Mincing Around With Minsk

The European Union’s ideas about aiding democracy movements are all wrong.

Lukashenko: no interest in the EU

VILNIUS, Lithuania—The Belarusian opposition leaders who drove 90 minutes from Minsk to huddle here late last month for 48 hours of political strategizing were sure of just two things: Upon returning from their weekend getaway, the KGB would be paying them a visit. And, no matter what, come fall 2006, when President Alexander Lukashenko is all but certain to “win” a third five-year term, democracy will remain a distant hope.

To quote Lenin: What is to be done?

The United States and the Eastern Europeans, particularly the Lithuanians, understand the only way to change Belarus is to fight Lukashenko—to aid the opposition, to discourage investment in the country, to do everything short of arming an insurgency. The Western Europeans, the so-called Old Europeans—the Europeans who think that Slobodan Milosevic deserves his day in court and that the Iranian mullahs can be talked out of building a nuclear bomb—have yet to figure this out.

For a bit of guidance, they ought to pay attention to the activists who came here, to the Karolina Hotel, on the periphery of this cobblestoned, snow-capped city that embodies freedom in the former Soviet Union. The Belarusians’ mission was clear: to agree on a nominating process that would culminate in the selection of a presidential candidate to challenge Lukashenko.

Progress was made. The opposition leaders, who range from socialists to supply-siders and whose only common denominator is faith in free elections, agreed that a series of low-profile caucuses would give the eventual nominee legitimacy without generating too much attention. The plan is to be finalized later this month. In September, the reformers hope to hold a convention in Kiev, Ukraine.

But none of this, by itself, can change the facts on the ground.

For now, Lukashenko has near-total power. There is hardly any independent media or private sector. There are no obvious opposition candidates to challenge the president. And unlike former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who could be sensitive to world opinion, Lukashenko garners strength from flouting it.

Even Western European diplomats—always patient, always touting “intergovernmental dialogues” and “cultural exchanges,” always frowning (or smirking) at Americans who don’t seem to grasp the “complexities” of international relations—concede that Belarus is becoming more closed. “The more Lukashenko is afraid of Western influence, the more difficult it has become,” one European diplomat with experience in the former Soviet Union told me.

True, Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t particularly fond of Lukashenko, who is widely regarded as untethered to reality and who retains the power to shut down pipelines pumping oil from Russia through Belarus to central Europe. But in the wake of the Ukrainian uprising and fears that Russia is losing its grip on the “near abroad,” Putin is unlikely to do anything to compromise Lukashenko. If nothing else, the former collective farmer and confidant of Saddam Hussein is an enemy of the West.

So what can Westerners do to help Belarusians achieve their own revolution—the kind of bloodless, bottom-up sea change that swept Serbia, and then Georgia, and then, of course, Ukraine?

To begin, the European Union could take off its kid gloves.

As things stand now, the only money the European Union spends on Belarus is money that has been approved by the Lukashenko regime. These so-called Tacis (Technical Assistance for the Commonwealth of Independent States) funds, first appropriated in 1991, aim to foster democratic reform and economic modernization from within—that is, by working in tandem with government officials.

The problem, as anyone at the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry (or the U.S. National Security Council or, in a rare unguarded moment, the European Union) will point out, is that Lukashenko has no interest in working with the European Union. Why should he? As the Belarusian well understands, engaging with the West means becoming more Western. And that is exactly what he opposes. Sure, he’s happy to get help cleaning up the Chernobyl zone or to send a few engineering students to France for the summer. But anything vaguely threatening (read: liberalizing) is verboten.

This is why, a few years back, Lukashenko expelled the U.S.-taxpayer-funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute from Minsk. Why? Because unlike the more humanitarian-minded Europeans, these groups foster real reform—you might call it revolution in slow motion—by building democratic parties, running polls for the opposition, and helping identify future leaders (as in the case of Ukraine’s Viktor Yuschenko). Now NDI’s Belarus desk is in Kiev, and IRI’s is in Vilnius, where Belarusian reformers go when they need a conference room free of listening devices. European officials say this is evidence the American model doesn’t work; Americans counter this proves they’re doing something right.

While the European Union has spent plenty of money in Belarus since it gained independence from the Soviet Union—developing “civil society” and organizing educational trips, among other things, according to the EU Web site—it’s unlikely that a single euro has been spent directly on the democratic opposition.

An internal EU document on assistance to Belarus shows that the authorities in Minsk watch carefully how money is spent. The document notes that “international assistance projects must undergo a registration procedure [in Belarus] and be scrutinized by a ministerial level Committee for tax exemption and a formal approval before they can be started.” While the document further notes that Belarus will be eligible for additional funds under the new “Neighborhood Programs,” those funds—assuming they are sanctioned by the regime—won’t be available until 2007, after the presidential election.

The critical point is that the United States and Lithuania, which joined the European Union last year and is trying to change its foreign-aid policy, believe that Belarusians want to govern themselves and that it is their government that is preventing them from doing so. The only way to achieve democracy is to circumvent Lukashenko.

The Western Europeans tend to believe that circumventing Lukashenko and aiding opposition leaders—say, giving them conference-room facilities in Vilnius and paying for their room and board—is tantamount to shoving democracy down the Belarusians’ collective throat. Change must be “evolutionary, not revolutionary,” as some put it.

Many Belarusian activists are perplexed by the European Union. Lukashenko’s is a regime that has killed off democratic reformers, indiscriminately jailed demonstrators, and cultivated farmland in the still-radioactive Chernobyl zone despite skyrocketing cancer rates.

Janna Litvina, head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and an attendee at the Vilnius gathering, said democracy would come only after Belarusians transcend their isolation and fear, a fear that has been sown into the national psyche by a century of war, murder, and authoritarianism. “People believe they are absolutely helpless in the face of the government machine,” Litvina said.

This is not a machine that can be reformed. It must be dismantled. Perhaps the new EU commissioner of external affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, will help her colleagues in Brussels see through the fog of “dialogues” and “cultural exchanges” to the real Belarus, the Belarus that can’t be helped along but must be unleashed from its Soviet past.