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Solidarity with Belarus. What can we do?

Belarusians have broken through decades of fear, and the demonstrations will continue against all odds. What can Europe do to help them end the authoritarian regime?

September 15, 2020 - Anastasiia Starchenko New Eastern Europe - Hot Topics

European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk. Online Debate: Solidarity with Belarus. What can Europe do? Photo: Jerzy Pinkas/www.gdansk.pl

While the protesters in Belarus are bravely confronting Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime in the aftermath of the fraudulent election, Western European leaders are examining their options in providing realistic support to the protesters. Although there are countries in Europe that are already ahead in solidarity with the battle for freedom and independence in Belarus, led by Central and Eastern EU member states, many Belarusians feel disappointed by the reaction from the European Union and the United States, as opposed to the response that followed the events in Ukraine.

The European community needs to listen to the needs of Belarusian people and deliver tangible assistance to the country’s citizens, as stated in the Eastern Partnership’s mission that subscribes the EU’s regional presence to certain democratic values and resilience building efforts.

Held On August 31st, the 40th anniversary of the August Accords signed at the Gdańsk shipyards in 1980, New Eastern Europe’s special event at the European Solidarity Centre featured an online discussion on the current situation in Belarus and debated ways on how Europe can show its solidarity with the Belarusian people. Moderated by Adam Reichardt, the debate produced four main points to be considered in the European response to the situation

1. Support for the opposition and civil society. As the leaders of the protest movement in Belarus are being illegally detained or forced into exile by the state regime, not only is it  important to ensure their safety and material support, but is also crucial that they are able to continue to operate on the territory of Belarus without having to flee. In addition, Belarus requires tangible support for independent media, NGOs and independent social groups that encircle the protest movement: trade unions, churches, social and youth organisations will all have a significant role to play in the new Belarus. Lukashenka’s days may be numbered, and the opposition actors on the ground will need to take the country’s fate into their hands.

At the same time, Europe must be ready for greater Russian interference, as Europe’s other authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, appears to back Lukashenka’s crackdown against the protest movement. Based on the Russian involvement with the Belarusian state media and the amount of Russia-crafted disinformation, such unilateral action is already taking place. Whether the situation in Belarus echoes that of Ukraine or not, it is time the EU reflects on what went wrong in the Ukraine strategy in the recent years and how to prevent interference from happening again.

The political aspect of Europe’s support equally implies treating members of the Belarusian opposition as political partners and not subordinates of the western community. They seek independence, not a geopolitical entanglement. To many Belarusians it already seems like the political statements are being made over their heads. While European leaders discuss the fate of Lukashenka, Belarusians, first and foremost, want to do away with the illegitimate, authoritarian regime. Therefore, Europe needs to stand by this position together with them by expressing support of the decisions, demands and recommendations made by the Belarusian Coordination Council, which strives to become a platform for negotiations between the protesters, state authorities, and neighbouring states.

Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, delivering a statement of solidarity. Photo: Dawid Linkowski / Archiwum ECS

2. Humanitarian assistance. It is necessary to ensure that ordinary Belarusians, including those who are not directly engaged in the protests, are safe in their own country and have a sense that somebody out there in the world is thinking about them. For this reason, Belarusians have to continue providing the world with maximum information about what’s going on in the country, mostly via social media channels, while the European community has to rise up to the challenge and contribute to consolidating sporadic information, increasing international awareness, amplifying voices of journalists on the ground, and mitigating the consequences of state media disinformation campaigns, propaganda and internet disruption in Belarus.

Since the election, thousands of anti-regime protesters have been detained and beaten by police, and there are unprecedented reports of rampant torture in prisons. Another way to express Europe’s solidarity against silencing, violence and injustice in Belarus would be to extend a hand of support to the three largest groups of repression victims, as those are feeling increasingly neglected by the lack of Europe’s involvement. First, the demonstrators who have been illegally detained and tortured; second, workers striking throughout the country, whose actions seem to be underreported in the media and place them at risk of the job loss, criminal prosecution, and disappearances; and third, foreign journalists who have been suppressed and stripped of accreditation for reporting on the ground.

3. Help and support for those who are forced to leave Belarus. Beyond any doubt, there will be large numbers of political refugees from Belarus. If European leaders seek realistic ways of expressing an act of solidarity with Belarusians, local authorities must be ready to ease the red tape of border crossing into the EU, especially in view of the COVID-19 restrictions, and allow arrivals of the political asylum seekers from Belarus. Moreover, due to the ongoing events, many IT-companies, as well as individual specialists, leave the country to conduct their business in a secure environment. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Ukraine, for instance, are ready to host relocated companies and guarantee comfortable conditions for doing business, full legal assistance in the process of relocation, and additional benefits at the stage of adjustment. Broader, long-term measures can be introduced at both the highest and municipal political levels to assist those who feel threatened by the situation in Belarus and have no choice but flee the country.

Paweł Kowal delivering his keynote address.
Photo: Jerzy Pinkas/www.gdansk.pl

Finally, while it may sound debatable and controversial, the West should establish certain channels of communication with the Belarusian state authorities and maintain a two-fold policy towards the regime in Minsk. Demand for new elections, acknowledgement of blatant human rights violations, and sanctions against people who use terror and violence are necessary, but it is also crucial to retain some contact with Lukashenka and his entourage, a stance that probably presents the biggest paradox of the current situation.

Shocked by the violence, Belarusians have broken through decades of fear, and the demonstrations will continue against all odds. At a certain point, the social mobilisation will be strong enough to force talks, and part of the government authorities will join the protesters’ side, marking the beginning of the end of the old system. Effective communication with the authorities will bolster the position of the protest movement and facilitate the turning point in the revolution.

New Eastern Europe would like to thank Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Paweł Kowal, Roman Protasevich, Rebecca Harms, Veranika Laputska, Natalia Yerashevich, Kacper Dziekan and all members of the audience for joining the discussion.

This report and recommendations were compiled by Anastasiia Starchenko, an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe and a recent MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She has a BA in Law from the Ukrainian Academy of Banking and a BA in International Relations from Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia.


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