Internet press conference with the Director of the Center for European transformation Andrei Yahorau (Belarus)

On October 19 an Internet press conference with the Director of the Center for the Center for European transformation Andrei Yahorau (Belarus) for the Armenian media was held on the topic "Presidential elections in Belarus:process, results etc.; External political problems of Belarus; the main internal political problems of Belarus as a member state of EEU".
 
The Internet press-conference was organized within the framework of the project "International press-center "Dialogue": Diversification of the sources of international news for Armenian media". These "first-hand" comments Armenian journalists will publish in their media outlets.
 
This project of the "Region" Research Center is supported by the OSCE office in Yerevan.
 
Question - Mr. Yahorau, what did the difference of the recently held presidential elections in Belarus from the previous elections consist in?
 
Answer - According to estimates of the OSCE Mission, these elections differ due to a freer atmosphere during the election campaign, in particular due to the more liberal conditions for candidate registration and campaigning. Unlike the previous elections, the authorities have refrained from the use of brutal forms of violence and repression against the alternative candidates and protesters. At the same time, the elections were not recognized as either free or democratic. As before, the election results were rigged, and as before mechanisms of early voting and vote counting, uncontrolled by observers, were used for this purpose. In fact, the electoral commission “draws” its own figures of the turnout and the number of votes cast for a particular candidate at the last minute.
 
Question – Did the alternative candidates have a chance for presidency in the elections on October 11, and if not, what was the point of their participation in the elections?
 
Answer - No, there were no chances for the alternative candidates to win, and it was clear even a year and a half before the start of the electoral campaign. The democratic opposition has not been able to consolidate before the elections and present itself with a unified strategy of action that has actually deprived it the ability to not only win, but even to play a meaningful part in these elections. Three opposition candidates (Anatoli Lyabedzka, Sergey Kalyakin, and Tatiana Korotkevich) and two dummy pro-government candidates (Cossack Ataman Nikolai Ulakhovich and Lukashenko’s traditional sparring partner - Sergei Gaydukevich) took part in these elections. If the point of the participation of the pro-governmental candidates is clear, i.e. to act as an alternative to Lukashenko, there was little point in the participation of the democratic opposition. None of them could not attract enough attention, even that of the democratically oriented electorate. As a result, the two were not able to collect signatures for the nomination, and Tatiana Korotkevich de facto was not much different from the pro-governmental candidates that were simulating an alternative. That is to say, all the alternative candidates either played for Lukashenko (consciously or not), or pursued their own interests as well as the private interests of their own structures.
 
Question - What are the prospects for the relations between the European institutions and Belarus under President Lukashenko? What can the sanctions first applied a few years ago, and now lifted be accounted for? Has anything fundamental changed?
 
Answer - The fact is that sanctions against Belarus have been in place since 1996, and were introduced because of the anti-constitutional coup, electoral fraud and massive violations of human rights. The list of sanctions steadily expanded after almost every election in Belarus. But in 2008 all political prisoners in Belarus were released, and the EU temporarily suspended the sanctions, that is to say the sanctions existed, but their action was temporarily "frozen" and the "freezing" can be renewed every time. After the brutal dispersal of a peaceful demonstration and the arrest of alternative candidates during the previous presidential elections on December 19, 2010, the EU lifted the suspension, and the sanctions were renewed. Basically, in that manner the EU reacted to the appearance of new political prisoners in Belarus, and the existence was the main ground for the resumption of the sanctions.
 
To date, there are no political prisoners in Belarus, they were released before the elections, and the elections were held without mass repressions. For the EU, this is the reason to come back to the issue of suspending the sanctions that is likely to happen at the end of October. In the long term, it will lead to the expansion of cooperation between Belarus and the EU, and possibly in the conclusion of a cooperation agreement similar to the one that is currently being discussed in relation to Armenia.
 
At the same time, unfortunately, it must be very well understood (!), no systemic changes in Belarus have happened yet.
 
David Stepanyan, www.arminfo.am
 
Question – The 83.5% of votes cast in favor of the now five-time president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko in the last presidential elections, at first glance suggest the unwillingness of the Belarusian society to see any changes and consequently any risks. Do you think this is true, given the contemporary reality?
 
