Месечни архиви: август 2020

Belarus on the brink

Written by Naja Bentzen,

© Savvapanf Photo / Adobe Stock

As usual in Belarus, the 9 August presidential election was marred by fraud, repression and state violence against the opposition. As expected, the long-standing President, Aleksander Lukashenko, claimed a landslide victory. What was unusual this time, however, was the scale of Belarusians’ disappointment: peaceful protests and strikes spread throughout the entire country in response to the stolen election, despite brutal crackdowns. What started as a national crisis now represents a wider struggle between truth and lies, democracy and autocracy, raising the stakes for both Minsk and Moscow, whose nervousness has spilled over into mounting aggression.

Background: Just another rigged election?

Belarus is situated at the heart of Europe, but its election standards and poor human rights record have left the country as a ‘black hole’ on the European map. This has soured EU-Belarus relations, although ties have improved somewhat since the crisis in Ukraine and Minsk’s 2015 release of political prisoners, culminating in the entry into force of a visa facilitation and readmission agreement in July 2020. Given previous unfree and unfair elections in Belarus, it came as no surprise that the country’s president since 1994, Aleksander Lukashenko, declared his sixth consecutive overwhelming victory in the 9 August presidential election. Officially, he received 80 % of the vote, and his closest rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 10 %. Lukashenko treated assertions of election fraud as business as usual, despite the punitive police violence towards opposition supporters, arrests of journalists and activists, internet shutdowns, ‘disappeared’ citizens and widespread accusations of torture. This time, however, his harsh response – adding to discontent over the economic crisis and his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis – fuelled the largest protests in the history of independent Belarus and mounting calls for him to resign. Tikhanovskaya, who rejected the official results and claims to have received 60-70 % of votes, called on authorities to ‘think about peaceful ways to hand over power’. As violence grew in intensity, she fled to Lithuania on 11 August.

Despite the brutal crackdowns – so far leaving at least four people dead, hundreds injured and over 6 700 arrested during protests – protests have escalated. Thousands of workers at state-run factories across the country have gone on strike. On 17 August, workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant booed Lukashenko and chanted ‘leave’, to which he responded: ‘Until you kill me, there will be no other election’. On the same day, staff from the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company (BT) went on strike in protest against censorship and election fraud. Several TV anchors had already resigned, along with staff at other state-owned news companies. On 18 August, ‘specialists’ were flown in from Russia to get BT back up and running. On 18 August, workers at the Minsk Tractor Works – which employs over 16 000 people – limited a strike over fear they could be fined and dismissed. On the same day, Belarus’ ambassador to Slovakia resigned after having voiced solidarity with the protesters. On 23 August, more than 100 000 Belarussians marched peacefully through Minsk – the highest turnout thus far in these unprecedented protests – demanding Lukashenko’s resignation, despite a massive police presence and warnings from the military.

The National Coordination Council of Belarus

Ahead of the 19 August emergency European Council meeting, the Belarusian opposition leader and presidential candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in a video appeal to the European Council posted on YouTube, urged EU leaders to ‘support the awakening’ of the Belarusian people and not to recognise the ‘fraudulent elections’. She also announced the establishment of a new Coordination Council (CC) of Belarus to organise a peaceful transfer of power through dialogue, and to call for new fair and democratic presidential elections in the country. Lukashenko referred to this move as a ‘coup’. Moreover, the Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office opened a criminal inquiry against the members of the CC on the grounds of a violation of the constitution, arguing that ‘the creation and the activities of the CC are aimed at seizing power and inflicting damage to the national security’. On 24 August, two members of the CC were detained, accused of organising unauthorised mass events. A third CC member was summoned to the Belarusian Investigative Committee headquarters for questioning.

Putin’s perspective and preliminary response

The protesters in Belarus have no geopolitical motivation; they just want free elections. The Belarusian opposition is not aiming to sever ties with Russia; Tikhanovskaya’s associate, Maria Kolesnikova, has underlined that ‘all existing agreements must be respected’. Thus, the protests are not anti-Moscow. At the same time, however, a successful bottom-up regime change in Belarus could serve as encouragement for simmering protests in south-eastern Russia. Here, protesters have been using the same white-red-white flag of Belarus – banned under Lukashenko – that the Belarusian protesters have been using. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response will impact on his future ties with Minsk, Brussels and the Russian people. Putin’s popularity has sunk to a record low amid the coronavirus pandemic and the evolving economic crisis. Recent constitutional changes, which could allow him to stay in power until 2036, have further challenged Russians’ patience. The suspected poisoning of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny – who was hospitalised on 20 August and airlifted to Germany for treatment and protection on 21 August, following an emergency ruling by the European Court of Human Rights – further fuels criticism of Putin’s toxic toolbox.

