Last week, the authorities in Belarus executed two young men convicted of the April 2011 subway bombing in Minsk, writes Katherin Machalek. While the deeply flawed trial and the swift, primitive nature of the men’s deaths disturbed the international community, they were not unusual for Belarus, which has hovered close to the worst possible ratings on rule of law in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World and Nations in Transit reports.
During the trial of Vladislav Kovalyov and Dmitri Konovalov (right), the court never identified any motive for their alleged involvement other than the vague desire to “disrupt social order.” Prosecutors presented no physical evidence linking either one of them to the explosives. …..Regardless of the doubts surrounding their conviction, Kovalyov and Konovalov were each executed with a bullet to the back of the head within four months of their sentencing, buried in secret locations, and officials informed their families of their deaths after the fact.
Diplomatic efforts over the years have sought to convince President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime to conform to democratic standards. The pressure from democratic countries and international institutions has been notably undermined by condition-free loans, subsidies, and diplomatic cover from authoritarian partners including China, Venezuela, and—despite an occasionally frosty bilateral relationship—Russia, which all have an interest in opposing foreign “interference” on human rights issues……
Isolating the regime by cutting off diplomatic ties has also yielded little. Recently, the EU imposed sanctions on 21 jurists and policemen accused of mistreating political prisoners as part of a planned travel ban affecting over 200 government officials. The president responded by recalling Belarus’s envoys from Brussels and Warsaw and asking the EU and Polish ambassadors to leave the country. EU member states withdrew their representatives from Minsk to show Lukashenka that his behavior would leave him more isolated. His government simply ramped up the repression of its own people, banning 148 opposition activists from leaving the country….
Conditions are bleak for democratization in Belarus, and Lukashenka’s difficult character makes the challenge of instituting lasting, positive change all the more daunting. Nevertheless, cracks are beginning to appear in the regime’s policy of intransigence. In many ways, the international financial crisis has worked to the advantage of Lukashenka’s opponents, as the regime has been under visible pressure to keep the public happy despite dire economic conditions. Independent opinion polls indicate that his popularity has taken a sharp dive, and 54 percent of respondents hold the president personally at fault for Belarus’s economic plight. …………….
If international actors, especially major lenders like the International Monetary Fund, maintain their resolve and withhold funding in the absence of genuine reform—and if sympathetic authoritarian states fail to fill the gap—imminent or actual bankruptcy might provide an opening to a post-Lukashenka era, finally giving Belarusian democracy a chance more than 20 years after the end of Soviet rule.