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As Economic Crisis Bites, Belarus's President Tries A Political Thaw

The Minsk authorities didn't demonstrate much love for the Youth Front on Valentine's Day.
The Minsk authorities didn't demonstrate much love for the Youth Front on Valentine's Day.
They called it a "Demonstration of Love" on St. Valentine's Day. The purpose: To test whether authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is serious about creating a new atmosphere of openness and tolerance in Belarus.

Activists from the opposition Youth Front gathered in Minsk dressed in festive costumes festooned with hearts and ribbons. They cheerfully greeted passersby and passed out carnations tied with red and white bands. They carried balloons and sang.

But the love only went so far. When the activists tried to march through the city center to Independence Square, they were violently dispersed by truncheon-wielding riot police who beat and clubbed them.

Opposition leaders say the Valentine's Day crackdown is a stark demonstration that recent moves by Lukashenka to liberalize Belarus have their limits -- and are motivated more by financial need than political awakening.

"What we have seen today shows the degree to which the authorities want to democratize our society," Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service shortly after suffering a beating from police.

"This beautiful and peaceful celebration was broken up in such a brutal way. And this is taking place at the peak of the so-called period of dialogue and liberalization. We can only imagine what the self-styled dictator of Belarus will be doing after all [of his] financial and political games with the West are over."

The violence in Minsk came just days before a delegation from the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly arrived in the capital for a four-day visit to assess Belarus's progress on democratization and human rights, a precondition for receiving badly needed assistance from the West.

In recent months, Belarus has released its last political prisoners, allowed the publication of opposition newspapers, created consultative councils that include members of the opposition, and made some cautious moves to liberalize the economy and relax controls on the online media.

At the same time, Lukashenka's regime has had a hard time letting go of some of its more traditional, repressive tactics. Opposition figures still face petty harassment and arbitrary arrests. Some youth leaders have also been detained and press-ganged into the armed forces. Critics describe the practice as politically motivated conscriptions.

Reform Schizophrenia

Belarus's economy is suffering due to declining demand for its exports to Russia -- leading to inventory stockpiles and unpaid workers. Belarus also devalued its ruble by 20 percent at the start of the year, partly to meet International Monetary Fund conditions set on a $2.5 billion loan. The move diminished the savings of much of the population.

Belarus's financial woes have coincided with a relaxation of social and political restrictions, as Lukashenka seeks to convince the West he is a willing and apt democratic partner.

But even as he courts the West, Lukashenka is far from abandoning Minsk's special relationship with Russia. Earlier this month, Minsk and Moscow inked an air-defense deal boosting military ties between the two countries. Russia has also pledged $2 billion in credits to Minsk, and Belarus is seeking an additional $2.7 billion in additional loans from Moscow.

Lukashenka has continued to look to Russia's Dmitry Medvedev (left).
Analysts say such schizophrenia is likely to continue as the regime seeks to balance its need for better relations with the West between its dependence on Moscow and its desire to hold onto power at home at all costs.

"This is a message to the opposition that, 'Yes we are taking some steps toward liberalization. But don't get any ideas that we are completely letting go of the reins. And don't get the idea that this liberalization will be absolute," says Yuri Drakakhrust, a political analyst with RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

Drakakhrust adds that, like all authoritarian rulers, Lukashenka "does not like to be seen as weak," and that recent mass protests in nearby European states over the mounting financial unrest have likely given him pause.

"The Belarusian authorities are looking around. In recent months we have seen a whole series of massive protests, in Athens, in Sofia during the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis, in Riga, in Vilnius. If a few years ago we were talking about the spread of colored revolutions, then today we could be looking at a spread of rebellions and pogroms," Drakakhrust says, adding that Lukashenka seeks to send the message that despite the recent thaw, "the arm of the Belarusian state is still strong."

Belarus has already gained some concessions from the West. The European Union has suspended a travel ban against Lukashenka and other top officials, and will make a decision in April whether the move will be permanent.

Semblance Of Dialogue

Belarus is now seeking to join Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine and become a member of the European Union's Eastern Partnership program. The program would open the door to expanded economic assistance and could eventually lead to visa-free travel and free-trade agreements once certain criteria are met.

"At the moment, Belarus is not yet there because, indeed, there were lots of things missing on the democratic side. But for the other countries, in principle, the offer is there," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

"But only when, really, all the things will have been done that we need to see -- like free media access, free assembly [will Belarus be ready]. There are many, many things that still are missing."

One of Lukashenka's showcase reforms has been the creation of consultative councils -- on media, human rights, and improving Belarus's international image -- that would allow the opposition to have its voice heard. The councils, according to Lukashenka's press service, are intended to "discuss current issues in the development of the country and society and to draft proposals to bring Belarus further into world processes."

Not surprisingly, Belarus's fractious opposition is divided over the councils.

Belarus under Lukashenka is unlikely to loosen the reins too much.
Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich's For Freedom movement has been asked to join the council, as has the liberal United Civic Party and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

The opposition Belarusian Popular Front, however, has refused to participate in the councils, criticizing them as a "semblance of a dialogue."

And in a recent speech, Lukashenka himself seemed to confirm the Popular Front's view. During a visit to an agricultural-machinery factory in Lida on February 10, Lukashenka made it clear that he had no intention of allowing the consultative councils to turn into a "parliamentary tribune" where the opposition can "shout and push their dirty ideas."

Guarded Optimism

Nevertheless, some rights activists remain optimistic.

"We can say that liberalization is taking place," says Aleh Hulyak, chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. "It can be seen in the sphere of economic and business regulation. This can also be seen in society as a whole. Because the pro-European rhetoric we can hear today was impossible a year ago or even six months ago."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is also pushing Minsk to reform its election laws. Opposition groups are seeking greater limits on early voting, a source of vote fraud that is difficult to monitor. The opposition is also seeking greater access to media and representation on the electoral commissions.

Meanwhile, journalists have criticized a new media law requiring news outlets to re-register with the authorities. In what free-press advocates considered a major victory, however, online publications were exempted from the requirement.

The authorities are also trying to improve the business climate by easing the requirements to register enterprises. Entrepreneurs, however, complain that although registration has been eased, they still face petty harassment from authorities when operating their businesses.

Andrei Rikhter, director of the Moscow-based Center for Law and News Media, tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that despite the back-and-forth nature of Lukashenka's moves, he expects Belarus to continue to gradually open up.

"This [liberalization] will happen sooner or later. The question is when?" Rikhter says. "There are indications of liberalization today and I think they will develop. This is the result of the fact that in recent months, and perhaps for the past year, Belarus is looking less to Moscow and more to the West."

RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report