The lonely people of Belarus on the margins of the EU-Lithuania political agenda

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Lithuania
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Lithuania

Two years after the fraudulent Belarusian presidential elections, the Belarusian constitution was changed on the initiative of Alexander Lukashenko, journalists and students have been sent behind bars for criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there has been a crackdown on political activists. The Belarusian civic movement Viasna’s report “Human Rights Situation in Belarus 2022” also includes more human rights violations in the shadow of the war in Ukraine. It seems everything is going on in the neighbouring country as before. Still, without more Western attention to this regime’s brutal actions, the concentration of world leaders has shifted from Belarus to Ukraine. With all leverage directed at Russia and the West not daring to take equivalent measures against Belarus, the Belarusian people have been in limbo. This is the opinion of some representatives of the Belarusian opposition, who gathered in Vilnius on 9 August 2022 for the conference “New Belarus” organised by Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and called on the West to impose sanctions not only on Russia but also on Belarus, from which the missiles flew towards Ukraine. 

Pavel Latushka, a member of the Presidium of the Coordinating Council of the Belarusian opposition and head of the National Anti-Crisis Board, notes that the unequal nature of the sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus allows Lukashenko to profit from the fact that Belarus is an excellent place for Russian citizens to do business and to seek various legal and commercial schemes to continue the activities that are sanctioned in Russia is a significant mistake of the West.

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While focusing attention and financial resources on rebuilding Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure, Europe has not adopted any concrete strategic plans for the democratisation of Belarus. On 12 October 2020, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union (EU) reviewed EU-Belarus relations following the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus, which were declared illegal. It announced that the EU would, among other things, reduce bilateral cooperation with the Belarusian authorities and increase EU support to the Belarusian people and civil society through the multilateral Eastern Partnership programme. It implements the European Neighbourhood Policy adopted in 2004 and revised in 2015, as well as the Eastern Partnership Programme adopted in 2009 and renewed on 18 March 2020 – before the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus under the title “The Eastern Partnership Policy beyond 2020”. 

The divided Belarusian opposition heard S. Tsikhanouskaya’s calls to unite for a common goal, and there was much talk about creating a government (or a similar structure) in exile. Still, some of the representatives of the opposition present at the conference considered that they would contribute to the work of such a structure if it were formed on democratic principles. In contrast, others felt that they would contribute to the creation of such a structure if the goals of such a government were clear and if there was clarity about the goals and how these goals were going to be achieved, thereby revealing once again deeper problems – the lack of a European vision of the issue of the democratisation of Belarus, without which it is problematic for the Belarusian opposition to act. 

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Pavel Liber, a founder of the platform “Voice”, says that for a government in exile, people must believe in it, which means that politicians must have a strategy for returning the country to the people. The strategy that would be discussing how to achieve the objectives set out in the introduction by Mrs Tsikhanouskaya – the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners, the guarantee of free and democratic elections, the liberation of the country’s territory from foreign troops, the removal of the illegal regime of Alexander Lukashenko from power and the functioning of democratic institutions in the country, does not seem to be existing in Europe; the Belarusian opposition does not have it either.

Vytautas Valantinavičius

The fragmentation of the Belarusian opposition is perhaps the most crucial factor that led to the discussion of setting up a government in exile only two years later. However, more problems were identified by S. Tsikhanouskaya in her opening speech, including the lack of trust in her by some opposition figures, the political ambitions of some opposition actors, the unwillingness to come to compromises, etc. Thus, although the West accepts her, Lithuania has provided her with an office, the situation is much more complicated: the opposition leader, Mrs Tsikhanouskaya, needs the support of the Belarusian opposition, and one of the most critical tasks is to unite it.

