Lukashenko vs European Union. An escalation

Belarus orders Sweden to close its embassy after the teddy bear attack. EU ambassadors in Brussels will meet tomorrow (10 August), in response to the expulsion of Swedish diplomats.

Questions:

1. How would you read this decision of Lukashenka? Some people say he feels humiliated after the teddy bears attack? Would you say that some form of humiliation is behind this decision?

2. What kind of reaction do you expect from the EU?

Answers:

Anaïs Marin, Researcher, Russia and Eastern Neighbourhood Research Programme, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

1. Regarding the Belarusian regime’s decision not to renew the accreditation of Ambassador Stefan Ericsson: although it does not amount, in legal terms (cf. the Vienna Convention), to an expulsion with a rupture of diplomatic relations, it was clearly an inappropriate overreaction which illustrates the current level of tension in Belarus’ relations with the West in general, and some EU countries in particular. Remember that alongside Poland, Sweden has long been among the most active countries supporting initiatives and projects involving civil society organisations, human rights activists and regime opponents in Belarus, notably thanks to the personal involvement of Ambassador S. Ericsson – a case uncommon enough to be perceived by the regime as a threat… Hence the Belarusian regime was all too happy that the “teddy bear attack” gave it a justification for sending Ericsson back to Stockholm, in spite of the apparent lack of connection between Studio Total’s PR action and the Swedish government.

Of course, A. Lukashenka might have felt personally humiliated over the past month by this whole affair. I’d say that he takes it as a personal offence because of the provocative tone of the open letter Per Cromwell issued on 18 July and the fact that regime critics at home have been building up on the story and thus ridicule him (cf. teddy bears are now everywhere in online medias and social networks), rather than by the aerial “attack” as such. The latter was answered to with a number of dismissals among the responsible high officials – a way for Lukashenka to remind his own people “who’s the boss” and emulate border guards to do their job better – and will be prosecuted in compliance with Belarusian and international law. The Belarusian Prosecutor’s office recently asked Sweden and Lithuania for judicial support in the investigation of what was objectively a serious offence – the illegal crossing of the Belarusian border (cf. art. 371.3 of the Criminal Code). After all, in 1998, Belarus shot down an air-balloon that had inadvertently drifted across the border and illegally penetrated the Belarusian airspace, killing two people. How would Sweden have reacted, had its two citizens piloting the plane met such a tragic fate?

I believe the other reason behind Lukashenka’s decision is an irrational fear that Western human rights activists, with or without the backup of their respective governments, step up pressure on his regime in multiplying such “provocations” ahead of the 23 Parliamentary elections. In his mind, it is vital that elections take place in a peaceful and orderly manner, whereas an escalation of a diplomatic conflict with the EU is currently not in his interest: the regime needs to normalise its relations with Brussels before the winter, hence this diplomatic incident is very untimely, especially if the conflict escalates further. Anger and fear already made the Belarusian regime overreact further, in ordering the whole Swedish Embassy staff to be recalled from Minsk, in answer to Sweden’s decision (which was also disproportionate in my view), to expel not only the Belarusian ambassador, but also two other senior diplomats – leaving Belarus no choice but to close down its representation in Stockholm altogether.

2. One can expect an escalation of the diplomatic row, and recommend the EU to use this opportunity to step up the pressure against Lukashenka’s regime ahead of the 23 September parliamentary elections. One lesson that we, analysts, learnt from the diplomatic row over the expulsion of the Polish Ambassador Leszek Sherepka and the Head of the EU Delegation Maira Mora from Minsk last February-March is that EU member countries are now able and willing to display an astonishing level of solidarity with each other. Back then they reacted with unexpected speed, firmness and consistency, thus taking the Belarusian regime by surprise. The fact that the situation with the Swedish embassy’s closure is on the agenda of tomorrow’s [Friday August 10th] emergency meeting at ambassadors’ level in Brussels can surely be interpreted as a sign that the EU is taking things very seriously: Lukashenka has apparently not learnt the lesson, so I believe that Lady Ashton, in warning that the EU will take “appropriate measures”, is in fact getting public opinion ready for a new, full-fledged diplomatic row.