A ‘frenemy’ in need: Shifting the blame from Russia to the EU

The Kremlin has key strategic and tactical interests in Belarus. Despite wobbly ties with Lukashenko (who used anti-Russian rhetoric for the first time in his 2020 campaign and arrested alleged Russian mercenaries in July, accusing them of ‘plotting terrorism’, which the Kremlin denied), the status quo in Minsk was seen as the lesser evil for Moscow, at least until Lukashenko lost all public support. A weak Lukashenko who has burnt all bridges to the EU would be even more dependent on Moscow. Putin has consistently pushed for a Union State with Belarus despite Lukashenko’s reluctance. Putin repeated his call in a telegram to Lukashenko on 10 August, as the Belarusian opposition’s calls for a power transfer grew. Days later, Lukashenko asked Putin to intervene, moved paratroopers from the Russian to the Polish border, and ordered the military to monitor NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania. He thus shifted the blame away from Moscow, framing the crisis as Western interference, perhaps to justify – or threaten – Russian intervention.

On 16 August, Putin confirmed Russia’s ‘readiness to provide necessary assistance in ironing out emerging problems’, ‘if necessary’ through the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance of six former Soviet states. There is reportedly increased military movement – with columns of unmarked trucks – on Russia’s side of the Belarusian border. Perhaps somewhat ironically, in separate conversations on 18 August with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, French President, Emmanuel Macron, and European Council President, Charles Michel, Putin repeatedly underlined the ‘inadmissibility’ of foreign ‘interference’ in Belarus, warning it could lead to ‘further escalations’. On 20 August, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, alleged that the EU is on the verge of intervening in Belarus, claiming that ‘this is about geopolitics, the fight for the post-Soviet space’. Lukashenko interpreted the Minsk–Moscow line on 23 August as follows: ‘Putin and I agreed: Belarus is first, Russia is next in line‘, adding: ‘This is a springboard, and we must destroy it’.

Position of the European Union and the European Parliament

EU leaders, on the other hand, have explicitly focused on the wishes of the Belarusian people. At a 19 August emergency European Council meeting, EU leaders concluded that ‘the elections were neither free nor fair, therefore we do not recognise the results’, underlining that Belarusians ‘have a right to determine their future’. They called for a full investigation into all alleged abuses and announced sanctions against individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud. Charles Michel stated clearly that the ‘protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics’, adding that any resolution of the crisis ‘must be found in Belarus, not in Brussels or in Moscow’. The Commission will mobilise an additional €53 million in support of Belarusian civil society, media and the health sector. EU leaders support the idea of letting the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mediate, and France and Germany have also offered that the EU play such a role. Lukashenko has so far not spoken to EU leaders about the crisis. In his opening speech to the European Council meeting, the European Parliament’s President, David Sassoli, said: ‘Our task is clear: support the calls made by the people of Belarus for new elections to be held as soon as possible’. On 17 August, Members from major political groups called for new and free elections in Belarus, and strongly condemned the violence and torture perpetrated against peaceful protesters. Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs will hold an extraordinary meeting on 25 August to discuss the situation in Belarus.


Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Belarus on the brink‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Source Article from https://epthinktank.eu/2020/08/25/belarus-on-the-brink/

Outcome of the European Council video-conference of 19 August 2020

Written by Drachenberg and Annastiina Papunen,

© tumsasedgars / Adobe Stock

The European Council video-conference meeting of 19 August 2020 was called by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, due to the increasingly worrying situation in Belarus after the recent national elections. As Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, summarised, the European Council decided to convey three clear messages from the meeting: i) the EU stands with the Belarussian people; ii) the EU will place sanctions on all those responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results; and iii) the EU is ready to accompany the peaceful democratic transition of power in Belarus.

While mainly focusing on Belarus, the Heads of State or Government also discussed two further issues during the video-conference meeting. First, as regards the tense situation in the eastern Mediterranean as a result of increasingly hostile Turkish activity, the European Council expressed its full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, recalling and reaffirming its previous conclusions on the illegal drilling activities, and called for de-escalation. Second, on the situation in Mali, EU leaders expressed their deep concern over the events in the country, which have a destabilising impact on the entire region and on the fight against terrorism, and called for an immediate release of prisoners and restoration of the rule of law.

The situation in Belarus

Background

Prior to the elections, the Belarusian opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, had managed to unite the opposition and to gather large crowds of supporters. After a strong performance on the campaign trail, she was expected to do well on election night (9 August). However, early results predicted a landslide victory for the incumbent President, Alexander Lukashenko, and the country’s election commission released results stating that Lukashenko had won 80 % of the vote, leaving Tikhanovskaya with only 10 %. The outcome, widely interpreted as falsified, sparked mass protests and demonstrations, which have now been going on for more than two weeks. President Lukashenko has tried to crack down on demonstrations by detaining protestors, with as many as 7 000 people reportedly arrested, and reports of widespread police and state authority brutality and abuse. Ahead of the European Council meeting, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on EU leaders not to recognise the fraudulent elections, and on all countries to respect the sovereignty of Belarus and the choice of the Belarussian people.

