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Lukashenka’s endgame

As his country goes into economic freefall, Belarus’s president plans to trade prisoners – including journalist Andrzej Poczobut – for cash. 

It is often suggested that the European Union’s foreign policy toward Russia and Belarus is a joke – there are too many people involved and too many conflicting interests to conduct any kind of consistent policy. And after all, the EU’s main objective in the region is ensuring a steady supply of Russian oil and gas.

However, some people in Belarus, the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’, are paying close attention to what the European parliament says and does. For example, a routine discussion about the situation in Belarus in April, with MEPs participating via video conference link, may sound harmless to most people, but it was deemed a subversive and dangerous act by the Belarusian authorities.

Andrzej Poczobut, photo from Amnesty International

When Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza (a leading Polish newspaper) and a Belarusian citizen, decided to attend said conference with MEPs in Minsk, Belarus, he was arrested on the way there and charged with defaming the president.

Two months later, he is still in prison, awaiting trial on 14 June, when the judge will likely pronounce him guilty. He is charged with insulting the president (Article 368 allows up to two years in prison for this ‘crime’), and offending the president (Article 367 – up to four years for that). His articles in Gazeta Wyborcza and even his blog posts on Livejournal.com are supposedly evidence of his misconduct.

Andrzej Poczobut is a brave and decent man, who has covered the Belarusian situation for Gazeta Wyborcza for a number of years, providing a crucial insight into the closed society that exists just east of the Polish border. He is also an activist in a local organization for Polish people, which is being persecuted by the Belarusian government, which labels them extremists and separatists. As someone who knows Andrzej and other native Poles living in the region, I must say that this is a blatant lie and an attempt to find internal enemies by our authoritarian government.

What has happened  is something of an anomaly: normally, people find a way to avoid lengthy jail sentences for such offences. There’s always a way to escape abroad just prior to arrest. Most people heed the warning when the KGB confiscates their laptop and searches their home the first time. Or they decide that it probably is not worth it right after KGB agents in civil clothes rough them up once or twice. Most people certainly don’t write a blog post after being beaten up by KGB, saying ‘I’m not afraid and I’m not leaving the country – don’t count on me running away’. This was the last straw – the KGB doesn’t like being provoked.

It is easy to dismiss the story as yet another sad, but all-too-familiar episode – after all, Belarusian journalists have been jailed, harassed and even abducted before. This is just an unfortunate sidenote in the rapidly unfolding story of the demise of Belarus’s authoritarian state. But before you do dismiss it, consider that this is an atrocity even by Belarusian standards.

Never before in the history of Belarus have journalists faced jail terms of up to four years in prison. The last time a comparable trial was held, in 2002, two brave journalists, Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazhejka, were convicted for defamation against the president and spent two years under ‘restricted freedom’ conditions in a minimum-security work camp. Nine years and two bitterly contested presidential elections have passed since then; elections during which hundreds of activists were tortured and imprisoned, but journalists have been spared the worst of the repression, or so it seemed.

What has changed? Why the cruelty and such seemingly short-sighted eagerness to arrest an international journalist, thus spoiling the government’s relationship with the West? The background is simple and very gruesome.

Last week, as President Lukashenka called the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in Belarus a national emergency, his government submitted a request for emergency monetary assistance to the IMF. This is a last resort to get cash – Russia having recently stopped subsidizing the Belarusian economy – but it is also a risky step.

International institutions have repeatedly condemned political repression, lack of economic reform and resistance to privatization as the main reasons against providing loans to Belarus in the past. Despite the EU and US’s cautious policy of isolating Belarus, it has still managed to borrow heavily abroad to support its security apparatus and inefficient socialist economy. Its national debt ballooned from 27.6 to 45.5 per cent in just four years.

The economy collapsed this spring, with prices going up 100 to 150 per cent over the course of two months, and imports of even basic goods such as baby food, coffee, rice and buckwheat drying up almost entirely.

This is the endgame for Lukashenka, who knows that his economic system won’t survive without massive aid from abroad, and who is trying to maintain internal stability with borrowed funds. His hope is that he will be able to win economic concessions and additional aid from the West by holding political prisoners hostage and avoiding larger internal reforms. When in 2007 dozens of political prisoners were released and criminal cases against them dropped, this was part of the EU’s plan for normalizing relationships with Belarus after the brutal and flawed presidential elections of 2006. Belarus was promised alleviating of political and economic sanctions and participation in international partnerships programmes.

If Belarusian authorities manage to get new loans, the agony of the Belarusian people will continue, but hopefully many people who are serving political sentences will be released. Here’s hoping that international pressure will help to overturn the decision in Andrzej’s case and he will be able to go home soon to his daughter and wife.

Andrzej’s newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza hosts a campaign to free Andrzej and provides some background about his case here: wyborcza.pl/poczobut/0,114034.html

UPDATE, 5 JULY, from Gleb Kannunnikau
Andrzej Poczobut was sentenced to three years today but the (closed) court deemed it necessary to defer the sentence by two years. Unfortunately, it seems that the courts have the right to put him back in prison if they find it convenient – if they accuse him of breaking the law within the next two years.
Regardless, it is great news that he’s free after three months away from his family. Everyone’s sure that the soft sentence was a result of international pressure.

Gleb Kanunnikau
is a designer and trainer, who has worked on web projects in the media and education in former USSR and eastern Europe since 2006.

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