The release of Andrei Sannikov and Dzmitry Bandarenka last weekend was welcome news for Europe’s last dictatorship. But with at least 13 more political prisoners behind bars, Belarus is far from free
Last weekend was a real holiday for some Belarusians as the Orthodox Easter was marked with truly good news of the release of two political prisoners. Andrei Sannikov, a former presidential candidate, and one of his main campaign aides, Dzmitry Bandarenka, stepped out of the jails they had been kept in for 16 months each. The long-awaited deep breaths of freedom, although still limited, for the opposition activists themselves, their families and friends were welcomed by all democratically-minded Belarusians and their supporters around the world.
Still, the good news does not sparkle a lot of hope for the country as a whole. Despite Sannikov and Bandarenka now being on the other side of jail bars, Belarus is still far away from freedom.
Two men of courage and civic stand freed, families re-united: no doubt the event is positive and encouraging. But — and there is no doubt about this either — it does not highlight any change of the situation inside Belarus, nor of the usual habits of the Belarusian authorities that have a long “tradition” of trading political prisoners to the West for economic benefits.
According to Belarusian human rights defenders, 13 more political prisoners are still behind bars in the country, including one more former presidential candidate, Mikalay Statkevich, and one of the leading human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Ales Bialiatski.
Sannikov and Bandarenka are still considered to be criminals. Officially they were freed as the result of a pardon they had asked President Aleksandr Lukashenko for. Sannikov told journalists on Monday he will spend eight more years under police supervision. His wife, well-known Belarusian journalist Irina Khalip, was not able to meet her husband when he arrived at Minsk train station Sunday night: according to her own sentence received after the anti-government protests of 19 December 2010, she must obey a daily curfew of 10pm. So, freedom in Belarus is quite a relative notion.
Quite a number of Belarusian analysts have pointed out that the release of Sannikov and Bandarenka was the result of solidarity actions within the country’s civil society, campaigning led by international organisations, and European Union sanctions (namely a travel ban for Belarusian officials responsible for human rights violations and pointed economic restrictions against some enterprises considered to be “purses of the regime”). But there is for sure one more component of this equation, which is Russia.
It is clear that the release of the two political prisoners is a kind of invitation to the EU to normalise its relationship with Belarus. It is clearly a signal to Brussels, but there is no real intention of change behind it: just the same old game.
President Lukashenko’s simple — yet quite successful — strategy is to balance between Russia and the EU, and try to gain economic benefits (like loans or cheap gas prices) by making use of the geopolitical contradictions between them. Worsening of relations with Moscow once it gets tired of subsidising Lukashenko’s ineffective economy and his pathological unwillingness to stick to his promises usually leads to a change in anti-Western rhetoric and simulation of dialogue attempts with the EU.
This is exactly the case now. Lukashenko seems to lose the momentum of unconditional support from Kremlin as its “old new” leader Vladimir Putin gets very clear about the rules of the game. Russia clearly keeps away from backing Lukashenko in his “diplomatic war” with Europe, and it is obvious that the conflict with Brussels reached its climax with all EU ambassadors leaving Minsk at the end of February. The lack of support from his eastern neighbour makes Lukashenko seek attempts to normalise his relations with Europe — well, to the extent his own understanding of “normalisation” goes. Sannikov and Bandarenka’s release is a test of how the EU will react. For the same “testing” purposes the Belarusian President also postponed his official annual address to the Parliament, previously planned for 19 April. The official reason was Lukashenko’s alleged “disagreement with excessively harsh measures of reaction to the problems in relations of Belarus with its partners.”
Yet, Europe shows quite a strong stance on this situation. The Chairman of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and EU Commissioner, Stefan Fule, all welcomed Sannikov and Bandarenka’s release. But they pointed out it is only the first step, as all the political prisoners must be released and also rehabilitated, with a clear understanding the authorities of Belarus can fulfil the former, but will never agree on the latter.
The diplomatic “dance” to follow is surely one Lukashenko will try to lead. And it will be the real test of the consistency of the EU policy and the firmness of its position — with a clear temptation of declaring “a breakthrough to a dialogue” too soon, and a threat of the situation to worsen again if the response is too disengaging. Finding the right balance is a tricky mission — but one gets additional advantage, when one’s counterpart is trying hard to get his balance right as well, both in political sense and on accounting sheets of struggling budget.
Then there is the most important component of the equation. Andrei Dmitriev, one of the leaders of Tell the Truth campaign and a former political prisoner himself, wrote on his Facebook page on Monday that he was surprised so few people came to meet Sannikov in Minsk: half of the small crowd that gathered in front of the train station on Sunday night were journalists. Almost no leaders of other oppositional forces were there to great their colleague. The opposition is still recovering from the severe crackdown after December 2010 with continuous nightmare of searches, interrogations, courts and torture that followed. It surely needs to unite forces and summon their strengths to prove the regime is wrong thinking the democratic movement of Belarus is crashed. The upcoming Parliamentary election campaign scheduled for 2012 will be a good time for that.
Just let the weekend smiles of Andrei Sannikov’s family give us some hope.
Andrei Aliaksandrau is the vice chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists