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article imageOp-Ed: Legacy of corrupt governance haunts European ambitions of Belarus

By Matthew Turner     May 9, 2016 in Politics
Minsk - As Belarusian state policy is to forge ties with Europe, Europe should respond by pressuring the government to strengthen good governance; highlighting human rights issues, systemic corruption, and rampant smuggling across EU borders.
When the EU lifted its sanctions against Belarus earlier in February, it became clear that Brussels’ previous insistence on the need for democratic change in Minsk had given way to a realist policy of engagement in an attempt to offset the aggressive nature of Russia’s foreign policy. As for the mandarins in Minsk, the lifting of the majority of sanctions opened up a whole new range of opportunities — from more free trade, to development opportunities through investment — thus ensuring that the EU’s courtship is very much a two-way street. What’s more, Belarus’ turn to Europe conveniently coincides with Russia’s cratering economy , an economy that guzzles up every year some 40 percent of Minsk’s exports, which will be left needing an outlet. However, the major downside to this newfound friendship is that Brussels’ overtures risk entrenching the corrupt mores of Belarus’ upper echelons of power, under the authoritarian auspices of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, incidentally, is one of those the EU has decided to release from sanctions. Having ruled Belarus since 1994 from an unassailable position despite the regular spectacle of hosting elections, “Europe’s last dictator” has overseen the creation of a corrupt elite that has poisoned not just the very top of the political food chain but also all layers of the social spectrum. And despite some reforms passed earlier this year, Lukashenko’s survival seems to depend on keeping that elite happy and their pockets full. A case in point was the presidential pardon awarded to six high-ranking officials who had been accused of corruption earlier in the year. To add insult to injury, Lukashenko then appointed them to senior positions managing a number of state-owned enterprises. Rubber-stamped by the head of state, such actions make a mockery of those new anti-corruption laws recently implemented — laws that were passed just before the six officials were released, and in relative tandem with the EU’s lifting of sanctions.
It’s no small wonder that this culture of pervasive corruption trickles down. For those not fortunate enough to occupy the ivory towers in Minsk, the black market is providing an unexpected source of income. Smuggling is perceived as an illegal yet legitimate enterprise that exists to generate wealth either through the act itself or through the slices of the pie corrupt junior officials skim off. The problem has bubbled up so much that it has put the security of other European countries at risk. Take the illegal trade in alcohol and cigarettes. A sum equivalent to a whole half of the amount legitimately produced by the Belarus tobacco industry is now smuggled across the nation's borders every year, at a cost of $10 billion in EU tax revenue. In 2012, Slovakian officials confirmed that cigarettes squirreled across its border with Ukraine — through a 700-meter long tunnel complete with its own railway — originated in Belarus. While trade tariffs, suffocating customs controls and even EU sanctions itself have created the conditions that allow smuggling to thrive, this culture of acceptance runs far deeper than policy alone.
The one area where the EU has been a little more vocal is in calling for the abolition of the death penalty. From 2000 to 2013 a full 50 death sentences were handed out, a figure which, although far lower than in the previous decades (281 people were sentenced to death in the 90s alone), is still extremely shocking. Human rights organisations have been swift to partner the EU in calling for its end. However, the former have been far more active than the EU in putting other human rights violations on the agenda, especially after Svetlana Alexievich, an investigative journalist, won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. The right to assembly, the right to protest, and the freedom of the press are still lumped together into a number of arcanely unfathomable “anti-hooliganism” laws — a vague link to the potential for incitement somehow binding all these together.
One could be forgiven for thinking, as many critics have already claimed, that the EU has made a mistake by inviting into its fold a nation that stands for such singularly undemocratic and anti-liberal values. However, this would ignore the bigger picture. To begin with, sanctions have a historically proven ineffectiveness, often legitimizing rather than correcting the wayward direction of punished nations. Also, whatever Belarus' current proclivities, Minsk's inherent issues would be far from likely to improve under Russia's wing. Yet, even such geopolitical concerns do not relieve the EU of its basic responsibilities and Brussels needs to maintain a degree of caution in its embrace. Belarus is still an authoritarian state plagued by widespread corruption and defined by a fundamental disrespect for the human rights norms which Europe was built upon. As Belarusian state policy is to forge ties with Europe, Europe should respond by pressuring the government to strengthen good governance; highlighting human rights issues, systemic corruption, and rampant smuggling across EU borders. Anything less would be an unforgivable mistake that the oppressed people of Belarus would be loath to forgive.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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