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A new Belarus for a future Europe A new Belarus for a future Europe
by Christos Mouzeviris
2020-09-24 07:05:48
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Even during a pandemic, political developments haven't stopped in Europe. Some of them particularly have the potent of altering our continent's future image and balance. Since the outcome of the early August presidential election in Belarus, the country has been engulfed by protests and social unrest.

After the aparent "victory" of Alexander Lukashenko by approximatelly 80% of the votes, Belarusians have had enough. Their leader has been in power since 1994 and although he "won" the elections, he has lost the country.

bel001_400_01The reasons for the country's citizens' response maybe complex and varied, but no one can deny their disaproval and wish for change. The protesters now march for new fair elections, Lukashenko to resign and a recount of election result.

After tolerating for a long time bad financial policies, authoritarianism, nepotism and corruption plus electroral fraud, the country decided that it is time to turn a page in its history.

Their neighbors in Russia have the same ruling President and elite for a similar amount of time, but either the West likes it or not and although his popularity is dwindling, the Russians are not as willing to rid of Putin just yet. We haven't seen such massive countrywide protests in Russia yet, to try and overthrow him.

The Belarusians though clearly had enough. The unrest started peacefully as demonstrations, but it wasn't long before it turned violent with currently 5 people reported dead, numerous others missing, hundrends injured and thousands arrested.

On 1 September, in a statement by the human rights experts of the United Nations, more than 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees were mentioned, including sexual abuse and rape of women and children.

During this time, Europe has been observing and being vocal about the developments in Belarus, openly condemning Lukashenko and his supporters. However as usual, it is slow to take decisive actions. Sadly, it doesn't have the power to do much, but monitor closely.

The EU and Belarus never had strong ties. The country under Lukashenko decided to remain in Russia's sphere of influence, becoming one of the founding members of the Eurasian Economic Union established in 2014, together with Russia and Kazakhstan.

There have been even indications by Lukashenko that he was been presurised by Putin to accept further intregration of the two countries, literally merging Belarus into Russia. That was stated as recently as in early 2020. This could be another reason why Lukashenko is being rejected by his own people now, or there could be additional motives behind the protests.

Lukashenko claimed that the riots are staged by the West, to weaken Russia and its sphere of influence. He warned that if the uprisisng is successful in Belarus, Russia will be next. However, just before the election, Belarus arrested 32 private Russian military contractors on charges of planning to stage riots.

The incident was downplaid by Putin later on, yet we cannot exclude any possibility that the protests are orchestrated or used by either Russia and the West, in order to change or maintain the status quo in the region.

No matter what version of truth we choose, our concern should lie with the Belarusian people and their struggle to stabilise their country as it hopefully transits towards democracy.

But what could Europe do? If it sanctions the country's economy, it will only hurt the ordinary people that it tries to help. Wether the EU insists on such measures, then these must be applied solely against Lukashenko and his inner circle, plus anyone responsible for whichever kind of violence and human rights violations.

Even so, Lukashenko will not feel the pressure, as his assets and interests lie in Russia. The EU needs the colaboration of the UN, to monitor the situation and prevent further chaos or worsening of human rights violations. For the time being, that is the only help it can provide to Belarus, together with offering refuge to escaping opposition leaders, or financing their efforts and networks.

But what of the future of Belarus and its relationship with the rest of Europe? Many suggest that the country should come closer to the EU. But in reality that can prove very diffucult. Belarus' population, includes roughly 8.3 % ethnic Russians. Around 70% of its households are Russian speaking, with only 30% of its citizens speaking Belarusian at home.

If Ukraine is having problems in moving decisively towards the West and becoming more integrated in the European institutions, what chances does Belarus have in achieving such goal? For the time being, it would be wise to focus on the democratization of the country and removing Lukashenko from power.

If the Belarusian Democracy Movement, as the protests are referred to, is successful and force Lukashenko to step down, then Europe and Russia must be willing to negotiate the new status in the region, but not only in Belarus. Since Russia fears and protests at any Western expansion to the East, then Ukraine and Belarus could become buffer zones and bridges between the two realms.

But that will mean no NATO membership for either of them, with the EU and Russia hopefully being able to put their differences aside, becoming engaged and collaborators in both nations, stabilizing Eastern Europe for good. That will naturally prove very tricky, given the anti-Russian sentiment deep rooted in Eastern EU member states, plus Russia's view of them. Ultimatelly though, it should be up to Ukrainians and Belarusians to deside where their future lies.

The real danger is that the movement is compromised and betrayed by Europe, the US, Russia and the UN, to maintaining the status quo and avoid rocking the boat too much to serve individual nations' interests. Or maybe prevent the risk of another civil war and a Ukraine-like situation. Then the sacrifices of the Belarusian people will be for nothing and all parties will be to blame.

It is time for Russia, the US and the EU or its indivisual states, to stop promoting their affairs in the region and start thinking collectively. The stability and prosperity of Europe benefits everyone, especially the countries in the EU and Russia. It will be wise to abandon the stand-off and find solutions that will actually be lasting. Europe in particular, will gain hugely by a democratic Belarus, but Russia has nothing to lose if it maintains its close ties with the country, while bettering its relations with the EU.

The Belarusian, European, Ukrainian and Russian people deserve a better future together, either as good neighbors or partners. Let us not destroy it due to our inability to see past Cold War crimes and mistakes. Belarus, the best of luck, hopefully a brighter future awaits you.

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