Bialiatski case "sentenced" multilateral foreign policy of Belarus

April 22, 2016 17:48

Belarus freezes its Western foreign policy direction. At the same time, the harsh verdict to Bialiatski implies an acute shortage of political strategies at the Presidential Administration.

On 24 November Vice President of International Federation of Human Rights and the Head of non-registered in Belarus Human Rights Center “Viasna” [Spring] A. Bialiatski was sentenced over large-scale tax evasion to 4.5 years of imprisonment in a medium security institution with confiscation of property.

The sentence to Human Rights Defender Bialiatski proves the authorities’ intention to resume a large-scale campaign aimed to clean up the alternative political and social organizations, which started after the presidential elections of December 19, 2010 in Belarus. The acute phase of the financial crisis in Belarus between March and October 2011 was the main argument infavour of the political liberalization and cooperation with foreign financial institutions (with the IMF in particular). Financial assistance from these institutions was preconditioned by the release of all political prisoners, including Bialiatski.

Regardless of a number of signals President Lukashenko sent last summer and in early autumn to the EU and the USA about his willingness to fulfill their political demands, he nevertheless decided to choose the opposite direction. The choice of the President was made for the favorable conditions of economic cooperation with Russia within the framework of the Common Economic Space and the future Eurasian Economic Union, also for the sale of shares of Beltransgaz for USD2.5 billion, as well as for a substantial gas price discount. All these decisions have been made either before or immediately after the human rights defender was sentenced (on 18 and 25 November respectively).

Regardless of a number of signals President Lukashenko sent last summer and in early autumn to the EU and the USA about his willingness to fulfill their political demands, he nevertheless decided to choose the opposite direction. 

The aforementioned agreements provide Belarus with the opportunity to postpone the solution of its most pressing economic challenges. Bialiatski’s sentence also implies that the resumption of a political dialogue between Belarus and the West has been postponed indefinitely. We predict that as a consequence, rehabilitation and release of other political prisoners will be delayed too.

A particular emphasis should be added to the fact that this sentence was not a forced decision – it was an exclusive initiative of the authorities. Minsk brought Kremlin a symbolic “sacrifice” in the form of a sentence to Bialiatski, however it became a burden for Russia, while Minsk gained no benefits. During 2011 the Kremlin has repeatedly declared at the highest level that Belarus must respect international standards in human rights and democracy.

Therefore, the sentence pronounced for Bialiatski implies there is an acute shortage of strategic policy planning in the President Lukashenko’s surrounding and that his office is incapable of a multilateral foreign policy. No one benefits from the appearance of another political prisoner, neither Minsk, nor Moscow; moreover, it results in even greater dependence of the domestic and foreign policy of Belarus on the decisions made in the Kremlin.

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The Belarusian authorities are attempting to strengthen some elements of the ‘Soviet’ education to ensure the ideological loyalty of new generations to the state. Most likely, one of the major tasks of the educational reform is to prevent growing discontent with the existing education system among the population. The educational reform aims to strengthen centralisation and adjust the system to the needs of the public sector.

In Belarus, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and the Ministry of Economy would determine the university enrolment figures.

The Belarusian authorities do not seem to have a long-term vision of the educational reform. The education system changes depending on who leads the Education Ministry and has access to President Lukashenka. For instance, former head of pro-government communist party and Education Minister Igor Karpenko reintroduced some "Soviet" elements to the school and strengthened ideological components along with the de-politicisation of the curricula. Current generation of students and youth have not spoken against the authorities, unlike previous generations raised during the Gorbachev thaw and socio-political transformations of the 1990s.

In addition, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to adopt measures aiming to prevent discontent among the population with the Belarusian education system. The authorities are mobilizing those nostalgic for the USSR and propose to return to 5-marks grading system, school uniforms and reduced curriculum. The Belarusian leadership also aims to blur the growing social stratification in society and to relax social tension due to the growing income gap between the richest and poorest.

Should the authorities adopt plans to reduce university enrolment, they would re-certify universities in order to close some of them and would reduce competition from private educational institutions. The Belarusian leadership is attempting to adjust the education system to the needs of the real economy, to reduce pressure on the labour market and to cut government spending on higher education for specialists low in demand by replacing them with graduates of secondary vocational schools requiring less time to train.