Cracking heads: Belarus police and security services organized a crackdown on the anti-President Alexander Lukashenko protesters last Dec. 19. Lithuanian authorities now find themselves at the center of a scandal after they released to the Belarusian government confidential information on some of the leaders of the protests, adding a further severe blow to the pillars of the Belarus opposition.
KLAIPEDA - When Austria set free Michail Golovatov, the retired Russian KGB officer and the former commander of the anti-terror Alpha Group that is blamed for the murder of 13 persons in the January 13, 1991 massacre, the action drew an uproar from Lithuanian authorities, accusing Austria of all possible wrongdoings, ranging from violation of EU extradition laws to bowing to Russia over its gas resources.
However, in less than three weeks, Lithuania, in a weird twist, ended up imitating Austria in a self-excusing situation, with the sharp arrows of criticism over revealing data on nearly 400 bank accounts of Belarusian opposition organizations, NGOs and the prominent Belarusian human rights activist, Ales Bialiatsky, to dictatorial Belarus authorities darting all over.
Nikolaj Chalezin, Belarus’ Resistance Free Theater art director and one of the Belarus opposition members, announced information on the release last week on his Web site, following the Belarusian authorities’ raids into the Human Rights Center “Viasna.”
Bialiatsky’s arrest was reportedly instigated by the release of information by Lithuania’s Ministry of Justice to Belarus. On the evening of Aug. 4, Bialiatsky, the head of “Viasna,” was taken into custody after an interrogation in the Department of Financial Investigations of the State Control Committee in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Bialiatsky was detained as a suspect in the case on evasion of taxes and fees on a large scale. The maximum penalty for this accusation stipulates imprisonment for up to seven years with confiscation of property.
On Aug. 5, the OSCE chairperson-in-office and Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Audronius Azubalis, expressed deep concern over the worsening of the human rights situation in Belarus, citing the arrest of Bialiatsky. However, the minister did not say anything about the circumstances that led to the arrest.
At the same time, Lithuania’s Vice-minister of Justice, Tomas Vaitkevicius, confirmed that his country had released information to Belarusian authorities about financial transactions of Belarusian activists and groups registered in Lithuania.
Many independent and opposition organizations have to register in Lithuania, because it is impossible to do so in Belarus.
“As of today, the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ is the most effective organization of human rights protection in Belarus. Essentially, it has been built by Bialiatsky, who carried on his shoulders all the defense stemming from the December 19 events, when the Belarus police and security services organized the crackdown on the anti-Lukashenko protesters. ‘Viasna’ has provided the bulk of the funds to the repressed people and their families. Because of this reason, the arrests of the bank accounts and Ales Bialiatsky have been a severe blow to the pillars of the Belarus opposition… Most likely it was possible because of Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite’s expressed open support for the Luskashenko politics,” Nikolaij Chalezin said in his Web site.
The Presidential Palace was quick to react. “The Presidential Palace has not been informed about Lithuania’s decision to release the data to Belarus. The president condemns people’s arrests on political background and the existance of political prisoners in Belarus,” Grybauskaite’s press service said.
Tomas Vaitkevicius, the Vice-minister of Lithuania’s Ministry of Justice, said “It is the first case ever when a mutual legal treaty is used for political purposes.” He said that the gaps in the treaty would be patched up soon in order to avoid such misuse in the future.
The vice-minister acknowledged that the Ministry of Justice “has not properly estimated the possibility of using the required information by the Belarusian authorities for political purposes.”
“Having received Belarus’ request on Bialiatsky and his bank accounts in Lithuania, frankly, we had not identified his last name as a person who leads the opposition movement in Belarus. If we had known who Bialiatsky is, we would probably have refused the request for information about him,” the vice-minister maintained.
With the outcry over the data release and the arrest spreading, the Belarus authorities kept a meaningful silence, refusing to comment on Bialiatsky’s arrest.
Some Lithuanian political analysts, however, warn that the Ministry and its officials are likely to get away too easily from the far-reaching fallout. “From a legal aspect, it is hard to rebuke the Lithuanian Ministry for handing over the sensitive financial information to the Belarusian institutions. From a political point of view, Lithuania’s highest power institutions, like Seimas, and the Presidential Palace, must assume responsibility. Obviously, there was a good deal of institutional miscommunication. It seems to me that there is no single system allowing a timely and precise release of this kind of information to others, especially those outside EU borders,” Lauras Bielinis, a prominent political analyst and a former senior advisor to the former president, Valdas Adamkus, said to The Baltic Times.
He went further, “The situation arose not only because of institutional miscommunication, but, more importantly, from Lithuania’s ambiguous stance on the processes in Belarus. It is no secret that many high-echelon politicians silently support the current Belarus and its leaders, while some others are totally lost in evaluating the processes, or ignoring them.”
Nevertheless, President Grybauskaite has drawn his biggest condemnation. “Because of the mild approach to Minsk and Lukashenko, our president has become someone that everyone pokes fun at. Had the head-of-state taken a more stringent approach to Belarus and Lukashenko, the release of the sensitive data would have never happened,” the political analyst said.
In the developments following the data release, he finds many “stunning” parallels to the outcry that in Austria led to the release of Michail Golovatov, the retired Russian KGB officer and the former commander of the anti-terror Alpha Group.
“When defending our own interests we try to show ourselves as very determined and justice-oriented. However, when it comes to Belarus, we act the same way as the Austrians did, disavowing veracity while justifying the action by the legal status-quo. After this dubious decision, Lithuania has no moral obligation to urge others to preach moral politics,” Bielinis maintained.
Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it had addressed all inter-institutional entities back in June of this year, asking them not to provide Belarus with any information that could be used against its opposition.
“This case is a good warning of the possible negative aftermaths that arise from decisions to provide information to foreign states, ignoring the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s advice on political sensibilities,” Audronius Azubalis, the minister, pointed out.
Seemingly exasperated, Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius called upon the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, asking about the details of the release.
Prominent political analysts keep blasting the authorities. “In this concrete case, the data was released not by some private institution, but by state institutions. It means that Lithuania, which chairs the OSCE at the present time, has conducted itself very cowardly and shamefully. Those institution heads that took on the decision-making must resign immediately. Only in this way will we show Austria that we perceive our shame politically and morally. In the opposite, it will be our great stupidity to teach it, as well as the entire Europe, how one has to deal with international agreements,” Raimundas Lopata, the political analyst and Vilnius University professor, said to the daily Lietuvos Rytas.
With the flares in the air, the heavyweight politician, EP member and the patriarch of Lithuanian politics, Vytautas Landsbergis, weighed in. “I assume there are many political forces that would like to harm Remigijus Simasius [minister of the Ministry of Justice], who leads the Michail Golovatov case quite well. There can be some indirect defense,” Landsbergis said to the TV program Savaite (Week), referring to Russia. He calls the histories of Michail Golovatov and Ales Bialiatsky “very different.”
“Regarding the collaboration, there is a very deep and substantial problem – democratic states’ collaboration with dictatorial regimes. Some pretend that they both are the same states and that the dictionaries they use mean the same. Indeed, it does not mean the same. In reality, dictatorial regimes do not need any cooperation, only seek benefit,” Landsbergis emphasized.
Grybauskaite has urged the minister of the Ministry of Justice “to take decisions on his subordinates’ responsibility,” stopping short of demanding the minister’s resignation. Edward Lucas, the prominent commentator of The Economist, maintains that the scandal has damaged Lithuania’s reputation and weakened the country’s stance in the quarrel with Austria.