A priest blesses cakes and painted eggs for Orthodox Easter in the village of Semurovtsy, Belarus, 19 April. Photo: Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images
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Belarus is now at risk of losing its independence to Russia

Most Belarusians have a somewhat weaker sense of identity than Ukrainians but they feel Belarusian rather than Russian.

Returning to Belarus, a flat land of nearly ten million people, after an interval of five years, I found that very little had changed: Alexander Lukashenko remains president (as he has been since 1994), the opposition is weak, the NGOs are lively but struggle to survive, the state employs about 70 per cent of the workforce, unemployment is negligible, street crime is low and corruption is less of a problem than in the neighbouring Russia or Ukraine. Belarus is still not in the Council of Europe (largely because it executes people) or the World Trade Organisation, the capital is dominated by Soviet architecture and the state security agency is called the KGB.

What may be changing, however, is that Belarus is now at risk of losing its independence. Some government officials and opposition leaders worry that the crisis in Ukraine, combined with serious economic problems, makes that prospect more likely.

As a number of opposition figures are prepared to concede, Lukashenko has just about succeeded in maintaining his country’s independence. Several times, he has extracted financial aid from Russia in return for making promises that he has then reneged on. He has flirted periodically with the west as a counter to Russian influence. This has infuriated Russian leaders but they have grudgingly tolerated it.

Most Belarusians have a somewhat weaker sense of identity than Ukrainians – their country has shallower historical roots – but they feel Belarusian rather than Russian. Although everyone speaks Russian, about a fifth of the population speak Belarusian at home and all schoolchildren learn it. The regional differences are much less pronounced than in Ukraine but in the western city of Hrodna – once Polish, with fine baroque architecture – I encountered more nationalist feeling than in the capital, Minsk.

Lukashenko seems to have profited from the crisis in Ukraine, at least in the short term. According to opinion pollsters, in recent years, support for the EU and democracy has grown, encompassing about a third of the population. But they think that trend is now reversing, as people start to fear the chaos that has afflicted Ukraine.

Yet Russia’s annexation of Crimea worries Belarusians. When officials discuss the “Putin doctrine” – the assertion of Russia’s right to intervene in its neighbourhood to protect Russian speakers or Russians – they smile nervously (about 8 per cent of people in Belarus are Russian).

The country’s ability to stand up to Russia is undermined by its economy, which has almost stopped growing – partly because of close economic ties to the slow-growing Russia.

Belarusians could not have maintained their standard of living – per capita GDP is about 50 per cent higher than in Ukraine – without Russian subsidies, mainly in the form of cheap oil and gas. But this system is no longer stable. The current account deficit grew from 3 per cent of GDP in 2012 to 10 per cent last year (roughly $7bn) and is likely to be worse this year. The deficit cannot be plugged without vast borrowing and Russia may be the only country willing to lend. Moscow has made it clear that strings would be attached: the privatisation of Belarus’s chief industrial assets so that Russians would be free to buy them; moves towards a stronger “Eurasian Economic Community”; and support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

After the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Belarus refused to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenko took a similar stance at the start of the Crimean crisis but as pressure from Moscow has grown, the line has evolved. The president recently said Crimea was now part of Russia and if forced to choose Belarus would be with Russia. Yet he added that the annexation sets “a bad precedent”.

The government, worried about this tightening bear hug, has sent signals to Brussels that it could be ready for closer ties. The EU is wary; the last rapprochement in 2009 led to the release of political prisoners in return for the suspension of sanctions on Belarus but ended with a crackdown on the opposition. Still, the EU recently agreed to negotiate softer visa rules for Belarusians and several EU countries want to go further. European leaders know that Lukashenko won’t dismantle his dictatorship but some of them think that engagement would help the country to maintain its independence.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.