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What should the EU – or the US – do about Belarus?

As predicted, Lukashenko “won” re-election in Sunday’s polls in Belarus, taking 82% of the votes – his nearest rival, Alexander Milinkevich got 6%. But US and EU election observers have declared the poll “flawed” and protesters took to the streets in Minsk immediately after the poll on Sunday. But while there were ten thousand people protesting on Sunday night, the cold and harrasment by Belarussian police has shrunk numbers to about a thousand br23, who has been following the situation closely, notes that the police have focused on making the people protesting in October Square uncomfortable, by harrasing people bringing in food and supplies, but not directly on arresting protesters.

Milinkevich is urging protesters to focus on protests this coming Saturday, the anniversary of the declaration of the (short-lived) Belarussian Republic in 1918. This might be a good tactic – it will let protesters go home, warm up and prepare for a more lively protest this coming week. Or it might sap the strength of the protests, give Belarussian authorities the chance to arrest possible protest ringleaders and generally prevent the denim revolution from taking place. In the meantime, according to Ivan from Russian Mushroom, Milinkevich, his eldest son and his wife, are camped out in October Square with about a thousand supporters. Russian Mushroom briefly reported that the opposition had split and that Kozlulin’s supporters had left the square – he’s subsequently (and happily) retracted that report.

My friend Janet Haven wonders what the EU’s going to do, other than wringing their hands and declaring the election flawed. A travel ban on Belarussian officials – put in place in September 2004 – has had little effect. Banning bilateral trade, she suggests, might have more teeth – tell Belarus officials not to fly to Brussels and they shrug and fly to Moscow, which has welcomed them with open arms. She warns that, if the EU and European Parliament don’t make their outrage at Lukashenko’s strong-arm tactics known, ” Belarus will go invisible again.”

It’s interesting that Janet doesn’t call on the US to challenge Lukashenko’s “victory”. The Bush administration has declared that they won’t recognize the election results and will coordinate with Europe on sanctions. But there are already numerous sanctions in place against Belarus, and it seems unlikely that the US will have as much influence as the EU, which shares a border with Belarus via Poland. (Besides which, we seem to be pretty busy on the foreign affairs front right about now…)

Veronica Khokhlova, Global Voices Eastern Europe editor, is doing a great job of watching Belarus, on her blog and on our site. The news from the blogs – especially from Russian and Belarussian LiveJournal sites – is fast and furious, with rumors flying back and forth.

At the very least, it’s remarkable that a country as tightly controlled as Belarus has such large protests in the streets and that there’s serious talk about larger protests this coming weekend… assuming the Belarussian authorities don’t crack down on the small-scale protests in the intervening days.

2 thoughts on “What should the EU – or the US – do about Belarus?”

  1. I would have thought that a trade boycott would just throw ordinary Belarusians out of work, and Lukashenko could turn the situation to his advantage by saying that Belarus was being punished for resisting western capitalist hegemony, etc. And it appears that the opposition are still only a minority:

    But why is the US, with the EU in its wake, so concerned about Belarus? Is it because Belarus stands out as the only ex-Soviet country that maintains majority state ownership of the economy and gets good results? Is ideological deviance forbidden? (The IMF, while admitting Lukashenko’s economic success, calls it “ultimately unsustainable”, being based on cheap Russian energy imports and wage increases that outstrip productivity growth.) Is the problem Lukashenko’s independence, his friendliness to Russia and resistance to Nato, his abrasive, don’t-push-me-around style? As one Minsk resident put it to me, he’s a “Slavic Castro”.

    The revolt against Lukashenko within Belarus is genuine, idealistic and, in some cases, courageous. As in the rest of eastern Europe, nationalist intellectuals and the urban elite, particularly in the capital, include many who want change and feel the rewards are worth the risk. They want the west’s moral support and its freedom, as well as its money. But they are not the majority. A poll in January by Gallup/Baltic Surveys, and reported in the emigre Belarusian Review, found only 17% in favour of Milinkevich and nearly 55% supporting Lukashenko.

  2. Halfrunt:

    Lukashenka controls the media in Belarus, excepting a very thin sliver that the intellectuals and urban elites have access to (sometimes). When a citizenry has deeply flawed information, they are easily manipulated, and voluntarily make deeply flawed choices. If the opposition in Belarus had been allowed to run a free and open campaign without persecution from the incumbent government, I suspect those numbers would have been significantly different.

    There’s also an age issue: across Central and Eastern Europe, the top-heavy pensioner population has cheerfully voted the old Communists back in because their interests tend to lie with protecting their state pensions, subsidized housing, free public transporation, and other handouts. The truth is that young people are the ones to benefit from change in the region and in Belarus, but are outnumbered. I live in Hungary and we see this tension all the time between the young voters looking for change and older voters looking desparately to preserve the status quo.

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