Jailing the opposition in Russia and Belarus

February 26, 2011

MOSCOW — Opposition leaders in Belarus and Russia are in jail, setting off a debate here about what that means for Russia, the West and the American reset of relations.

For Belarus, the arrests proclaim an unrelenting hard-line regime under President Alexander Lukashenko. In Russia, they raise questions about where the country is headed, how much credibility President Dmitry Medvedev — who casts himself a champion of liberalization and rule of law — has lost and just what the West should do.

Lukashenko had seven of his nine opponents in the Dec. 19 presidential election arrested, along with 600 protesters, part of a crowd of about 10,000 who questioned his winning 80 percent of the vote. Hundreds, many complaining of brutal beatings, remain in jail. Sixteen face trial for organizing mass protests, and Amnesty International calls them prisoners of conscience.

In Moscow, only four opposition leaders have been arrested — but the presidential election isn’t until 2012. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and governor in the Yeltsin era, is serving a 15-day sentence after he was detained leaving a legal demonstration on New Year’s Eve. Three others were also arrested, one accused of swearing at police as he headed to a separate unauthorized demonstration.

“We see the same trajectory in both systems,” said Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate for Russian domestic politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But Russia offers more rhetoric that the West wants to believe.”

Medvedev, especially, has assured the West that Russia is trying to liberalize, in contrast to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who sounds a more repressive theme.

The U.S. policy of resetting relations with Russia has achieved short-term goals, Shevtsova said, reaching agreements on the New START accord, Iran and Afghanistan.

“But it’s short term, without vision,” she said. “The ability of the West to find a workable policy toward Belarus could be an example for how it deals with Russia.”

Shevtsova said the similar authoritarian direction the two countries are pursuing calls for the United States and Europe to create a coordinated policy for dealing with repressive regimes, one that could be developed for Belarus and fine-tuned for Russia. Although the United States and Europe have applied sanctions to Belarus at various times, she said, they have failed to bring about any real change.

In a conference call arranged this week by Radio Free Europe, Eva Nyaklyaeva, daughter of imprisoned Belarusan presidential candidate Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, said Lukashenko has been successfully manipulating Europe and Russia, suggesting to the West that he has grown less repressive and to Russia that he is a reliable ally as he seeks help for his economically distressed country.

“I don’t want to be diplomatic anymore,” Nyaklyaeva said. “I am sick and tired, with all respect, of the analysts who say that in this situation it is very difficult for Europe or for the West to take serious steps because of the economic situation. To hell with realpolitik. These are human lives now on the line.”

Lukashenko has ignored complaints from the West about the brutal detention of protesters. He responded to criticism about the vote count by throwing out election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The arrests in both countries make it harder for the West to come up with an effective policy toward them, said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center of Political Technologies in Moscow, because the crackdowns may have weakened the reset.

“I think they might be a strike against reset,” he said, “because the reset is founded on the idea that there are at least some common values and principles. Today there are many doubts about these principles and values. Nobody wants to isolate Russia, but there will be less trust, and the reset then might be less efficient.”

The arrest of Nemtsov was certainly a blow against Medvedev and his position — although Medvedev has championed the rule of law, the arrest was seen as a clear violation of legal safeguards. The judge listened to the testimony of two police officers and refused to accept a video as evidence, which showed Nemtsov asking the police to calm down instead of resisting them as charged.

But how serious a blow is not clear. Perhaps, Makarkin said, Russia will continue to swing back and forth, a few steps toward authoritarianism, a few toward liberalization, just as Putin sways one way and Medvedev another.

Whether the West, or the opposition, can push it significantly one way or the other remains to be seen. As Georgy Satarov, a long-time Moscow analyst sees it, the relatively mild response in the United States to the events in Belarus only encouraged repression in Moscow, even as the unexpected sight of 10,000 demonstrators roaming the Belarusan capital of Minsk deeply frightened authorities. They arrested Nemtsov because they could and to scare off those tempted to join him.

Russia’s leaders remain haunted by perestroika, said Makarkin, remembering how a weak democratic opposition grew to formidable strength without authorities really understanding what was happening — until angry residents filled the streets and turned back the coup of 1991.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that a young physicist who came of age politically in those tempestuous times would continue to haunt them. He is, of course, Boris Nemtsov.

lallyk@washpost.com

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