Soon, ignoring tyranny in Belarus won’t be an option

The diplomatic row between Belarus and Sweden means the UK won't be able to remain detached for long.

Over the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for having failed to register a diplomatic row within Europe that has left two embassies emptied and led to an emergency meeting at the EU.

It is worth examining the chain of events that has led to this swift rise in tensions between Sweden and Belarus: Alexander Lukashenko became President of Belarus in 1994; he maintained power for 18 years by allegedly rigging elections and using his Soviet-legacy KGB to imprison and often torture members of the opposition, journalists and human rights activists; on 4 July this year a Swedish PR firm flew into Belarusian airspace and dropped 800 teddy bears with parachutes carrying pro-democracy slogans. President Lukashenko’s reaction was to arrest two Belarusians – one a student who had posted photos of the bears online, another an estate agent who had considered renting an apartment to the Swedes involved but in the end, well, didn’t.

This provoked outrage from human rights and freedom of speech campaigners across Europe who have since been holding a range of protests and solidarity actions to draw attention to the absurdity of the situation. Turning it into a national security issue, Lukashenko sacked two of his top generals - those in charge of air defence and border control. Since this only drew more attention to the event, he went on to effectively expel all Swedish embassy staff from Minsk and withdraw his own embassy from Stockholm, destroying diplomatic relations between the two countries and creating an international news story out of what was, essentially, a publicity stunt.

Lukashenko then gave nearly two weeks for the story to fade away before dismissing his Foreign Minister on Monday. This was presumably intended as a face-saving move before he inevitably invites the Swedish embassy back to Minsk but has essentially brought the whole saga back into the spotlight by his sheer obstinance.

(It should be noted that Lukashenko claims that the closing of the embassies is unrelated to the teddy bear drop, but he also claimed the bear drop had not taken place, even weeks after Anton Suryapin and Syarhei Basharymau were arrested.)

Meanwhile Russian state media has made a lot of noise blaming Sweden for its provocations while the EU has condemned Lukashenko’s actions and agreed to consider extending existing sanctions in October.

The attitude of the UK Government towards President Lukashenko’s regime tends to be tacit condemnation. In the past the Foreign Office has taken a side against the Belarusian government only when pressed; the most noteworthy reaction they have so far given to the closing of the Swedish embassy has been a tweet from William Hague to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt:

Essentially, the UK Government’s position has always been "leave it to the EU". Soon however that attitude will not be enough. 

Apart from Lukashenko’s blunders, the long drawn out saga created over this has partly been due to chance timing, and there is no indication that this will change over the next few weeks.

The dust will still be settling from the diplomatic row, the PR company Studio Total will be continuing to maximise its hard-earned publicity and human rights groups will be trying to use the rise in tensions to gain support for the release of political prisoners when election time comes to Belarus in September.

Belarus’s 2010 elections saw mass protests, widespread accusations of tampering and the arrests of hundreds of activists – there is little reason to expect these will go any differently. Even with a boycott planned by many opposition groups, there will almost inevitably be violence and a brutal crackdown as seen two years ago. After the recent row with Sweden, Belarus is more isolated than ever. Next month Lukashenko will most likely consolidate his place as a pariah of European politics and there is little knowing what the diplomatic outcome could be.

While remaining comparatively aloof from the situation in Belarus in general, Britain has earned Lukashenko’s displeasure recently by upholding the EU travel ban and barring the notoriously competitive dictator from watching his team’s success at the London Olympics. The President has proven himself to be incredibly temperamental, skewed in political judgement and therefore unpredictable. Events are likely to come to a head next month and once again put Belarus at the forefront of European politics, and it seems unlikely that the British government can remain detached for much longer. This may be wishful thinking on the part of an activist, but it seems almost inevitable that we could soon see our government take some small but genuine stand in support of democracy and human rights, whether they want to or not.

Jack Barton works in a voluntary capacity for the Free Belarus Now campaign

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko waves as he walks with his young son Nikolay, 'Kolya' Lukashenko during recent independence day celebrations. Photograph: Getty Images
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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.