A Stab in the Back? Lithuania Leaks Information About Belarusian Activists
Yesterday Mikalay Khalezin, the head of the Belarus Free Theatre accused Lithuania of handing information about accounts of Belarusian activists and NGOs in Lithuanian banks to the Lukashenka regime. At first it was hard to believe what Khalezin wrote in his blog. But on the next day the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice confirmed it.
According to Belarusian press, having assessed this information from Lithuania, the KGB of Belarus has arrested a well-known human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, a 2006 Nobel Prize nominee. The authorities accused him of 'concealment of income at a particularly large scale'. Viasna, the largest and most efficient human rights group in Belarus, thought that its bank accounts in Lithuania were outside the reach of the Belarusian regime. They were wrong.
“For my enemies, the law”
Belarus is known for its draconian rules and strict state control over any economic activity of its citizens. The punishment for violating the regulations is harsh. Belarusian prisons are full of people sentenced for 'economic crimes' which would often not even be considered crimes in developed countries.
Needless to say that under the authoritarian regime of president Alyaksandr Lukashenka activities of political opponents are being monitored even more closely. The regime has used minor inconsistencies with regulations to deny numerous attempts to get official registration of independent NGOs and political parties. The Belarusian Christian Democracy, a political party, and the Young Front, a political youth organisation, are just two examples. Most recently, the authorities relied on legal excuses to take away the office of the Belarusian Popular Front, once the largest Belarusian opposition party.
"For my friends, anything - for my enemies, the law", says a popular quote of a Brazilian president. The Belarusian opposition has no possibility to act according to the draconian rules in Belarus. And it is unjust to accuse these people of hiding from the authorities. You wouldn't criticize the Soviet and East German dissidents for not registering their Samizdat typewriters with the KGB or the Stasi. Nor would anybody criticize Oskar Schindler for deliberately overstating his factory's demand for Jewish workers.
Immediately after the 2010 presidential elections, the leaders of the Belarusian civil society have called upon the leaders of the EU to stop any contacts with the regime in Minsk and limit it to the technical level. This has not been done, and now Ales Bialiatski faces up to seven years in prison.
Is Vilnius becoming Lukashenka’s ally?
To be fair, the Lithuanian Republic does a lot to support democracy in Belarus. Vilnius has traditionally been a centre of Belarusian cultural and political life. The city is closer to Minsk than any major Belarusian city.
Many political activists persecuted in Belarus have been granted asylum in the country. Lithuanian NGOs are among founders of the European Radio for Belarus. Various independent Belarusian organisations, unable to operate in Belarus, have been given official registration in the Lithuanian Republic: the European Humanities University, the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies and others.
On the other hand, recently the Lithuanian Republic is increasingly becoming an ally to Lukashenka and consistently opposes economic sanctions against the regime. Lukashenka paid a visit to Vilnius in October 2010, following invitation from the Republic's president Dalia Grybauskaite. That was a rare occastion for him to officially travel to an EU country.
Lituania has strong economic ties with Belarus. In 2010, Lithuanian investments to Belarus have increased by 11 times*. Lithuanian business people have expressed their interest in privatisation of state assets in Belarus*. Lithuania plays an important role for Belarus to transport oil from Venezuela. Belarus and Lithuania have considered construction of an LNG terminal in one of Lithuania’s ports. In addition, Lithuania receives its Russian gas via Belarus, as well as oil for its oil refinery in Mazeikiai.
Now it turns out that authorities of an EU member have aided repressions in Belarus. This scandal marks another failure of the European Union’s policy towards Belarus, caused by the lack of unification and consistency. It should not go unnoticed and must inspire a radical review of how EU is dealing with the Belarusian civil society. It is time to become more realistic about the nature of political regime in Minsk.