On the anniversary of the imprisonment of Belarus’ union leadership, Europe must renew efforts for the release of political prisoners.
A year is an eternity when attention spans are increasingly defined by Tik Tok and Twitter and yesterday’s news is instantly out of mind. Today it is a year since Aliaksandr Yarashuk, chair of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, and his deputy, Siarhei Antusevich, were arrested. For anyone in prison, 365 days is a very long, slow-moving time.
The regime counts on attention being ephemeral. It reckons that the international public gets used to 1,500 political prisoners and stops protesting, as the bad news from Belarus is overtaken by bad news from Ukraine, Iran, Russia, China and elsewhere.
The Belarusian regime is ruthless in suppressing any opposition and in aiming to break people through long prison sentences, forced labour, isolation and inhumane conditions. Yarashuk and Antusevich and more than 30 other trade unionists were arrested because they fought for labour rights and protested against any Belarusian support for the Russian war against Ukraine. These courageous women and men have been sentenced to terms of between 1.5 and 15 years.
Their friends, family members and political supporters are torn between fear, desperation and determination. But they remain determined to do whatever is possible to help the imprisoned and press for their immediate release.
Populist touch lost
For the survival of authoritarian regimes, it is essential that people feel fearful and powerless. Their custodians want their underlings and the world to believe their power will last forever—hence any resistance is futile.
Since 2020, however, the ‘Batka’ of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has lost his populist touch. Totally disregarding the pandemic, crushing the peaceful protest against the fraudulent presidential election that August and supporting the Russian aggression against Ukraine irrevocably destroyed what was left of his image as a ‘benevolent’ autocrat.
Lukashenka presides over a personalised dictatorship with nothing to offer but a stagnating stability and Soviet nostalgia. Hundreds of thousands of young and bright people have left the country. The economy is suffering from international sanctions.
While the sanctions against Belarus are stronger than those against Russia, they have nonetheless not been successful so far in achieving positive change. Instead, they have reinforced Belarusian economic and political dependency on Russia.
Doubting the support of the Belarusian army and knowing the opposition of the population to the war, yet recognising he is economically totally reliant on Russia, Lukashenka is strongly supporting the Russian aggression rhetorically while being very cautious in practice. But as all ties with the west are destroyed, he is less a junior partner of Russia than its vassal, left with hardly any of the room to manoeuvre between Russia and the west he skilfully used for a quarter of a century. Belarusians feel that, with Lukashenka tying the country to Russia, he is excluding them from Europe, the culture and the history to which they belong.
While Lukashenka succeeded in suppressing the opposition forces, the foundations of his dictatorship are today much weaker than they appear. Of course, relentless repression can continue for an awfully long time. But his days are numbered, as he has led the country into a blind alley. Who would have thought in 1987 that two years later there would be no Berlin wall and five years later no Soviet Union?
Europe must care
The outcome of the war against Ukraine will have a major impact on Belarus. Ukraine successfully defending itself would weaken the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, domestically and in terms of his imperial ambitions in Belarus. But ultimately change will come from the Belarusian people who so courageously stood up for freedom and democracy in 2020.
What under these circumstances can be done by Belarussians in exile, western civil society and western governments, to support the self-emancipation of the Belarusian people? For those in prison, their friends and families it is of utmost importance that the world and particularly Europe cares. Fifteen hundred political prisoners is a terrible number—each an individual suffering woman or man. For those in prison, it is a question of physical and psychological survival to know that the outside world admires their courage and continues to campaign for their release.
Families of those persecuted are suffering not only from the psychological stress of their loved ones being imprisoned: they are facing economic hardship. They need international financial solidarity to pay their rent, to buy food and clothes, to protect their children.
A number of activists have been released after serving their sentences. They are often traumatised and have great difficulty returning to normal life, in particular as the regime can go after them again at any time. European countries need to offer an easy and generous programme to welcome any former political prisoner who wants to leave the country.
The Belarusian diaspora needs financial and institutional support to organise itself and to use all possible channels—open and clandestine—to provide the people in Belarus with reliable information, to campaign for change and to build and strengthen contacts and networks with people in the country who maintain their oppositional spirit.
International Labour Conference
Diplomatic pressure on the regime needs to be sustained. It has to see that ending its isolation starts with the release of political prisoners. In this context, the annual International Labour Conference in June will be an important opportunity.
There International Labour Organization constituents will vote on a resolution to apply article 33 of the ILO constitution, calling on all member states to take appropriate measures to ensure that the government of Belarus ‘cannot take advantage of relations with member states to perpetuate or extend the violations of workers’ rights’. It will be the first time in the ILO’s century-old history that it will call on member states to take direct action against a government to protect and enforce freedom of association for workers.
Belarus is a member of the ILO and has ratified its convention 87. A decision by the ILO is not a verdict by ‘the west’ but by the world community. The international trade union movement must demand from all governments follow-up action on the vote. It needs to ensure they take real action to increase the pressure on Belarus ro release immediately the imprisoned trade unionists and respect freedom of expression and association.
This should entail a variety of measures, including well-calibrated sanctions. Sanctions are most likely to have an impact if they are well targeted and linked to specific demands a sanctioned country has to meet. Currently, the sanctions against Belarus are hurting people, creating some economic damage, increasing world market prices for fertiliser (Belarus is a key potash supplier), increasing the Belarusian dependency on Russia and failing to destabilise the regime. Ideally, economic measures should do the opposite: undercut the regime and drive a wedge between Russia and Belarus, while minimising the suffering of the population and not inflating global food prices.
Openings and opportunities
In this context, western governments might signal to Belarus that releasing the political prisoners and refraining from any active support for Russian war efforts could open up the possibility of a rapprochement and even the lifting of some sanctions further down the road. The world and in particular Europe should not in a self-fulfilling prophecy treat Belarus as part of Russia but look instead even at small openings and opportunities to loosen Belarus from the Russian orbit. There cannot however be any chance of change without freeing the prisoners.
Finally, Europe should welcome Belarusians who no longer want to live under Lukashenka’s dictatorship. Offering in particular young and qualified people the possibility to live and work in Europe, as long as Lukashenka stays in power, would be at the same time generous to the people and hit the economy hard.
To avoid a long-term brain drain, however , this should be combined with strong incentives for people to return home. Work and residence permits should expire with regime change in Belarus and people should have their social-security contributions and income taxes reimbursed, as financial support to return home to build a free and democratic Belarus.