For nearly a year now, people in Belarus have been taking to the streets to stand up (and, often, get arrested) for democracy. Nicolas Butylin argues that they are fighting for exactly the values often lauded as universal and in need of defence across European capitals and in Brussels. Giving us an insight into the country’s deteriorating political climate, he underlines the need for European solidarity with the Belarusian pro-democracy activists.
For almost a year now, the Belarusian democracy movement has been one of the most important movements in Europe in which people are defending European values, universal freedoms, and the rule of law. Since August 9, 2020, Belarussian activists and citizens have been holding nation-wide protests against the “last dictator in Europe”, as Belarusian head of state Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been called.
The government’s absolute anti-democratic and anti-humanitarian character was revealed not least in the so-called “interviews” given by Raman Pratasevič, the opposition blogger who was the main target of the forced landing of the Ryanair passenger plane in late May 2021. Evidently abused and under psychological pressure, the former NEXTA editor confessed to being responsible for the mass protests that happened in Belarus in summer of 2020. Beyond this high profile case, there have been several other events which caused perplexity in Brussels, Berlin, and Vilnius in the months since May: the death of political prisoner Vitold Ashurok, the shutdown of TUT.BY, by far the largest independent Belarusian media portal, the unprecedented expulsion of the Latvian embassy staff, and the threat of the Belarusian Foreign Minister “to wipe out its own civil society”.
Lukashenka is becoming particularly dangerous through his subordination of all policies to one goal: to somehow remain in power, no matter how much it costs.
The development and comparison of Belarus with a small “European North Korea” in the middle of Europe – by geographical means – is starting to ring more and more true. Something that both countries certainly have in common are their two unpredictable heads of state with Lukashenka becoming particularly dangerous through his subordination of all policies to one goal: to somehow remain in power, no matter how much it costs. Accordingly, it is of specific interest to Belarus’ neighbours, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as to Ukraine, what is happening inside Belarus. As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Belarus also has an extensive – and expanding – military cooperation with Russia, and these security and military aspects are of the highest relevance to Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States.
While major geopolitical interests and the European-Belarusian economic relationship have been at an absolute low point for more than eleven months, the cultural-academic exchange between Europe and Belarus, which already had a difficult situation due to the pandemic, is now deteriorating, too. By suspending the work of relatively non-political NGOs, human right activists and journalists, for example the raids on Viasna or Radio Free Europe in July 2021, Belarusians are deprived of any contact with the rest of Europe, thus furthering their cultural isolation. Even a short stay in Poland or Lithuania is perceived with suspicion by the Belarusian authorities. Therefore, an authoritarian ideology has prevailed among the Belarusian authorities, in which Lukashenka and his policies are correct and law-abiding, while anything that violates current state norms is sentenced. This contrast is excellently illustrated in the documentary film “Courage” by Aliaksei Paluyan, which was screened for the first time at the Berlinale 2021.
While the situation in Belarus has increasingly disappeared from Western European political agendas since the beginning of this year, in particular the forced landing of the Ryanair aircraft has awakened the EU. The Belarusian crisis has thus internationalized and directly implicated the EU, as the majority of passengers were EU citizens. The attack on the rights of its citizens can be understood as the main driver of EU‘s policy towards Belarus in the summer of 2021. An example how to tackle this internationalized crisis would be the solidarity movement in Lithuania straight after the Belarusian presidential elections in August 2020, in which the small Baltic country became the main international actor in the fight for democracy and human rights in Belarus.
Belarus needs the EU, while the EU needs Belarus.
Belarus needs the EU, while the EU needs Belarus. In no other European country has a democracy movement been subjected to so much repression in recent times. Belarus’ fellow European countries must fully support this movement both ideationally and financially. Lukashenka is setting a dangerous precedent for other European leaders, who might follow his ruthlessness and take him as an example for how to stay in power. Furthermore, the ’market value’ of the EU would probably continue to fall seriously if we did not help those who stand up for our values the most. On the other side, the European Union must face a number of challenges in this regard. Poland, Lithuania but also Ukraine are becoming so-called “refugee hubs” for highly qualified Belarusian migrants, which offer enormous opportunities for Belarus’ western and southern neighbors. However, Lithuania has also accused Belarus of instrumentalising refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East to punish its neighbouring country – and the EU as a whole – for their sanctions. A strategy for dealing with the second year of ongoing protests and the deteriorating political situation is still being discussed in European capitals with an expression that has established itself in the past year: We need to support movements that stand up for democratic values, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and that resist against authoritarianism and dictatorships. If we don’t help them, who else should we support?