The man known as Europe’s last dictator made a startling announcement last week: Come early October, he will release all of the political prisoners in his jails. For 17 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus in much the way that it was run as a Soviet socialist republic: Most of the economy is state-owned, independent journalists are routinely harassed, opposition political activists are beaten and arrested, and the secret police — still known as the KGB — maintain a massive cadre of loyal informers.
On the surface, Lukashenko shows signs of reform. He recently pardoned four political activists who were jailed as part of the crackdown that followed Belarus’s rigged presidential election last winter. To avoid any appearance that their release was a concession to outside pressure, the regime announced that all four had “recognized their guilt and the unlawful character of their actions.”
Such moves should be seen in the context of the cat-and-mouse game Lukashenko has long played with the West. The European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Belarus after December’s electoral farce. With the country enduring a massive financial crisis — consumer prices have almost doubled since January, and inflation is near 50 percent — Lukashenko desperately needs outside assistance, which the West has made contingent upon political liberalization. Releasing political prisoners, including detained presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, is a tacit attempt to improve chilly relations with Europe and the United States and should not be mistaken for genuine change within the regime.
Consider Lukashenko’s history of such actions: After he closed the Minsk office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2002, the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions — and after six months, Lukashenko allowed the multilateral organization back into the country. (He expelled it again after last December’s vote.) In 2007, in the aftermath of a rigged presidential election and arrests of political prisoners, Washington froze assets of the state oil-refining company; two months later, the regime did the first in a series of prisoner releases. As recently as last month, on the very day that the State Department announced additional economic sanctions on four state-owned Belarusan enterprises, Lukashenko pardoned nine people who had been arrested for protesting last December.
Lukashenko essentially operates a revolving door to his KGB prisons, jailing dissidents when they step too far out of line and letting them go once Western sanctions become burdensome. Releasing political prisoners is a cheap, cynical move that Lukashenko uses to wend his way back into the good graces of the West. Whether his political opponents are free or incarcerated, he has always maintained the architecture of authoritarian control. What’s happening now, with Belarus facing its toughest economic conditions since its independence in 1991, is a particularly dramatic instance of brave individuals being used as bargaining chips.
This time, the West should avoid falling for Lukashenko’s ploy. The European Union and the United States have long called for the “unconditional” release of political prisoners. Accordingly, Lukashenko should be given nothing in exchange for freeing people who never should have been jailed. The West should make clear that releasing political prisoners is the opening, not final, step toward normalized relations. Additional moves include readmitting the OSCE to Minsk and allowing the return of the U.S. ambassador, whom Lukashenko expelled in 2008. Lukashenko’s behavior makes clear that sanctions are effective in moderating the regime; they should be lifted only when genuinely free and fair elections are held in Belarus.
But it is difficult to believe that Lukashenko is serious about reform, given his record and what I witnessed in Belarus in June: Political activists used the Internet to attract thousands of Belarusans from across the country to weekly demonstrations that involved nothing more than clapping. At one such protest I attended in Minsk, government thugs brutally assaulted citizens and piled them into waiting police vans just minutes after they had gathered. A regime that arrests people for applauding in public is not one that will submit to free elections easily.
“There is no more possibility to haggle” with Lukashenko, one of the leading opposition presidential candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev, told me in Minsk this summer. Before the polls even closed last December, Neklyayev had been badly beaten by plainclothes security officers and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of attempting to foment a riot. He was released after five months. But last week the regime imposed a nightly curfew on him, barred him from leaving the country for two years and will not allow him to leave Minsk without written permission. Western governments, Neklyayev says, should stop allowing the dictator to “blackmail” them by perpetually incarcerating innocent people. Rewarding Lukashenko at this early stage would amount to another round in the dictator’s never-ending game.
James Kirchick is a writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He is based in Prague.