Alexander Atroshchenkov spoke with the new UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, Anais Marin. Marin is known as one of the few Western experts on Belarus, and expands on why Lukashenko failed Russia's loyalty test and what subsequent price Belarus may have to pay.
What impression did the observer experience make on you in 2008 and especially in 2010? Have you seen violations with your own eyes?
The OSCE / ODIHR methodology is such that what one observer sees means nothing. Conclusions are made on the basis of thousands of reports. But yes, of course I did.
I even witnessed violations that are not in the OSCE / ODIHR textbook (laughs). I also saw ballot box stuffing, a lot of violations with a portable urn, especially in 2008.
The elections were in September and many people had left, the city was empty but a high turnout was needed. Then I saw the “carousel”, when students or soldiers were brought in under supervision to vote, and then they went to the bank in an organized manner to get a stipend or allowance. Everything became absolutely clear.
Even before our arrival in the country, observers had been working for two months and they informed us of that most of the manipulations occurred beforehand, starting with the formation of the precinct election commissions, and with the results themselves.
This we could not see because our mandate did not allow us to see the process of converting the results from the sites into a common system. But everything becomes already clear when you see that the protocol is written, for example, with a pencil, signed by members of the commission before counting the votes, or when we were driving behind the car that was carrying the ballots to the territorial election commission, while they were wandering and trying to shake us off the tail. And what are these opaque boxes…
Of course, the saddest and most effective moment for manipulation is a preliminary vote. Once we returned from a restaurant at night and saw the light on at the polling station. We went in, nobody prevented us because the policeman was sleeping in front of the TV, and we found the box was turned upside down with the side wall removed.
They drove us out, saying that we have no mandate to be there. Naturally, on the voting day at 8 pm, we returned to this polling station, and when this box was opened, sawdust poured out of it along with ballots. These violations were obvious.
I saw how the members of the commissions at the sites were intimidated. Among the 12 or 15 members of the commission, one student tried to honestly count the votes, and the rest of them intimidated her, the head of the commission was at the same time her dissertation supervisor…there were a lot of such cases. I saw “independent observers” who did not know which organization they were observing for, but very aggressively intimidated real observers and hampered their work.
In 2010, I observed in Brest. When, before the end of the voting, cadres of the beaten Neklyaev appeared, for the first time I felt inside myself what it was like to be in a country where real repression against citizens takes place, you see this violence with your own eyes.
When you are not in the country, this is different. And here we knew that the people we met with had disappeared the day before…You meet with a man in the evening, and in the morning he is arrested and taken off a train heading towards Minsk.
After the mission, I was kept up to date with events by Eva Neklyaeva, with whom we met in Finland, because for a long time they did not know where her father was … It was not only psychologically and humanly difficult.
There was a sense of tremendous loss since there had been so much hope. There was a real chance of progress, but the regime simply took it and spoiled everything. Probably, repression was built into Lukashenko’s genetic code.
From what you are saying, it suggests some very sad conclusions. As if the face of our dictatorship is not a brutal riot policeman with a baton but an intimidated aunt, depriving her children of a prosperous future for fear of losing her tiny salary.
In general, I was surprised to see so many violations because I was sure that Lukashenko would have been re-elected without them. I do not know how it is today, but then I could confidently assume his victory.
First, there were too many candidates. Second, I do not live in Belarus, but when I was there, I watched TV, of course, to see the context. There was so much propaganda drowning out alternative voices that the average voter, who does not follow politics day-by-day, simply cannot independently make his choice. Everything is controlled, even at this level.
When I talk about Belarus to my students, I recommend them to read 1984 by George Orwell. It is not this bad in Belarus, of course, but there are many parallels and there has not been any improvement.
You have already said that, after 2010, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry attempts to establish a dialogue with the West were buried. Now, they are trying again. How do you rate their chances?
I see and appreciate these efforts, but one should never forget that Belarus’ relations with the West, and especially with the EU, are a by-product of their relations with Russia.
Everyone is used to the cyclical nature of this relationship, though significant changes did occur after Crimea. It seems to me that, at that time, the Belarusian authorities understood the need to develop relations with their neighbours, with Brussels, even with Washington and China.
In the end, the declared that a multi-vector policy had become tangible. It was a great help to Belarus that Putin became a worse dictator than Lukashenko, especially in the lifting of sanctions.
After the elections of 2010, you recognised that the sanctions had not given the desired effect, but they needed to be maintained. Have you changed your mind?
We have long studied the issue of sanctions because then it was the only instrument of influence, and we considered several aspects.
First, how effective they are in helping to achieve the stated goals. Second, how understandable are they to the people. Because if are not understood, they can have the opposite effect.
Third, how consistent is the subject who imposes sanctions because a lack of logic and consistency can already harm the country’s reputation.
It became clear to us that the EU would come to a standstill with the policy of sanctions, not because the sanctions are bad, but because it did not have cohesive strategy. Those were situationally imposed sanctions for the sake of sanctions.
When, for example, the political prisoners were released, they were not rehabilitated. In fact, out of the 12 conditions set as early as 2006, not one was met, but nevertheless, backstage talks about lifting the sanctions began. That is why I considered such a policy inconsistent.
In addition, the EU behaved non-pedagogically if I may say so. It could not explain why the sanctions were needed, what causes them or why they are effective.
The regime very successfully manipulated these weaknesses and was able to prove to the West that ordinary people can feel like double victims, affected both by a dictatorship and by Western sanctions.
There were other questions regarding consistency. For example, why were sanctions imposed on Belarus and not imposed on the Aliyev regime. It was a very logical question, and at the same time beat up the reputation of the EU.
We discussed a lot of sanctions against Belarus and the “Magnitsky list” with Arkady Moshes. He always said that sanctions are effective only when they are powerful and are applied at the right moment.
