It is okay to be hopeful for change in Belarus – not because the opposition is strong, but because the regime is looking weak.
Heads in Brussels and elsewhere are sore with scratching. Over the past 21 years, haphazard combinations of carrots, sticks, tricks and fireworks have all failed. Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains in power in Belarus. That is a dark disgrace for Europe.
It is worth remembering that out of nine opposition candidates in the 2010 election, seven were arrested. Some were tortured and Mikola Statkevich is still in prison. Also behind bars are Paval Seviarynets and Vasil Parfiankou, Zmitser Dashkevich and Eduard Lobau. A particular scandal is the jailing of Ales Bialiatski, a human-rights campaigner who was prosecuted thanks to information supplied (apparently in error) by the Lithuanian and Polish authorities.
The release from prison in April of Andrei Sannikau, another opposition leader, to asylum in Britain, cheered his friends. But exile acts as a safety valve for the regime. Dozens of its most dedicated foes are fulminating abroad, not campaigning at home. Exiled oppositions have a generally poor track record in toppling dictatorships. Worse, the Belarus cause is divided between supporters of the Belarus National Council (a vestigial but symbolically important relic of the short-lived state of 1918) and other groupings.
As a sizzling new report from Index on Censorship, a London-based campaign group, makes clear, the regime is tightening the screws in cyberspace too: blocking sites that offer critical material, or knocking them out with DDOS attacks (automated swamping). In some cases, as the Dutch liberal MEP Marietje Schaake has admirably highlighted, Western companies sell the equipment that enables repression.
I have been following Belarus since my first visit there in 1990. But for all the gloom I have rarely felt so optimistic. This is not because the opposition is strong, but because the regime is looking weak. The most important news is that Lukashenka's popularity has plunged – to about 30%, according to independent polls. State television remains firmly in his grip. A documentary last month called “Pseudo-modernism”, demonised the ‘partnership for modernisation', the European Union's stalled technocratic wheeze. It exemplified the regime's instinctive recourse to Soviet-style propaganda. But it no longer seems to have the same effect. The economy survives only thanks to cheap loans from Russia (and, increasingly, support from China).
The big problem for those wanting political and economic change in Belarus over the past 20 years has been that the public was not ready for it. The disruption of ‘shock therapy' in Poland and the economic upheavals in the Baltic states, as well as the immiseration of much of the Russian population in the 1990s all struck ominous chords. Belarus was in the heart of what Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian, calls the “Bloodlands” of Europe in the middle decades of the past century. A quiet dull life looks pretty attractive if the past is studded with horrors.
But memories of past traumas are fading, and appetite for change is growing. Rather as in Russia, the much-prized stability is beginning to look more like stagnation. Like Vladimir Putin with his he-man stunts, Lukashenka looks preposterous (not least for dotingly bringing his small son Kolya to all public events). Boredom is fertile soil for ridicule, which in turn destroys fear and stokes courage.
For outsiders, freezing the regime's dirty money abroad helps more than broad sanctions. Inviting Belarusians where possible to events in EU countries, and (for those foreigners able to get visas) visiting Belarus whenever possible, all help breach the sense of isolation that sustains the disgraceful regime.