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Understanding this, in her speech, Mrs Cichanouska urged the opposition to work out compromises and not to be afraid to take responsibility, suggesting that they should participate in the democratic decision-making processes by getting involved in the government in exile outgoing activities. However, the Belarusian opposition leader’s wise attempt to unite the opposition is hardly conceivable without the help of the West in bringing together the opposition forces and helping to develop an effective plan to achieve the ambitions she has set out by allocating the resources to implement the measures. Lithuania could take the lead in uniting the Belarusian opposition, not only criticising Lukashenka, which goes beyond support for Ms Tsikhanouskaya.

The Resolution on the long-term guidelines and continuity of the foreign and European policy of the Republic of Lithuania adopted by the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania on 11 December 2020 stresses that “everything must be done to ensure that free and democratic elections are held in Belarus as soon as possible and that the EU provides all the necessary political and financial assistance for democratic and economic reforms in Belarus”. The 18th Government’s programme, approved the following day by a resolution of the Seimas, includes among its initiatives to “help all those who defend their freedoms and rights, from those who fight for a free Belarus to those who defend their fundamental rights to people and countries around the world”, and a commitment to help Belarusian civil society and democratic Belarus. The government programme states that Lithuanian assistance “must remain strong and be accompanied by a wider range of instruments that will allow us to look forward to new – free, democratic and legitimate elections in Belarus”. However, the foreign policy principles identified in both the Seimas Resolution and the 18th Government Programme are not elaborated in any other strategic document, except for the Strategic Action Plan 2021-2023 approved by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania on 29 March 2021, which provides for a single measure – support to the Belarusian people by supporting civil society initiatives through the Development Cooperation and Democracy Support Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so it is not clear what variety of instruments is referred to in the Government Programme.

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In the absence of a foreign policy strategy (e.g. neighbouring Estonia, Poland, and Switzerland have foreign policy strategies) and other strategic foreign policy planning documents with objectives, targeted activities, measures and indicators to show how the situation has changed, the parliamentary agreement on Lithuania’s foreign policy being stuck, it is difficult to assess what Lithuania’s foreign policy agenda towards Belarus is and how the reduction of diplomatic relations with Belarus contributes to the implementation of the Government Programme’s success indicator “Lithuania is an important factor of change in the expansion of the space of freedom and democracy in our region and beyond”.

As early as 26 January 2021, Professor Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, Jean Monnet Professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of Vilnius University, drew attention to the remark of the President’s Senior Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Asta Skaisgirytė, after the informal meeting of the Coordination Council for Foreign Affairs convened by the President in mid-January 2021, that “there is a need for a long-term strategy for Lithuania concerning the issue of Belarus,” which means that there was no strategic document on Lithuania’s foreign policy regarding Belarus, and, sadly, there is still none. As Prof. Vilpišauskas aptly observes, “|when acting strategically, the principles of values should make more sense”. Lithuania pursues an ad hoc foreign policy driven by the issues of the day without a foreign policy strategy, but its effectiveness and progress are difficult to measure.

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Lithuania, which could have been an excellent supporter of the opposition in Belarus, in one way or another, making contacts, gathering information, uniting the opposition and being able to act from within, has chosen a path driven by ambition, leaving the Belarusian people alone in an environment of frustration and fear, which is particularly threatening – accompanied by a mood of conciliationism (conformism). As Pavel Liber points out, Belarusian society is complex and highly structured, with different value systems. A strategy for working with it is needed to achieve democratisation in Belarus, which does not seem to exist in Europe or Lithuania. The Belarusian opposition does not have one either. 

The Belarusian opposition debate on the future of Belarus after two years of the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus, and the efforts of the opposition leader, S. Tsikhanouskaya, to unite the opposition are welcome and much needed. Still, such initiatives also need the EU’s political support in the form of a strategy on how to achieve the democratisation of Belarus and on the means and ways to support and unify the opposition forces in Belarus to make them more coordinated and effective. Lithuania could take this initiative if it had its own strategy on Belarus.

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Vytautas Valentinavičius, a KTU PhD student in Political Science, visiting scholar at the University of Central Florida.

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