Today, repression continues, but rapprochement is happening. Is this good or bad?
Of course, it is bad that there is repression, but you agree that there is less repression than before. Communication is always better than isolation.
Therefore, it is good that negotiations are underway, but such negotiations should be held with the participation of civil society. There used to be a lot of talk about two-track diplomacy. But the problem was that these paths did not intersect and were not connected.
No state in the world would agree to the removal of its representatives from a dialogue, especially when they are replaced by members of the opposition. This is what they tried to do in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly of the Eastern Partnership, where the EU still does not allow deputies from the Belarusian parliament.
This is simply unacceptable from the point of view of international law and political institutions. It would be important to create such a site with the principle consent to communicate, but under the supervision of representatives of civil society, to attend the control of society. This is one of the main signs of democracy.
Is the Russian threat a factor contributing to the development to the West?
Obviously. After the Crimea, the authorities were frightened and forced to find ways out of isolation. As for the threat…they write and say a lot about it, and it’s hard not to fall into paranoia.
In my opinion, from a geopolitical point of view, the absorption of Belarus would not be in the interests of Russia. It seems to me that this will not happen simply because Putin does not need it.
Unfortunately, in the case of Belarus, there are other ways to control the country: in the economic, energy or military spheres. The Kremlin can achieve what it needs from Lukashenko himself – without any coups or destabilisations, which, of course, does not prevent him from scaring them with these possibilities.
There are also voices that the accession of Belarus may be the answer to the 2024 problem…
Yes, but it seems to me that there are other ways which are simpler. For example, rewrite the Constitution. It does not require as much time as many think. Although it is obvious that something is happening within the framework of the Union State.
In recent months, the trend towards “forced integration” has intensified, yet Lukashenko is a cunning politician. For twenty years, such manoeuvres have been successful.
Now, the situation is more complicated since there are additional factors, but it seems to me that he still has some trump cards: for example, he can offer a couple more enterprises without sacrificing personal power.
There are manoeuvres with the military base although Russia almost does not raise this topic. It seems that they didn’t need a base as much as they wanted to conduct a loyalty test, which Lukashenko failed.
Therefore, he will be forced to make concessions, demonstrate loyalty in the external arena, perhaps even adopt a common currency, or other signs of Finlandization. I think he can give a lot more, but personal power for him is a red line that he will never move.
It is hard to imagine that he would renounce absolute power in favour of some bureaucratic or honorary post in the Union State. Therefore, if “green men” appear, he will have to react. But it seems to me that this is unrealistic for the time being. Russia still has other levers.
Your assessments have repeatedly irritated both supporters of the maximum involvement of Belarus, and those for tough sanctions. Where does that place you?
As an analyst, I know that everything is difficult, and no one is the bearer of absolute truth. You can’t have everyone like you.
But I understand the importance of hearing all voices and coming to a common denominator. That, although fair, leads to the fact that in the end no one gets what they originally wanted.
I feel this particularly well now when I took the post of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus. I expected that everyone will be dissatisfied with my work. Some will say that I am not criticising the authorities enough while the authorities will say that I am biased.
Have you already decided what the main focus of the report will be?
I do not understand why it is so interesting. After all, the report only describes the situation as it is, an honest assessment based on the information I receive.
The authorities do not want to cooperate with me because they do not recognise the mandate of the rapporteur. In this regard, nothing has changed since the work of Miklos Harashti.
Therefore, I can rely and refer only to what is published and is publicly available. They do not undertake any attempts to convey their position. I see very little effort to implement the national human rights plan. I look at the complaints that go to the UN, listen to people’s stories and come to certain conclusions, which in this situation would be similar for everyone. However, that progress is not enough, and if there are any steps in the right direction, they are either cosmetic or manipulative.
For example, if we talk about the abolition of Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code (on activities on behalf of unregistered organisations), then, it seems, this can be assessed as a positive step. But I have spoken with several lawyers and, in their opinion, the creation of repression mechanisms within the framework of administrative law will allow for achieving the same result – and hinder the activities of these organisations.
To register an organisation has also not become any easier. Of course, decriminalisation is good, and I have written about it in the report. But on the other hand, I will again cautiously point out that the number of administrative cases has increased, that the amount of fines against activists and independent journalists has increased.
Of course, all this is difficult to reflect on in 20 pages. There is a lot happening, and all of it is very important; I would like to place everything on the first page.
After all, human rights are interdependent. And if there is progress in one area, this does not mean that you can close your eyes to others. Therefore, the picture will be complex.
Probably the main thread of the report will be discrimination – the rights of women, minors, LGBT. Of course, much will be about the freedom of association, freedom of speech…all aspects of human rights are important.
As for the report for the General Assembly, which has a more philosophical-narrative form, I would like to present the idea that there is a big difference between procedural democracy and natural democracy. I think this describes well the state of affairs in Belarus where the government carries out cosmetic reforms, but nothing is structurally changed.
The same concerns questions over the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur. Even if they had decided to cooperate with me more constructively, this would not mean that they would begin to fulfil their obligations under international law, and this is precisely the most important thing.
Why don’t they do it at least formally?
I do not know. When I took office, I tried to demonstrate goodwill to the Foreign Ministry, and I offered to talk both through official and unofficial channels. But it seems that they are either not interested or not allowed. Perhaps there is no positive experience with such communication.
From the point of view of power, the UN Special Rapporteur too often “goes for the flags”, so to speak. Though their reluctance won’t keep me from my work, I will find the necessary information. However, the government will lose the opportunity to demonstrate its efforts and progress. Indeed, the very absence of the desire to communicate already speaks volumes.
*All photos are from Reform.by