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Maciej Zaniewicz

Trade your resources: Lukashenko releases political prisoners

This late summer, the news of realising six political prisoners by Belarusian authorities electrified media. President Alexander Lukashenko managed to surprise almost everyone, and a growing number of politicians and experts have started to see his bold move as a signal of upcoming liberalisation of the regime.

It is very possible that the fate of those imprisoned for political reasons does not rely on the internal situation of the country. The prisoners are Lukashenko’s “resources” used in the sphere of foreign affairs. Even though Belarus is not oil- or gas-rich, it produces highly useful disobedient citizens.

To understand the mechanism of the Belarusian foreign policy, we must take a glimpse at few facts. Belarus does not possess any significant deposits which could be a base for its industry. As a part of the Soviet Union, the then republic played two roles: food provider, and producers of petroleum products and machinery. Calling Belarus a land of potatoes and tractors is not a mistake. Yet beyond the simple picture the situation gets complicated. It appears that Russia is the only provider of oil for Belarusian industry. Reselling the oil can be profitable only if it is originally purchased by negative price. It creates a certain dependency.

To exist, the Belarusian industry needs Russian cheap oil and market to export its machinery. Without both of them Belarus’ industry would stop and Lukashenko’s system - collapse.

(Non)sister nations

Russians fancy using the term “sister nations” while describing Belarusians and Ukrainians. Also there is a general opinion that the relationship between Moscow and Minsk is model. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lukashenko and Putin just don’t “click”. Their mutual antipathy goes back to the 90. when the former planned to succeed Boris Yeltsin and become the head of joint Russia and Belarus state (the idea behind the Union State). This scenario was undermined by Putin himself. First, he proposed that Belarus would become a part of the Federation. When Lukashenko declined, Putin pressed on the neighbour’s economy.

The slogan for the new era were the words of the Russian leader in Telewizja ORT in 2002: “Belarus’ economy is only 3% of the whole Russian economy ... Let’s put it this way: distinguish between meatballs and flies”.

Putin’s plan was simple and effective: slow increase of oil and gas prices – even turning off the taps in 2007. Lukashenko's economic system started to stumble. To keep the economy above the sinking level, he had to seek additional credits. Only in years 2007-2012 the foreign debt grew from 589 million USD to 12.5 billion USD.

All for sale

For a long time Lukashenko managed without credits. Yet with the growing price for raw materials, the prospect of a complete loss of independence as an effect of selling out the country’s key factories seems quite possible. That was the strategy of Putin – a “buyout” of Belarus.

Nevertheless, Bat'ka dealt also with this plan. Instead of factories, the authorities decided to sell its prisoners and loyalty. The West offers credits in exchange for democratisation, and Russia – for subordination. Hence the periodical tightening the screw as an opening phase for talks with Western leaders and a simulated course towards the West... and then trading “the western path” in talks with Moscow.

This strategy was launched for the first time in 2008 – Lukashenko released 3 prisoners of conscience – Alaksandr Kazulin, Zmitsier Dashkievich and Alaksandr Zdzvizhkou – and two political prisoners – Artur Finkievich and Andrei Klimau (the first sentenced prisoner back in 1997). In response, the European Union had suspended its sanctions and a year later the Eastern Partnership programme was launched. The bonus for Lukashenko was a credit for 3.5 billion USD. In the following year foreign ministers of Poland and Germany visited Minsk and promised an additional sum of 3.8 billion USD from “various sources” in exchange for democratisation.

Regime's legalisation

It has been 5 years – on 22 August there were still political prisoners in jail in a country with a death sentence in its penal code.

Is the release of those six persons a message from Lukashenko that “I am ready for changes”, as many experts would like to claim? Doubtful. Belarus is currently negotiating credits for 3.5 billion USD from the IMF and 3 billion USD from the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development (former EURASEC Anti-Crisis Fund) – a structure dependant on the Kremlin.

The release of prisoners carries no risk for Lukashenko’s regime – Mikola Statkevich will not candidate and the opposition is broken. Let’s add the conflict between the Belarusian Popular Front and Tatsiana Karatkevich, formerly supported by the incumbent president.

There is evidence to suggest that in the upcoming elections Lukashenko may count on both the victory and legalisation of his regime. For the first time – with the opposition so weak – the scale of rigging results will be small enough to be approved by international authorities such as OSCE, making the voting officially democratic. This way the end of the “last dictatorship of Europe” will come. But with a total lack of democratisation.


Maciej Zaniewicz is a journalist and Student of Eastern Studies at Warsaw University. He is an editor at the Eastbook.eu portal and editor in chief of the Polish version of Belarus Votes.



The background image is a derivative of "Belarus" by Marc Veraart, used under CC BY.