Assistance to civil society and pro-democracy groups inside Belarus is yielding political dividends, writes Rodger Potocki, Senior Director for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy. The Belarus case demonstrates false dichotomy between isolation and engagement, even if there is still too much funding for uncontroversial programs abroad than freedom fighters at home.
The second anniversary of the December 19th postelection crackdown in Belarus offers an opportunity to weigh the costs of “Bloody Sunday” and assess the West’s response. In 24 months, Belarus has gone from a potential European Union (EU) partner to an international pariah, from among the more prosperous to one of the poorest performing post-Soviet economies. After protests against a flawed presidential election, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime beat, imprisoned and tortured more than 700 of its citizens; raided dozens of civil society organizations; and forced scores of activists into exile. The resulting economic crash has made millions poorer and spurred significant brain drain and labor migration. The population is passive and seemingly resigned to more of the same.
After two years of engagement, the West had little choice but to punish the regime following the December 2010 crackdown. The EU and the United States have placed visa bans on almost 250 of the regime’s henchmen, as well as asset freezes on 32 businesses that sustain the dictatorship. Some Western experts argue that sanctions have freed political prisoners. But if there are fewer behind bars now, too many remain.
Most Belarusian analysts oppose the restrictive measures. They believe the record shows that prisoners have been released because of dialogue, not sanctions; that travel bans and asset freezes are easily evaded; and that they only erode the West’s liberalizing influence and make the country more dependent on Moscow. But there is no evidence that engagement has produced fractures in the circles around Lukashenka.
After two years of diplomatic clashes and stalemate, the debate over engagement versus isolation remains a draw.
What has changed is Europe’s approach to Belarusian civil society. Prior to the 2004 Eastward expansion, the EU’s Belarus policy meandered between isolation and inattention, adopting the same approach for both friends and foes of democracy. But most experts agree that the 2008-2010 period of engagement had an important “Europeanizing” influence on Belarusian society.
In the crackdown’s wake, the EU adopted a different approach. At a February 2011 international donors’ conference in Warsaw, Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, pledged to “reinforce our links with, and support for civil society [while] seeking to avoid isolating the Belarusian population.” Polish Foreign Affairs Minister Rados?aw Sikorski promised support for the people of Belarus: “Europe is with you and you are with Europe.”
The 36 official delegations present proposed to help Belarusians by increasing direct support to civil society and strengthening people-to-people contacts. The direct support would assist the victims of repression, NGOs, independent media and students. Fostering links between Europeans and Belarusians, both civil society and ordinary citizens, would be accomplished by reducing travel barriers.
Those in Warsaw pledged $120 million to assist Belarusian civil society, including a fourfold rise in EU support, a doubling of Polish funding and a 30 percent boost in U.S. assistance. At a grim moment, this aid was of crucial importance given the scarcity of internal resources.
While the numbers were impressive, many of the pledges included support for already existing or planned programs. Less than a quarter of what was delivered went to those trying to cope with the crackdown and promote change inside Belarus.
In retrospect, it was unrealistic to expect significantly more funding to become available. Among post-Soviet states, Belarus has never been a priority for democracy assistance. Brutal as it was, the crackdown was soon overshadowed by the Arab Spring. The regime’s ability to stabilize the situation — and the opposition’s failure to take advantage of the opportunity — ensured that developments in neighboring Russia and Ukraine would divert attention. Given the way bureaucracies operate, it was easier for most governments to increase support for external entities, rather than to develop the special procedures needed to get aid to front-line groups inside the country. It proved less controversial to fund studies abroad than freedom fighters at home.
The additional funding that made it to Belarusian organizations was largely focused on the human rights and independent media sectors. This strategy appears to have paid off. A combination of prepositioned U.S. and Scandinavian aid, donations from Belarusians and EU support that arrived shortly after the crackdown helped Belarusian human rights groups to provide legal, medical and humanitarian assistance to more than 1,000 cases of repression. The coordinated support encouraged Belarusian human rights groups to work together in a consortium, which maximized their comparative advantages while minimizing duplication. As a result, they have been among the best performing parts of civil society, helping all of those in need, regardless of political orientation. Recognizing the impact of these efforts, the regime imprisoned Belarus’ leading human rights defender, Ales Bialiatski (above), on trumped up tax evasion charges.
Additional investment in the independent media sector has also produced dividends. Following repression against editorial offices and journalists, support helped outlets to survive and continue operating; not one stopped publishing. Increased aid allowed them to boost coverage and print runs, leading to significant increases in readership. Independent news websites expanded their audiences by 200-300 percent and independent newspapers raised circulations by 10-20 percent. To date, the outlets have been able to hold on to these larger audiences. More Belarusians are getting more objective information about their country’s political, economic and international situation. More than half of Belarus’ 20 most popular news websites are independent or opposition-run. With one-third of Belarusians now getting their news from the Internet, the influence of these sites continues to rise. The public’s trust in the state-run media — and the regime itself — has fallen.
In contrast, the political opposition has profited less from international support. While repressed leaders were helped by human rights defenders, their parties have been less of a priority. The policies of many donors restrict direct support to political parties or partisan initiatives.
Belarusian democratic politicians have compounded these impediments by being unable to work together or formulate a common message. Some donors would be willing and able to support a more unified opposition, but the political opposition has not taken advantage of the more favorable situation since 2010. While Lukashenka’s popularity has fallen, there has been no corresponding rise in the opposition’s ratings.
If the total funding was less than promised, the support provided in the crackdown’s aftermath has generally proven to be timely and effective. Key civil society sectors have received more assistance, utilized it well and achieved concrete results. But actors in slighted sectors feel short-changed. The debate over what proportion of support should go to Belarusian groups inside and outside the country has taken on greater importance as more of the political opposition has decided to emigrate and continue the struggle from abroad.
Paradoxically, EU and U.S. assistance has declined even as the situation on the ground has become more promising. Western support for civil society still appears to be less than the total official aid provided by the EU to the regime.
When the books are closed and the accounts settled, it would be unfortunate if the Warsaw Conference was appraised as only an emergency response to the 2010 crackdown rather than a lasting commitment to advancing democracy in Belarus.