Earlier European reactions

On 13 August, the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, expressed his deep concern regarding ‘the violence used by the state authorities against people peacefully demonstrating their desire for change’, and called on Lukashenko to stop the repression, refrain from further violence, and to immediately release those who have been detained. In his view, ‘the use of brutal force by the law enforcement services against its own people, resulting in death and injuries should have consequences according to international law, including targeted sanctions’.

On 14 August, EU foreign ministers debated the situation in Belarus following the presidential elections, and called on ‘the Belarusian authorities to stop the disproportionate and unacceptable violence against peaceful protesters and to release those detained’. They also sent a strong signal of the EU’s support to the Belarusian population in its desire for democratic change. Moreover, ministers reiterated that the elections had been neither free nor fair, and that, under those circumstances the EU did not recognise the election results. Ministers also agreed on the need to place sanctions on those responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results. The work on extending the list of targeted sanctions, notably against officials, beyond the already existing framework for Belarus will start immediately. This message was also stressed in a statement by the High Representative/Commission Vice-President, Josep Borrell.

As the situation in Belarus developed following the meeting of EU foreign ministers, the European Council President invited the Heads of State or Government for a video-conference meeting on 19 August, to discuss the EU’s response to the evolving situation in Belarus. Subsequently, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and Charles Michel discussed the situation with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Following that discussion, Charles Michel expressed the view that ‘only peaceful and truly inclusive dialogue can resolve the crisis in Belarus’. President Putin also had talks with Alexander Lukashenko on the situation following the elections.

Ahead of the video-meeting of the European Council, the Visegrad countries (Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) issued a joint statement, indicating their support for ‘the right of the people of Belarus to free, fair and democratic presidential elections’ and called ‘on any foreign actors to refrain from actions that would undermine Belarus‘s independence and sovereignty’.

European Council Presidency conclusions on Belarus

The Heads of State or Government reiterated the Foreign Ministers’ message that the 9 August elections in Belarus had been neither free nor fair, and that the EU therefore does not recognise the results. They expressed their clear solidarity with the people of Belarus in their desire to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. Furthermore, they condemned the disproportionate and unacceptable violence used by the state authorities against peaceful protesters. ‘Violence must be avoided and all those unlawfully detained must be immediately and unconditionally released. Civil society and opposition actors engaged in discussions of political transition must be protected from arbitrary arrests and violence. The EU expects a complete and transparent investigation into all alleged abuses’. The European Council unanimously confirmed that the EU would shortly impose additional targeted sanctions against a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results. EU leaders called on the Belarusian authorities to find a way out of the crisis through an end to violence, de-escalation, and an inclusive national dialogue. Only a peaceful and democratic process, underpinned by independent and free media and a strong civil society, could provide sustainable solutions. All parties, including third countries, should support such a process. The European Council stressed that it would continue to follow the situation closely, and stood ready to contribute to efforts aimed at peacefully ending the crisis. The EU fully supports OSCE proposals for dialogue in Belarus, and is ready to provide assistance to further them.

Giving the opening speech at the video-conference meeting, David Sassoli relayed Parliament’s deep concern regarding the violations of human rights in Belarus, and underlined that ‘the only viable way ahead is that of dialogue involving all national and international stakeholders to secure a peaceful solution’. In his view, the European Union must have an active role in that dialogue, in the context of its Neighbourhood Policy. He indicated that the European Parliament was prepared to play its part in collaboration with the OSCE, drawing on its own structures and experience.

Situation in the eastern Mediterranean

The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is increasingly tense, with growing hostile Turkish activity. As a result, France sent two fighter jets and a naval frigate to monitor the situation in mid-August. The European Council expressed its full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, and reaffirmed its previous conclusions on the illegal drilling activities (notably from October 2019, December 2019 and April 2020). As previously indicated by Charles Michel, the European Council will revert to this topic in detail during a special European Council meeting on 24-25 September 2020, ‘where all options will be on the table’.

Situation in Mali

EU leaders also addressed the situation in Mali, where a military coup forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to resign. The Heads of State or Government expressed their deep concern, and considered that the events in the country had a destabilising impact on the entire region and on the fight against terrorism. They called for an immediate release of prisoners, and the restoration of the rule of law. The European Council supports efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to find a solution in line with the aspirations of the Malian people, and confirmed the EU’s full coordination with African and international partners.


Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Outcome of the European Council video-conference of 19 August 2020‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Source Article from https://epthinktank.eu/2020/08/25/outcome-of-the-european-council-video-conference-of-19-august-2020/