Answer - It is not absolute here. Firstly, the elections were rigged, and the real figures of the support enjoyed by Lukashenko from the Belarusian society do not exceed 50-60%. Secondly, the society wants changes: independent opinion polls show that only about 30% are willing to maintain the current situation in the country, and about 52% want a change. Thirdly, even though the society does want a change, it does not see any political alternative to Lukashenko, someone who can lead to a peaceful change. I.e. people do want a change, but they put the responsibility for these changes on the existing political regime. We can have a long and detailed discussion of this paradox, but the main reason for it is the suppression of any political and social alternative by the state for 20 years, the lack of freedom of information and the political mistakes made by the fragmented democratic opposition that has lost all influence on the Belarusian society.
 
Question - Were the results of the presidential elections in Belarus the reflection of serious unrest and internal instability in the neighboring Ukraine? If so, due to what specific reasons?
 
Answer - Partially, this is true. In general, the society is very frightened by the war and instability in Ukraine, and most voted for the stability that the Lukashenko regime represents. In addition, the radical opposition leaders deliberately refrained from organizing mass protests this time, fearing not only the reprisals by Lukashenko, but also the possible provocations and destabilization of the situation by Russia.
 
Question - The response of the European Union on the elections in Belarus shows a clear warming of relations between Brussels and Minsk. What, in your opinion, could this be due to?
 
Answer - There are several reasons: 1) the geopolitical context has changed. The relative neutrality of Belarus during the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is positively perceived by the EU. The EU does not want a complete withdrawal of Belarus from under the Russian protectorate and wants to keep Belarus within the scope of its own relative influence. 2) For two years, the EU has done diplomatic work to resume relations with Belarus, in which the basic conditions were the release of the political prisoners and the liberalization of the electoral process. These conditions have been met to a greater or lesser extent: the political prisoners have been set free, the elections were held without the use of brutal violence. I.e. In general, the EU got what it wanted. However, the situation in Belarus has remained principally unchanged, but that is already another matter
 
Question – In the recent years President Lukashenko has largely managed to maneuver between Russia and the West to the benefit of Belarus. Can you please evaluate the success of the Belarusian complementarity?
 
Answer - The foreign policy of Belarus is based on a simple principle: the exchange of geopolitical loyalty for economic preferences. In the Yeltsin era, they said: "oil for kisses." The problem here is that this scheme is good for maintaining the political regime and allows it to survive parasitizing on external subsidies (mostly Russian), but it is bad for the country's development. Over the years, Belarus has not solved the main problems in the area of structural economic reforms (not to mention the political and administrative ones), the country needs constant external financing to maintain internal stability (3-6 billion dollars a year) and has been going through a regular economic crisis. I.e. this complementarity is justified in the short-term period mode, but the country's future as a politically independent and economically prosperous state is highly doubtful.
 
Question - Is the further expansion of the EEU and country's participation in this integration project in line with the interests of Belarus as a whole?
 
Answer - The participation of Belarus in the EEU does not come from its long-term interests. The EEU gives Belarus a temporary opportunity of parasitism on cheap Russian energy resources, indirect Russian subsidies and direct loans, guarantees access of Belarusian goods to the large Russian market. There is no more point in the presence of Belarus in the EEU. In strategic terms, Belarus gains nothing from the EEU: neither technology, nor investment, nor growth of trade, nor development of resources. Moreover, the EEU threatens the loss of the independence of the country in terms of monetary, financial, and economic regulation, attaches Belarus to the backward Russia, and reinforces its dependence on its eastern neighbor.
 
Armen Minasyan, www.panorama.am
 
Question - It has recently become known that the official Minsk refused to place the Russian airbase on its territory. How do you see the further development of Russian-Belarusian relations in the context of recurring demarches by Minsk and the confrontation between Russia and the West?
 
Answer – The demarches by Minsk in relation with Moscow are a traditional and inevitable development in the logic of the history of their relationship. The official Minsk sells peculiar shares of "geopolitical loyalty", exchanging them for Russian economic preferences. But the resources of these shares are not infinite, so from time to time it is required to recover the amount of the country’s symbolic independence of Belarus and to behave contrary to the interests of Moscow. The same thing happens in the issue of military bases, when Lukashenko acts contrary to the logic of integration and tries to trade for at least more resources. It is difficult to say how long this game may continue, but it is obvious that with the escalation of Russia's conflict with the West, Russia may attempt to complete or partially eliminate the independence of Belarus.
 
Question – The West, on the one hand, lifts the sanctions applied against Belarus, including those against President Alexander Lukashenko, on the other hand, the OSCE observers argue that the recent presidential elections in Belarus did not meet democratic standards. How do you see the further development of relations between the West and Minsk in this context?
 
