
Conditions are bleak for democratization in Belarus, and Lukashenka’s difficult character makes the challenge of instituting lasting, positive change all the more daunting. Nevertheless, cracks are beginning to appear in the regime’s policy of intransigence. In many ways, the international financial crisis has worked to the advantage of Lukashenka’s opponents, as the regime has been under visible pressure to keep the public happy despite dire economic conditions. Independent opinion polls indicate that his popularity has taken a sharp dive, and 54 percent of respondents hold the president personally at fault for Belarus’s economic plight. This is why in late 2011 Lukashenka reluctantly surrendered the country’s stake in the pipeline operator Beltransgaz to Russia in exchange for guaranteed low gas prices, just in time to keep winter heating costs down..
If international actors, especially major lenders like the International Monetary Fund, maintain their resolve and withhold funding in the absence of genuine reform—and if sympathetic authoritarian states fail to fill the gap—imminent or actual bankruptcy might provide an opening to a post-Lukashenka era, finally giving Belarusian democracy a chance more than 20 years after the end of Soviet rule.