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The Visegrád Four as the driving force behind Europe’s support for Belarusians

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Visegrád Group – “Poland still remembers the decisive events of 1989 and always supports its neighbours. I have called for an extraordinary meeting of the European Council and strong reaction from the EU to what is happening in Belarus. We must support Belarusians together”, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted on August 11. Poland has clearly taken the lead in the Visegrád Group’s response, and also, with the support of its V4 partners and of the Baltic States, in the EU’s response. After some early hesitations, Hungary’s leaders have been most outspoken in their support for Poland’s efforts. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said on August 17 that he had held talks with his counterparts from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and also with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had just spoken to Polish PM Morawiecki: “The power and importance of the Visegrád cooperation is evident again. We support the Polish position, especially regarding the large Polish community in Belarus”, Szijjártó wrote. Such support comes in spite of Hungary’s having better relations with Russia than Poland does, and at a time when Morawiecki has called on Russia not to intervene in Belarus and has presented a plan to support those who are protesting in that country. Morawiecki’s plan contains a pledge to make it possible for Belarusian university teachers and students to find places at Polish universities if they are expelled in Belarus due to their political activity, a promise to make it easier for Belarusians to get visas and work permits, a new mechanism to finance independent Belarusian media outlets, and new sources of financing for Polish NGOs which bring support to civil society in Belarus.

What must not happen in Belarus is what happened to us in 1968. The European Union must take action. It must encourage Belarusians not to be afraid to carry out their own Velvet Revolution similar to the one of November 1989. That is why I am committed to this cause, and also why the V4, together with the Baltic States, should play its role,” Andrej Babiš, the Czech Prime Minister, tweeted on August 16. Babiš was of course referring to the armed intervention of the Warsaw Pact led by Soviet Russia in 1968, which quelled the Prague Spring, while the November 1989 Velvet Revolution was the bloodless revolution which overthrew the communist regime of Czechoslovakia during the so-called Autumn of Nations of 1989. Drawing a further parallel between the communist era and today’s revolt by Belarusians, and also between the role of the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia, the Czech prime minister said on the same day, in his regular video report to Czechs which he publishes on Facebook: “Europe must negotiate with President Putin. I want to make it clear that what happened to Crimea or our country in 1968 must not happen again.” On August 24, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček announced the creation of a 10 million koruna (€380,000) fund to provide assistance to victims of persecution and to support independent media in Belarus. At the same time, Czech President Miloš Zeman, who is usually considered to be “pro-Russian”, signed a joint declaration with the presidents of the other three nations of the Visegrád Group, in which all four leaders, in a clear allusion to Russia, called on any foreign actor to refrain from undermining Belarus’ independence and sovereignty, while calling on the authorities of Belarus “to open the way for a political solution, and to abide by the fundamental human rights and freedoms while refraining from the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators”, and supporting “the right of the people of Belarus to free, fair and democratic presidential elections”. The joint statement was signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda, Czech President Miloš Zeman, Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová, and Hungarian President János Áder hours ahead of the video conference held by the European Council on August 19 at the request of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.

Similarly to Hungary, Slovakia has traditionally maintained good relations with Russia. However, the centre-right coalition government of Igor Matovič, which was formed in March, has committed itself in its political programme to have a more Atlanticist policy and to build closer relations with Poland. After Belarus’ presidential election and brutal clampdown on peaceful protests, Slovakia’s government has pledged to support Belarusian civil society, and it has called on the Belarusian authorities to stop the violence, to respect fundamental human rights, and to agree with leaders of the democratic opposition on a re-run of the presidential election. Support for the protesters was also expressed by Slovakia’s president Zuzana Čaputová and by speaker of the country’s parliament Boris Kollár, who talked of Lukashenko as a dictator. The Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, who had expressed support for the protesters in his home country and subsequently resigned from his ambassadorial post, was offered political asylum by Prime Minister Igor Matovič.

Hence at the August 19 meeting of the European Council, all four countries of the Visegrád Group pushed for EU sanctions against Belarusian officials and support for Belarusian civil society and independent media outlets, and successfully asked their EU partners not to acknowledge the official election results and Lukashenko’s victory. According to official results, Lukashenko won on August 9 with 80% of the vote, against 10% for his main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Apart from the Visegrád Four, the three Baltic States – in particular Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya has found refuge together with her children (her husband being jailed in Belarus since May 29) – very strongly advocated such action at EU level.

Accusations from Lukashenko

As a result of their leading role, Poland and Lithuania – successors of the Republic of the Two Nations formed by the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which covered the whole of today’s Belarus until the end of the 18th century – have been accused by incumbent Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of fomenting the protests in Belarus. Other Western states have also been targeted by Lukashenko’s accusations, in particular the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and the United States. As regards Poland, while on a visit to Grodno near the Polish border, Lukashenko went as far as to claim that Poland was planning to annex the western part of Belarus, which belonged to the reborn Poland between the two World Wars. In an attempt to mobilise his supporters by brandishing the threat of aggression against the homeland, Lukashenko has also accused NATO of gathering troops on its borders with Poland and Lithuania. Poland has of course denied having any territorial claims on Belarus, and President Duda’s chief of staff Krzysztof Szczerski gave a reminder on August 22 that Poland is itself a strong defender of the territorial integrity of Central and Eastern European countries against (Russian) imperialism, and that “it is both sad and astonishing that such suggestions should appear in the Belarusian authorities’ propaganda about Poland supposedly having the intention to violate that country’s territorial integrity.” In the meantime Prime Minister Morawiecki and the Polish ministry of foreign affairs denied any interference in Belarus’ internal affairs, stating that Poland has merely lent support to independent Belarusian media outlets (such as the Belsat TV station broadcasting from Poland) and to civil society as a whole, not to some specific opposition groups, and that “Poland does not command the actions of President Lukashenko’s political opponents.

