Lithuanian and Belarusian relationship lacking zest and drive

  • 2011-07-06
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Birute Vesaite urges Lukashenko’s opposition to unite.

KLAIPEDA - When the pro-Western national movement, the so-called revolution of “Roses,” caught fire and swept away the Soviet-style Georgian authorities in 2003, the revolutionary news captured the Lithuanian media’s front page headlines for many weeks to come. Moreover, when the bloody skirmishes over South Ossetia broke out between Georgia and Russia back in 2008, Lithuania ignited such a massive condemnatory campaign against Russia, that Georgians, indebted for the huge support, keep lavishing Lithuania with the maximum 12 points in the Eurovision Song Contest ever since. However, when the dictatorial Belarusian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, in the Lithuanian neighborhood, cracks down on  peaceful demonstrators and clamps down on the scarce publications of the political opposition, the Lithuanian political elite, along with mainstream media, often turn a blind eye, or are lackadaisical to it.

“Speaking of the current Lithuanian and Belarusian relationships, most Lithuanian high-ranking politicians, obviously, are not as much concerned about the crackdowns as much as about the planned building of a nuclear power plant in Belarus’ Astrav region, just 50 kilometers away from Vilnius. This is what interests our policy-makers and media most. In other facets, I see much complacency and ambiguity in our approaches to the processes in Belarus,” Povilas Gylys, the ex-minister of Lithuania’s foreign affairs, prominent economist and professor of Vilnius University, asserted to The Baltic Times.

He calls Lithuania’s parliamentary efforts to reach out to Belarusian authorities “inadequate and very informal.”
“How can one expect a well-pronounced attempt to strike any deeper relationships with Belarus, when our own President Dalia Grybauskaite, who is primarily in charge of foreign policy, stuns all democratic Belarus supporters, including our own politicians, asserting that Lukashenko guarantees stability in the country and limits Russia’s influence in Belarus? Definitely, the president’s stance sets certain tunes in Lithuania’s political landscape,” Gylys maintains.

The notorious statement by Grybauskaite in a closed-door meeting with EU ambassadors residing in Lithuania at the end of 2010, just before the presidential election in Belarus, was delivered by Reuters and has drawn confusion and silent disappointment of Lithuania’s right-wing political spectrum, which is seen generally as the president’s pillar, and of the Belarusian opposition alike. One of the presidential candidates of the Belarus opposition, Vladmir Neklejev, baffled by the statement, rushed through European capitals in hopes of getting any clarification regarding Gybauskaite’s statement from other EU leaders. However, he never dared to seek it from Grybauskaite, hoping that Lithuania’s president will proceed with an official statement. However, it has not been made. Rather, prior to the presidential election in Belarus, the Lithuanian head-of-state chimed in with the demands of other EU leaders urging Lukashenko to hold a democratic presidential election. Nevertheless, even with the ongoing crackdowns on the protesters and opposition media, following the public unrest after the election and, lately, the meltdown of the Belarusian ruble, Grybauskaite has never publicly denounced dictatorial President Alexander Lukashenko’s policies.

Gylys says that the complacency and shallowness of the Lithuanian and Belarusian relationships is very handy to Lukashenko, who is dubbed the last dictator of Europe.
“In a sense, he [Lukashenko] has created a very unique, Lukashenko-style authoritarian regime that, even in the eyes of some watchdogs of European policies, seems, mildly speaking, ‘acceptable’ as ‘the Belarusian democracy.’ Does Lukashenko rule himself? Formally, no, as there is a constitutionally elected parliament adopting legislation. Did Lukashenko incarcerate all his political opponents? No, he did not, only some of them, as those in jail are imprisoned for a supposed breach of administrative regulations, not for political opposition. Did Lukashenko close down all opposition and independent media? No, he did not. He only has imposed unbearable tax and state regulatory policies on some of them, such that most news outlets opt for closing down themselves,” Justinas Karosas, chairman of the parliamentary group “For a Democratic Belarus,” admitted to The Baltic Times.

Gylys, in a way, concurs with him: “There is a quite strong sense of legitimacy in Belarus, and a certain approval of Lukashenko, particularly among blue-collar workers, which creates certain problems in dealing with Belarus. Recently I participated in a science conference in Belarus. Though I did not touch the subject of the Belarusian president, speaking to my Belarusian counterparts it popped up several times. Some of them were sincerely dismayed over Belarus being called an undemocratic country.”

Gylys notes that Lithuania is short of levers to reach out to the pro-Lukashenko Belarusian parliament. “Having just very informal and unmeaningful relationships with our neighbor in the East, we are not simply able to reach out to them,” the ex-foreign minister infers. He says that Lithuania, in dealing with Belarus, should start off with “positiveness.”
“However, we do not have it in our political structures. We do not have any high-ranking politician willing to go to meet his or her counterpart in Minsk. A recent visit by four members of the Lithuanian Parliament to Minsk was followed by Lithuanian media’s sneers and condemnation. On the other hand, you never know whether you will be able to enter the country. In addition, I often suspect that we try to impose our way of thinking on others. Belarusians are extremely susceptible to that, unless we have the well-pronounced ‘positiveness’ in our intentions. Do we have a Western-style democracy in our own country? I seriously doubt it, as many significant state processes are being influenced and governed by henchmen and proteges of people in the shadows. Therefore, sometimes I doubt whether we are entitled to export our democracy somewhere else, Belarus included,” Gylys maintained.

