This year, the Minsk Forum XX consists of two one-day conferences in Lithuania and Poland, a roundtable discussion with MPs in Belgium, and a closing conference in Germany. The third event was held in person on 22 October at the Belgian Federal Parliament and European Parliament in Brussels. Unlike previous meetings, this one took place behind closed doors and was not broadcast online.
Brussels, 23 October 2022
An Unresolved Dilemma?
During her welcoming speech, Dr Hanna Stähle, Chair of the German-Belarusian Society board, pointed out the paradoxical circumstances in which the meeting took place: on the one hand, Belarusian officials claim to abstain from the war, and on the other hand, tacitly mobilise male population. While Belarusian society generally does not support Lukashenko’s regime, it is still there. One Belarusian Nobel Prize winner is in prison, and the other lives in exile. Samuel Cogolati, Member of the Chamber of Representatives of the Belgian Federal Parliament, emphasised that just a couple of weeks ago Belarusian politicians Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Anatol Liabedzka attended a meeting in the Parliament in Brussels, which shows that the European Union pays due attention to the problems of Belarus.
Panel Discussion I
Belarus after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
ways to support the democratic transition
The participants of the discussion were Dirk Schuebel (Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership [ambassador-at-large], ex-EU ambassador in Belarus), Prof. Elena Korosteleva (Oxford Belarus Observatory and Warwick University, UK), and Pavel Slunkin (European Council of Foreign Relations, Visiting Fellow, ex-Foreign Ministry official in Belarus). The talk was moderated by Samuel Cogolati (Member of the Chamber of Representatives, Vice-President of the Committee of Human Rights of Parliamentarians, Kingdom of Belgium).
Ms Korosteleva started by outlining the reasons why many scholars agree that the revolution in Belarus had lost, namely:
- Protest activity goes underground
- Dissenters to Lukashenko’s regime are dispersed around the world
- Economic stagnation
- Intellectual capital drain
- Collapse of the social contract
- Deterioration of educational standards
- NGOs forced to relocate
- Anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation
Despite all these factors, Ms Korosteleva believes that the revolution has not failed, and those are her arguments:
- The mindset of Belarussians has changed
- It was a revolution of dignity (a reference to the uprising in Ukraine)
- People struggled for better future
- The tipping point was the understanding “they can’t treat us like this”
- The presence of activists in different geographic locations creates new opportunities
- Civil society focuses on cooperation, collaboration, and coalition-building
Mr Schuebel who attended the meeting for the first time in the capacity of the EU Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership, tried to answer two key questions in his speech: what is the official position of the EU on Belarus, and what else can be done to resolve this difficult political situation as soon as possible? According to Schubel, the official EU policy has not changed since October 2020, and the EU has cut all cooperation with Lukashenko’s government. However, Schubel believes it is important to have at least one source of communication with the current government, which is why the EU occasionally calls the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei had a chance to attend the UN summit. The EU still does not support certain political parties but provides financial support to the democratic forces of Belarus, which, according to Mr Schubel, amounts to about 30 million euros a year.
Mr Schuebel also commented on the role of Belarus in the war: “If Putin loses this war – I’m not optimistic for Lukashenko”. The speaker found it problematic to imagine Putin winning the war as “it will be a disaster for the entire region”. The ambassador is also convinced that Lukashenko is increasingly losing control over Putin’s actions in Belarus, and is confident that Lukashenko will not send in troops to Ukraine because the majority of Belarusians do not support this war and nobody can tell how it may backfire for Lukashenko if Belarusians finally get their hands on weapons.
Mr Schuebel also expressed his position on Ales Bialiatski winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He believes that Mr Bialiatski is indeed the best candidate for the prize, better than Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who has only been fighting for human rights in Belarus for a few years, while Bialiatski is a lifelong human rights defender.
Mr Schuebel believes it is necessary to continue the struggle to free Belarus from Lukashenko’s regime: by meeting with representatives of democratic forces from Belarus in Brussels – at least twice a year and without the participation of government officials; by bringing up the Belarusian issue on the EU political agenda; by raising awareness in the world about tortures in prisons and the situation in Belarus in general that has only deteriorated, since the media landscape is filled with fake news by Belarusian and Russian word shakers. He concluded by stating that the establishment of the Transitional Cabinet by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya also raises the EU’s expectations of the institution and that new sanctions packages should be passed on Lukashenko and his allies.
Commenting on the brutal crackdown on dissent in 2020, Mr Slunkin, as a person who has been inside the ruling apparatus for some time, noted that, in his opinion, it was not a preparation for the war, but rather an attempt by Lukashenko to make himself stronger next to Putin. Echoing several contributors to the Warsaw panel about the shifting geopolitical order, he also believes that Belarus’ sovereignty today depends entirely on the results of the ongoing war, and that present-day exiled Belarusian democratic forces and Ukraine have the same enemy, but different ideas about the reasons why military rockets are launched from Belarus.
Another important message of former diplomat Slunkin was the importance of preserving or rather maintaining the legitimacy of the democratic forces headed by Ms Tsikhanouskaya both for external partners and people inside Belarus who feel isolated and abandoned. In this respect, according to Slunkin, financial support is key, because the majority of NGOs and human rights structures depend on European funds, cannot receive support from Belarusian business structures, and have been deprived of the possibility to work inside Belarus with their target audiences.
