EU’s Moral Failure

February 17, 2016
Belrusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka presents flowers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting in Minsk | AFP/File / Maxim Malinovsky

On Monday, February 15, the EU Council took a decision to lift sanctions on 170 people and 3 companies in Belarus.

Not for the first time, the EU is lifting sanctions on a dictator — and not for the first time “the last dictator in Europe” (as Alyaksandr Lukashenka is known) is being pardoned for all the atrocities that his regime perpetrates in Belarus. This time, however, Brussels beats its own record for cynicism.

When sanctions were introduced after the bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters on “elections” day, December 19, 2010, there were three main conditions for their possible lifting: “immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and significant improvement in the respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles”. Only one condition was partly met – release of political prisoners, although at least one political prisoner, Mikhail Zhemchuzhny, remains behind bars.

Human rights defenders in Belarus and around the world produced several statements that the human rights situation in Belarus remains unchanged. On the eve of the EU decision, UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus Miklos Haraszti  said that Belarus’ human rights and political climate remain“dismal”and “unchanged.”

The regime didn’t even attempt to take any measures to rehabilitate political prisoners. Some of us formally have criminal records although we were unjustly convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. Hence we are still deprived of our civil and political rights, including the right to take part in elections, which the EU has urged to be “free and fair” while forgetting about our situation.

The sanctions against the regime in Belarus were probably the mildest of all the restrictive instruments at the EU’s disposal, but they were important for us. Belarus lives in a situation of absolute lawlessness where criminals of any kind go unpunished if they are loyal to the dictator. Naturally, there is no justice for perpetrators of crimes against opposition politicians, civic activists, independent journalists and so on. The only justice of moral value could be expected from the democratic world—in this case from the EU—which can quite safely call spade a spade without fearing retaliation. After the crackdown, the EU appropriately used its prerogative and spelled out the names of the criminals. That was an act of solidarity with the repressed people in Belarus and an act in support of European values.

Predictably, no crime perpetrated by the regime against the opposition was investigated in all five years after the sanctions were introduced – even disappearances and deaths – and no perpetrator guilty of those crimes was punished. Nevertheless, Brussels grew too tired to demand the rehabilitation of political prisoners and decided to rehabilitate the criminals instead. The European blacklist had once included judges, prosecutors, police and KGB officers, wardens and officials who were involved in torturing political prisoners in Belarus; now they will get off scot-free.

As a former prisoner of conscience, I can only testify that the blacklist was a kind of deterrent that prevented escalation of outrages not only against political prisoners but against all the inmates in Belarusian colonies and prisons. Now the torturers have been pardoned, they are licensed to continue with their brutality.

Frankly speaking, this decision of EU was not only expected, but well prepared by the EU officials. Even when arrests continued in Belarus after the December 2010 crackdown, the EU delegation in Minsk was looking for ways to save Lukashenka and his thugs from sanctions and was busily discussing rescue strategies with the thugs themselves. EU invested huge amounts of money into feasibility studies of absolutely unrealistic projects designed to help Lukashenka to survive, such as the so-called “Dialogue on Modernization,” which was rightfully nick-named in Belarus as “Dialogue on GULAG Modernization”.

At a later stage, the EU Delegation and Brussels officials carefully selected Belarusian interlocutors for Western visitors, choosing those who for different reasons were more accommodating to the regime. Even the newly-established European Endowment for Democracy was supporting those who are more loyal or even collaborating with the regime, rather than those who want to change the impossible situation in Belarus.

In the months preceding the decision on sanctions, official Minsk saw a lot of high-level visitors and heard a lot of statements from European top officials that were not reminding the regime of gross, systemic and systematic violations of human rights but of Minsk’s role in resolving the crisis in Ukraine. At the same, many analysts were rightfully concerned that the Minsk process was a Kremlin-organized trap to drag Ukraine and European leaders into the gradual recognition of Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Minsk was the only place where separatists would be received and welcomed and where the Kremlin could completely control the negotiations.

Lukashenka didn’t stop and even didn’t slow down his repressive practices against the society and against the opposition to the regime. He simply made it less visible to the outside world – that in any case prefers to turn a blind eye to the continuation of such abuses in Belarus. It is out of this blindness that European foreign ministers prefer to see alleged improvements and for their own comfort not to notice the never-ending oppression.

Due to such blindness, they even lose logic. The Polish Foreign Minister was one of those who strongly supported the lifting of sanctions and even declared that he would shortly go to visit Belarus, probably the first Foreign Minister with a proper visit for quite a long time. It is the same Minister who strongly criticized the Eastern foreign policy of the previous Polish government – the major mistake of which was to place too much trust in Lukashenka’s ability to reform and improve his human rights records. It all ended with the bloody crackdown on the Square in Minsk on December 19, 2010, to a great surprise of those who know better.

There is no doubt that the current weakness of the EU will lead to the same results. Moreover, the hopes that Lukashenka can be used to curb Putin’s aggression will lead to stronger and more cowardly aggression of Kremlin in the region, this time with the assistance of a brotherly dictator from Belarus. It will also come as a surprise and, as is the case today, there will be nobody from Brussels who will take responsible from that.

Lukashenka clearly demonstrated his intentions not to change anything on the eve of the sanctions decision and immediately after it. Several weeks ago, an independent journalist Pavel Dobrovolsky was beaten at a courthouse, along with two protesters demonstrating against police abuse.

A police boot in the face of a young journalist is a strong enough image to demonstrate the nature of the regime and its intentions.

The trials of the activists and opposition leaders who protested against this brutality continue. This time they are being tried and sentenced by judges who are no longer on the blacklist and can continue their unlawfulness with the EU’s blessing.

And yet another death sentence was announced just now.

The day after the EU decision it was made public that Russia and Belarus will adopt a joint military doctrine presumably aimed against NATO and internal dissent.

Lukashenka didn’t hide how happy he was when the EU took its decision. He praised Brussels and immediately confirmed that there will be no reforms in Belarus.

The European Union is the largest democratic gathering of states that base their development on values. It has the right to take any decision to protect itself and its principles. When the decision runs counter to these values, however, it endangers the Union itself.

The question remains: why now? Why, when the regime in Belarus is weak and people’s indignation over the tyranny is growing stronger? When it so obvious that the situation is getting out of control? When the EU has the leverage needed for peaceful changes in Belarus, yet decides to yet again save the last dictatorship in Europe instead of helping the people?

Such a decision cannot be morally justified.

Ambassador Andrei Sannikov is a Belarusian politician and activist, and the coordinator of “European Belarus” civil campaign. Born in 1954 in Minsk, Belarus, he is a career diplomat who has worked in the Foreign Ministry of Belarus. He was deputy Foreign Minister in 1995-96, but resigned in protest against Lukashenka’s policies. In 2008 he initiated the civil campaign, European Belarus, which advocates integration of Belarus into the Euro-Atlantic community and membership in the European Union. Sannikov was a candidate in the 2010 presidential election in Belarus, and had the second highest percentage of the popular votes. Most recent, he was incarcerated in a Minsk KGB facility for peacefully protesting election fraud and was recognized by Amnesty International as prisoner of conscience. After 11 months in prison he received political asylum in the UK. He was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize in 2005 in the field of human rights protection.