This would be an adequate decision for the EU to make tomorrow, albeit one leading all parties to reactivate an all too familiar lose-lose scenario. Firstly, recalling all EU ambassadors is a legitimate and consistent reaction to the abusive and arguably insane decision the Belarusian authorities took to virtually expel Ambassador Stefan Ericsson, whereas it would have been more logical for Belarus to simply request Sweden’s assistance in the prosecution of the two nationals who illegally trespassed the Lithuanian-Belarusian border on 4 July. Sweden would surely not have extradited them to Belarus, but it could have collaborated with Belarusian investigators, and convict them according to Swedish law if proven guilty.

Second, escalating a diplomatic provocation has proved efficient in the past, so it might again be a winning tactic. Six months ago Lukashenka backtracked to end the crisis he himself had started: in mid-April he released two political prisoners, including the most prominent of them, Andrei Sannikov, his main challenger in the December 2010 presidential elections. And he had to accept that the two most “undesirable” diplomats return to Minsk in order to obtain that other EU ambassadors also come back (and that Belarusian ones return to EU capitals). Again it might constrain the Belarusian side to make a last minute, desperate concession (such as the release and rehabilitation of remaining political prisoners) in order to defuse the risk of an escalation.

Yet there is a major difference with the diplomatic row of last winter: in August most EU Foreign Ministers are on summer vacation, and in five weeks Belarus is holding parliamentary elections.

In my view and as things stand, EU countries should actually push things one step further in cancelling the participation of their nationals (members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and nationals detached to the ODIHR) in the upcoming OSCE election monitoring mission. This would be easy to justify on technical grounds, given the volatility of the situation: both EU countries and Belarus need to have a consular presence in each other’s countries in order to ensure the smooth travelling of elections observers (EU nationals need to a consulate where to apply for a Belarusian visa), as well as to guarantee their safety. Long-term observers are due to be deployed in Belarus on 24 August, and about 200 more short-term observers are expected to arrive in mid-September. No doubt that in the absence of a consular protection for their nationals EU countries can legitimately refrain from delegating election observers to the OSCE.

Given the current impasse and predictable escalation of the conflict – which, in diplomatic terms, was started by Belarus, not Sweden – such a move would allow the EU to keep an upper hand for changing paradigm at last… and thus boycott the predictable electoral farce. This could lead to the cancellation of the OSCE monitoring mission altogether and in spite of the protests from other OSCE member countries such as Russia.

I believe this new tactical move would be the only way to break the vicious circle of entrusting Lukashenka’s regime to organise elections we know its regime is genetically incapable of holding in compliance with international democracy standards. This would also make the message sent by the Swedish teddy bears to the Belarusian population clearer: since these elections will not be free and fair, it does not make sense to participate in it. If voters get the message on time and turnout is indeed low, discrepancies between the announced results (which are traditionally rigged, including thanks to overestimating participation) and the reality of Belarusians’ voting behaviour will be obvious for all voters and domestic observers, who are readily mobilising in order to identify the expected fraud. Support for the idea that the presence of domestic independent observers (a majority of Belarusians do not believe OSCE observers to be “independent”) will make Belarusian elections more democratic is a new sociological feature which can be directly attributed to the fact that Russian voters have shown them the way in the 2011-2012 election cycle in Russia. Belarusians might not hit to the street in case of evident frauds, yet they might contest the results in some other way. The most important thing being that this civic awakening leads to them demanding that the next, presidential elections (scheduled to take place in 2015) take place under an amended legislation, and possibly without Lukashenka’s participation.

Therefore, I believe that answering to the closure of the Swedish embassy by taking such a decisive step as cancelling their participation in the OSCE observation mission would help EU countries positively influence the evolution of domestic politics in Belarus in the longer run… and with as limited collateral damage as possible: the Belarusian regime would have no way to retaliate, whereas previous cases of last-minute mission cancellation (of the OSCE’s observation of the 2007 legislative elections in Russia), arguably did not result in more frauds than would have been the case, had observers been present.

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