Among the questions of interest to the Belarusian delegation, the following were mentioned:
- How does the EU assess the impact of sanctions on the Belarusian regime and ordinary citizens?
- What is the best way to pragmatically, rather than emotionally, explain the importance of addressing Belarus’ issue to world politicians?
- Why are the European media not that keen to cover the topic of possible or existing effects of sanctions, since many people who are against Lukashenko also oppose sanctions?
- What are the possible scenarios for Tsikhanouskaya’s Cabinet to work in alliance with the Ukrainian government?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions were not intended for the general public, but hopefully, the participants will use them in their future work.
Sociologist Dr Andrey Vardomatski presented the results of the sociological study of Belarusian public opinion regarding the war in Ukraine. Telephone polls were conducted in three stages: from March to September 2022. The main results of the study are as follows:
- Public opinion regarding support for the opposition politicians is ambivalent: over 90% of Belarusians supports the actions of the President of Ukraine Zelenskyy, while some 80% support what is done by the President of Russia Putin;
- Belarusians take a negative stance on the probable bringing of Belarusian troops into Ukraine for participation in military actions, but over time, the level of this disapproval is gradually decreasing: in March 2022, 85% of the population were against sending Belarusians to war, while in September 2022 the number dropped to 81%;
- When asked who is most responsible for the escalation of the war conflict in Ukraine, in May 2022, Belarusians believed it was Russia and the United States (25% each), or Ukraine and NATO (10% each), which demonstrates a total divergence of opinions;
- ⅔ of Belarusians do not consider their country to be a military aggressor. Dr Vardomatski explains this by an attempt to defend themselves (“it was done against our will”) and insufficient media coverage, since the independent media have very limited reach to the target audience, and the pro-Russian media exclusively present a pro-Russian narrative.
Panel Discussion II
Exchange with MEPs and Belarusian experts on the situation in Belarus, the war in Ukraine, the emerging new geopolitical order, and its implications for Europe
From the European Parliament, four parliamentarians took part in the discussion: Petras Auštrevičius (Renew Europe Group), Sergey Lagodinsky (The Greens/European Free Alliance), Andrius Kubilius (European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)), and Juozas Olekas (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats).
Mr Auštrevičius tentatively called his speech “From bad to worse” referring to the aggression posed by Lukashenko’s regime. Previously, this aggression was mostly “domestic” and was expressed in repressions against its citizens, but then it expanded to the country’s neighbours – Ukraine which is shelled by rockets, and Poland invaded by migrants who are used by Lukashenko as a hybrid weapon. The MEP admits that Lukashenko has tight control over the information landscape of Belarus that was made possible through repression and total suppression of freedom of speech and the media. Auštrevičius claimed that while the measures taken by the European Parliament in 2020 were meant “to save Belarusian society”, the current goal has shifted to “saving the neighboring countries”. Mr Auštrevičius concluded his speech with the hope that the new Transition Cabinet of Tsikhanouskaya would arduously work and submit its proposals to the European Parliament.
Mr Kubilius shared his vision of how Belarusian democratic forces could work more effectively to achieve qualitative changes. He suggested looking at the crisis as an opportunity because the victory of Ukraine in this war can bring drastic positive changes to the whole region. He believes it is natural that the focus of attention has shifted from Belarus to other parts of the world and suggests accept it as a given, instead of complaining or being offended that Belarus now gets little attention on the European political arena. The parliamentarian also expressed doubts that the Belarusian opposition will be able to overthrow Lukashenko in the short term, but urged it to promote two political messages:
- To unambiguously articulate and show full support to the Ukrainian people in the war against imperial Russia.
- To make it clear that after the victory of democratic forces, Belarus will take the path of European integration, following the example of Georgia and Moldova.
Mr Lagodinsky suggested treating Belarus as an occupied territory, where totalitarianism, regime aggression, and dragging the country into the war are the basis of its status quo, and also reminded that currently, Belarusians have very concrete, measurable, and achievable work goals that are not directly related to political lobbying or finding the right wording, for example, providing support to political prisoners.
In general, one can note that the Belgian and European parliamentarians are well enough aware of the problems of Belarus and the causes thereof. They readily speak about ways in which they already support Belarus and measures they are willing to take to aid political activists in exile, but they point out that Belarus is not at the center of European politics at the moment and that its fate is closely connected with the results of the war initiated by Russia against Ukraine. MEPs also make no secret of the fact that they have very clear expectations from the work of the reformed Cabinet of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as an institutional representative and emphasise that the future of Belarus is in the hands of Belarusians. To bring this desirable future closer, strategic patience is necessary.
The reality of Belarusians who stay in the country is characterised by the presence of two discourse cocoons and two opposition alliances. According to Dr Vardomacki, the first group of Belarusians can be nominally called “anti-war”. It includes people who receive information from the independent media, do not support Russia’s military aggression and participation of Belarus in the war, oppose the use of the country’s territory as a Russian military base, and are permanently at risk of brutal repressions. The second group includes those convinced that “there is no war”. They believe that Belarus is obliged to be Russia’s ally, and it doesn’t make Belarus an active participant in the war, so, in their understanding, the country remains politically neutral. An average Belarusian rather believes that Russia, Ukraine, the USA, NATO, or the EU are to blame for the war, which, on the one hand, shows the diversity of political opinions and, on the other hand, clearly demonstrates the gap in the political education of the population. Importantly, the media plays (or could play) the leading role in this education.