Answer - The EU, with high probability, will suspend the sanctions against Belarus. This will mean the enhanced cooperation and prospects of concluding an agreement similar to the one now in negotiation between the European Union and Armenia. I.e. a new "romantic period" of relations awaits Belarus and the EU, but as the situation in Belarus remains virtually unchanged, a question arises how long this period will last. Dictatorships are not stable and are fraught with all sorts of excesses such as mass repressions, so without systemic political change in Belarus, normal relations between it and the EU are not possible in the long term.
 
Question - How do you see the future of the EEU in the context of confrontation between Russia and the West and the development of relations within the Union?
 
Answer - If everything develops in the trend as today, the EEU will end up with the fate of the CIS, i.e. it will undergo a transformation into a purely formal and useless entity. The second option is even sadder: Russia may try to use the EEU to restore the empire in a new form and to partial liquidate the independence of the EEU members. I.e. nothing good awaits the EEU.
 
Question - How topical is the Commonwealth of the Independent States at the moment?
 
Answer – The CIS is not topical at all at the moment, but it serves as an instructive example of what happens with the international associations that are not built on mutual benefits.
 
Question - What is the main flaw of the Eastern Partnership Programme?
 
Answer - The main drawback of the Eastern Partnership is a constant desire on the part of the EU to ignore the geopolitical context and the political context within the Eastern Partnership countries. The Eastern Partnership put too much emphasis on the formal powers of attorney (agreements and their implementation), but does not take into account the specific interests of the parties involved in the initiative, does not consider for the real interests of governments, political actors, the civil society, businesses, and so on. That is why, the governments of the partner countries, not interested in changes, can easily pretend to reform and transform the agreement into formal papers. The denial of the geopolitical value of the EaP has led to the fact that Russia manipulates and intimidates both the EU and the partner countries which diminishes the possibility of rapprochement.
 
Gagik Baghdasaryan, www.newsarmenia.am
 
Question – In the recent years, attempts by Western countries to move closer to Minsk have been apparent amid the growing confrontation between the West and Russia. How far can such a policy go?
 
Answer - The EU, with high probability, will suspend the sanctions against Belarus. This will mean the enhanced cooperation and prospects of concluding an agreement similar to the one now in negotiation between the European Union and Armenia. I.e. a new "romantic period" of relations awaits Belarus and the EU, but as the situation in Belarus remains virtually unchanged, a question arises how long this period will last. Dictatorships are not stable and are fraught with all sorts of excesses such as mass repressions, so without systemic political change in Belarus, normal relations between it and the EU are not possible in the long term.
 
Question - Will the successor Lukashenko prepare for the next election? Do people in his entourage?
 
Answer - Often, you can hear this kind of speculations about a possible successor, but the probability of this is not very high. The Belarusian system is Lukashenko’s one-person dictatorship, and serves as the sole arbiter in the conflicts between factions within the ruling elite. Besides Lukashenko, today there are no public figures who can replace him in this role. Well, Lukashenko himself is not so old and believes that he is able to lead even in the next term in office.
 
Question - Experience shows that any attempts to color revolutions in Belarus are failures from the very start. What is the reason for this - the lack  of foreign finances, , public organizations and civil movements or the high rating of the President of Belarus?
 
Answer - There is a number of reasons. On the one hand, the society wants changes: independent opinion polls show that only about 30% are willing to maintain the current situation in the country, and about 52% want a change. Thirdly, even though the society does want a change, it does not see any political alternative to Lukashenko, someone who can lead to a peaceful change. I.e. people do want a change, but they put the responsibility for these changes on the existing political regime. We can have a long and detailed discussion of this paradox, but the main reason for it is the suppression of any political and social alternative by the state for 20 years, the lack of freedom of information and the political mistakes made by the fragmented democratic opposition that has lost all influence on the Belarusian society.
 
Tatevik Ghazaryan, www.news.am
 
Question - Mr. Yahorau, some analysts claim that the results of the presidential elections in Belarus have been determined long before voters cast their ballots. What is your opinion on this matter? What is your assessment of the electoral process in the country?
 
Answer - Usually the election results are formed on the basis of the current political situation. It is clear that the electoral machine is designed to provide any result Lukashenko desires, but the concrete figures to be drawn by the electoral commissions are decided on the last days of the election. In reality, the ballots cast by the voters do not affect the final figures; the figures of the turnout are also "drawn" by the election commissions at the orders of the executive power.
 
