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Report on Belarus Forum

February 8, 2012 9:18 PM
By Mark Smulian

LIBG's joint forum on Belarus with Liberal Youth on 6 February looked at how proponents of democracy and human rights can seek to engage with Europe's last dictatorship.

Belarus lies immediately west of Russia and was briefly a democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union before its current leader Alexander Lukashenko secured the president in 1994.

Since then it has come to resemble the former Soviet Union, complete with a security police still called the KGB.

Yaruslau Kryvoi, of Belarus Digest, told the meeting that Belarus "is very dominated by Russia, which does not want the regime to fail.

"It gets gigantic subsides from Russia which allows its inefficient economy to function and distribute its subsidy among the population."

He said Russia supported Belarus because it saw it as part of the former USSR that could choose the 'Eurasian' future that Russia is promoting among its neighbours, rather than a European one.

"Sanctions are unlikely to be effective since Russia will always support its economy to keep the regime going," Mr Kryvoi said.

He said there were some freedoms in Belarus, for example that internet use was not greatly restricted, and that political parties existed though "the votes are never counted and we are just given the results".

A priority, he said, should be engagement with young Belarussians in civil society bodies, as they had only ever known an independent country and look more to Europe than do older people.

Lower level officials might also be fruitful subjects for engagement, since "if the regime were ever to change there would then be contacts".

Alex Nice, until January head of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House, said the EU had conflicting aims in Belarus - it sought to promote human rights while also maintaining a working relationship with the regime.

"The EU does not have a lot of leverage," he said. "Russia sees places on its borders as a zero sum game in terms of its influence, and it sees the EU as a threat to its domestic stability.

"They will stick with Lukashenko even if they don't like him, if the alternative is a pro-western regime."

He predicted change would come only from within Belarus, or within Russia.

Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, said she first became interested in Belarus when taking part in a parliamentary debate in 2008.

She pointed out that west did not "have a great record on regime change", but added: "No regime lasts forever, we need to support civil society there and the Belorussian diaspora."