Karosas, the head of the parliamentary group “For a Democratic Belarus,” disagrees with Gylys, maintaining, “How can one expect us to develop the collaboration extensively if the Belarusian Parliament, according to the European Union, is illegitimate? If we follow the lines of the EU policy, we, Lithuanian parliamentarians, are not supposed to have even the slightest connections with Minsk,” Karosas emphasized. He agrees that the relationships between the two countries are “shallow.”

Asked whether the aforementioned Grybauskaite’s statement favoring Lukashenko has been influencing Lithuania’s foreign policy towards its Eastern neighbor, the chairman of the parliamentary group replied, “In a sense, yes, as the president outlines our foreign policy. With Grybauskaite in power, it is obvious that Lithuania has gone from a democracy exporter to a goods exporter, which, I suppose, is not a bad thing. I think the Lithuanian and Belarusian relationships need a fresh push, and Lithuanian media is in a position to spur it,” Karosas emphasized.

Another member of the Lithuanian Parliament, Birute Vesaite, who is also a member of the parliamentary group “For a Democratic Belarus,” notes that Belarus’ opposition has been “very fragmented and scattered.”
“I remember we were arranging a parliamentary conference in Vilnius. We were contemplating for quite a while whom from their opposition to invite, and came up with hardly any names, as it [the opposition] has been split up – some oppositionists live abroad, some in Belarus and some are imprisoned. In order to gain some more influence at home and abroad, Belarusians ought to try to unite their opposition forces and speak in one voice,” Vesaite emphasized to The Baltic Times. “It has been really hard to have any deeper political collaboration with Belarusian parliamentarians until now. However, our economic relationships have been constantly strengthening, which seems to be of utmost importance to both sides,” the parliamentarian stressed.

She also pointed out to Grybauskaite’s controversial statement on Lukashenko being “a stability guarantor in Belarus.”
“She [Grybauskaite] is responsible for the foreign policy. Therefore, those who do not want to have their heads off or be thrown out of their high-ranking positions, better listen attentively to what the president says,” Vesaite suggested.
She also tends to back up Belarus-disinterested Lithuanian journalists. “Journalists need at least some tasty tidbits of information to gulp down, particularly when it comes to coverage of an event in a foreign country. Obviously, until the recent fallout of the Belarusian ruble, the country was not very attractive to the media, as most EU documents in regards to the situation in Belarus are too official,” Vesaite said.

With a lack of zest to reach out to the neighbor-country, the plight of civic rights, along with freedom of the press, has been intermittently deteriorating in Belarus. The Belarusian government is currently trying to clamp down on two leading opposition newspapers, Nasha Niva (Our Field) and Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), that have contributed to public disorder by publishing reports of mass anti-government demonstrations on Dec. 1, 2010, following the presidential elections. The accusation is seen as a switch in the Belarusian dictator’s stance, as, in the past, the Belarusian government has almost always justified closures on the basis of tax or registration violations. This has allowed President Alexander Lukashenko to maintain that his government does not censor opposition media.

“Since 1991, only three Belarusian newspapers have been shut down as a result of a formal Information Ministry complaint alleging improper reporting,” Bastunets, an opposition lawyer, says. He asserts that the government decision to sue two of the few remaining independent newspapers in Belarus is evidence of an intensifying crackdown on the opposition.
The move follows the prosecution of some 20 opposition leaders for their role in anti-government protests after Lukashenko’s re-election at the end of last year.

Andreij Skurko, editor of Nasha Niva, says that the newspaper has been warned by authorities over “violations” three times in one year. According to the Belarusian laws, this is enough to close down the news outlet. The newspaper’s office has been raided by Belarus’ security officers, who have taken computers away.

“With the worsening economic situation in Belarus, people started more actively seeking information from independent sources. This also has contributed to the authorities’ fury,” Skurko says. “Officially, we do not have state censorship, and our independent newspapers never come out with blank pages, however, the authorities always brandish a tax axe or other constraining tool to muzzle the disobedient newspapers,” he adds.

“Unfortunately, there are awfully many conformist journalists, who have betrayed the principles of journalism ethics and who have no remorse while pleasing the Belarusian authorities. Lukashenko does not need to officially introduce a censorship bureau, as 90 percent of editors are the harshest censors themselves, fearing for their own skin to be peeled off,” asserts Seredic Josif Pavlovic, the publisher and editor of the opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya.

Asked whether Lithuanian institutions are doing enough to encourage the democratic processes in Belarus, Seredic declined to comment. “Only Belarusians themselves can help themselves. Unfortunately, there are too many henchmen and sheep in the quasi-democratic country of the Lukashenko style. The nation has not seemingly yet matured for any democratic change. And that is our biggest misery,” the Narodnaya Volya editor inferred to The Baltic Times.