Question - How do you see the prospects of relations between Belarus and the European Union? Will the sanctions be lifted, and what political concessions will the EU require for this?
 
Answer - For two years, the EU has done diplomatic work to resume relations with Belarus, in which the basic conditions were the release of the political prisoners and the liberalization of the electoral process. These conditions have been met to a greater or lesser extent: the political prisoners have been set free, the elections were held without the use of brutal violence. I.e. In general, the EU got what it wanted. However, the situation in Belarus has remained principally unchanged, but that is already another matter. 
The EU, with high probability, will suspend the sanctions against Belarus. This will mean the enhanced cooperation and prospects of concluding an agreement similar to the one now in negotiation between the European Union and Armenia. I.e. a new "romantic period" of relations awaits Belarus and the EU, but as the situation in Belarus remains virtually unchanged, a question arises how long this period will last. Dictatorships are not stable and are fraught with all sorts of excesses such as mass repressions, so without systemic political change in Belarus, normal relations between it and the EU are not possible in the long term.
 
Question – Please evaluate the political and economic cooperation between Russia and Belarus as well as Armenia and Belarus in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union.
 
Answer – The relations with Russia as those with a superior (in all respects, and the political and economic) neighbor dominate in the relations with all countries. Russia is the center of the EEU. Trade volumes between Armenia and Belarus are negligible, compared with the trade with Russia. In addition, the official data show that the EEU is not conducive to the development of the economic relations between its members, and the volume of mutual trade within the EEU is constantly shrinking.
 
Eduard Mkhitaryan, www.galatv.am
 
Question - Mr. Yahorau, do you see a connection between the start of the Russian operations in Syria and a temporary ceasefire in Ukraine and the postponement of the referendum in the Donbass? What goals do you think the Russian president Vladimir Putin pursues with the beginning of active military operations in Syria?
 
Answer – The Russian military operation in Syria is another method applied by Russia to pressurize the West. Russia sees itself in a confrontation with the West and is trying through the initiation or entry into such conflicts to establish itself as a geopolitical player the West needs to have a dialogue with. The resolution of such conflicts without Russia is becoming impossible, and it is thus asserting itself as an international subject. 
 
Question – Aren’t the post-Soviet countries, particularly Belarus, facing the threat of a repetition of the Ukrainian crisis? Isn’t the rapprochement of Belarus with the West, noticeable in the recent years, threatening to President Lukashenko? It is no secret that Russia is jealous of the warm relations between Belarus and the Western countries.
 
Answer - The threat of the repetition of the Crimean scenario exists, and it is quite realistic. In a real attempt by Belarus to move towards the EU, Russia is able to apply to it the means used to destabilize Ukraine. However, at present the rapprochement between Belarus and the EU is so small that it poses no threat to the Russian interests in Belarus.
 
Question - Alexander Lukashenko has been elected president of Belarus for the fifth time. In Armenia we are well aware of how presidents are re-elected in the former Soviet Union countries. In your opinion, were Lukashenko in Belarus and Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia elected at the will of the people? If not, what leverage have they used to be re-elected?
 
Answer - No, of course, neither Lukashekno nor Sargsyan are democratically elected presidents. In the case of Lukashenko, an extensive system of electoral manipulations (early voting, and uncontrolled counting of votes, etc.) were used, there were restrictions of political freedoms, suppression of independent media, repression of civil society and the political opposition, including the murder of political opponents, and lengthy prison terms for the opponents of the regime.
 
Question - Does Armenia need constitutional reforms? For what purpose do you think the Armenian President and the ruling party are taking the initiative of the constitutional reform?
 
Answer - Unfortunately, I'm not very good at the political situation in Armenia. I can only note that the initiative of amending the Constitution does not come from the majority of the citizens of Armenia, but from the regime, without any adequate public debates, which in itself raises doubts on the implicit motives of such actions.
 
Question - Does Armenia as a member of the EEU have chances for democratic development?
 
Answer - Both Armenia and Belarus have a chance of democratic development, and our people deserve it. But today, our countries have become hostages of their parasitic authoritarian regimes, which often do not operate in the interests of the country. Joining the EEU is an example of such a strategically harmful behavior of authoritarian leaders, and, of course, greatly complicates the process of democratization. 

Work by AGNIAN

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