Belarus’s cat and mouse diplomacy on human rights

Lukashenko’s government is open for dialogue with Europe. But it will expect something in return.

The Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union suspended the entry ban against Uladzimir Makey, the Belarus Foreign Minister, during its meeting in Luxemburg on 24 June. He was one of243 Belarusian officials that were restricted from travelling in the EU for their involvement in human rights violations during a severe clampdown against civil society after the presidential election of December 2010. Makey was put on the list as the Head of the Presidential Administrations at that time.

Despite concerns about EU yielding to Lukashenko’s regime raised by some activists, most experts see the Foreign Affairs Council decision as a purely technical step.

“However criminal the regime is and however it violates rights and norms, the EU has to talk to them. If you don’t talk, you can’t reach any agreements. Even parties that are at war contact each other somehow. And a foreign minister is an interlocutor,” said Uladzimir Matskevich, the Chairman of EuroBelarus International Consortium.

Makey will now be able to build on his role as an interlocutor with Europe. He already practised it earlier this month, during a meeting with Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, who was granted visa to enter Belarus for the first time since December 2010. Mijatović took the opportunity to personally urge the Belarusian government to reform media regulations.

The Representative’s visit is a clear signal the Belarusian authorities are ready to talk. Belarus’s unreformed, old Soviet-style economy cannot sustain itself without external subsidies, and the authorities look for every possible way to score financial “injections”.

The problem is that talks are rarely followed by actions. It’s not for the first time the “ Dialogue with the EU” game has marked with meetings with international stakeholders and slight softening of repression inside of the country. This was exactly how it played out during the ‘liberalisation’ of 2008-2010:  that ended up with the mass arrests of December 2010. And here we are again in 2013; Dunja Mijatović is allowed in, defamation charges against the journalist Andrzej Poczobut were droppedArche magazine is re-registered, and independent newspaper Borisovskie Novosti is allowed back to state press distribution networks after being barred for eight years.

But no real change in the government’s attitude towards free speech is noticeable, despite all these minor steps.

“A real dialogue can be possible only if the authorities of the country show their will for serious reforms. That means abolishing criminal defamation articles, ceasing of groundless detentions of journalists, and simplifying the rules of press accreditation,” Zhanna Litvina, the Chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told Index.

Index outlined other necessary changes in a policy paper “Belarus: Pulling the Plug”, launched in January 2013. But none of them has been taken into account by the authorities. Instead, their reaction to the recent resolution of the UN Human Rights Council showed they are reluctant to start real reforms and improve their appalling human rights record.

At least 11 political prisoners still remain behind bars in Belarus, including former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich and human rights defender Ales Bialiatski. The regime will almost certainly play its favourite game of trying to trade them for economic benefits and foreign loans. Will it be a success this time?

Andrei Aliaksandrau, Index on Censorship