In the countries of the Visegrád Group, as in the Baltic States, the protests in Belarus are seen as reminiscent of the protests that led to the fall of communism in 1989, which in turn allowed those countries to regain full independence from Soviet Russia. This view is similar to the attitude of former Eastern Bloc countries towards the Ukrainian “Euromaidan” in 2013–14, although they realise that the Belarusian protests are of a different nature, as the protesters in Belarus are asking for free and fair elections, and not for their country to head towards the EU and NATO and turn its back on Russia.

The EU’s cautious response

The Belarusian presidential election took place on August 9, with the first protests unfolding on the evening of that very day. As early as August 10 Poland’s prime minister asked for a special summit of the European Council on Belarus. Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda asked for the same on August 11, and was followed by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš on August 14. Even before the Belarusian election, on August 7, the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France had made a call for free and fair elections in the presence of independent local observers, and they had expressed their regret about the absence of OSCE observers. On August 14, at the request of Poland, foreign ministers of the EU-27 held a videoconference to talk about the situation in Belarus and to prepare for the European Council summit of August 19. The decisions taken on August 19 follow the direction asked for by Poland and Lithuania with the support of the remaining Baltic states and Visegrád Group countries, with sanctions being prepared against officials responsible for the electoral fraud and the violence against protesters, and with the EU-27 refusing to acknowledge the official election result. However the EU decisions are probably short of what the Visegrád Four and the three Baltic states wanted, with a pledge of only €2 million to assist victims of repression and state violence, and €1 million to support civil society and independent media (Poland alone gives several times more every year to finance the Belsat TV channel), and without a clear call for a repeat of the August 9 election. On sanctions, however, Poland is also of the opinion that they should only target Belarusian officials and not take the form of economic sanctions against Belarus.

Outside the EU, the United Kingdom has also refused to recognise the official result of the August 9 presidential election, and on August 17 Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab threatened sanctions too against those responsible for the electoral fraud and violence against peaceful protesters.

The protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics, it’s a national crisis”, Council President Charles Michel said after the summit. “Belarus is not Europe, it is on border of Europe, between Europe and Russia, and the situation is not comparable to Ukraine or Georgia”, EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton had even said earlier, adding that “Belarus is really strongly connected with Russia and the majority of the population is favourable to close links with Russia.” Just like the four presidents of the Visegrád Group hours before the August 19 meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted after the meeting that there should be no foreign interference in Belarus. The day before, Merkel had held phone talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as had France’s Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel. “The future of Belarus has to be decided by the people in Belarus – not in Brussels, not in Moscow”, Vladimir Putin seemed to agree after his talks with all three Western European leaders.

The countries of Western Europe are less inclined than those of the former Eastern Bloc to draw a parallel between the events of the Autumn of Nations of 1989 and the current wave of protests in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. They are also eager not to provoke Russian military intervention and a Ukrainian-style conflict by taking too strong a stance against Lukashenko, who has been looking for support in Moscow since the current crisis began. France and Germany in particular have carefully avoided any kind of confrontational attitude towards Russia on Belarus. After a meeting in France with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 20, President Macron of France offered mediation by the EU between the Belarusian leader and his political opposition, but insisted that Russia should be included in such a dialogue. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, the speaker of the German Bundestag Wolfgang Schäube called Lukashenko a dictator, but prudently stated thatpeople would be wrong to think that we want to change spheres of influence”, and that “If we stand up for human rights, non-violence and democracy, that is not directed against anyone, and certainly not against Russia.” Nonetheless, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas asked for new sanctions against Belarus as early as April 10, while on April 12 French President Emmanuel Macron only expressed his “deep preoccupation about the situation in Belarus and the violence used against citizens during those elections”, calling on the Belarusian authorities “to return to the path of dialogue” with the democratic opposition.

What about the United States?

Last but not least, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on a tour of Central Europe days after the Belarusian presidential election. The tour was initially intended, among other things, to warn the countries of that region against Russian and Chinese influence. Pompeo reacted to the events in Belarus by expressing the United States’ support for “Belarusian independence and sovereignty, as well as the aspirations of the Belarusian people for a democratic, prosperous future”. Much like the leaders of the V4 countries, and unlike the leaders of France and Germany, Pompeo drew a parallel between the Autumn of Nations in 1989 and the unrest in Belarus today: “We see that authoritarianism didn’t die in 1989 or in 1991. The storm was still there. It was simply over the horizon. While we wrote the epitaph on those types of regimes, we now know that it was premature”, Pompeo told the Czech Senate.

Thus, the United States is playing to the same tune as the Visegrád Four in the face of events in Belarus, and the latter have emerged as the driving force behind the EU’s response. However, although they have been listened to in Brussels – at least to some extent – it remains to be seen what the effect of the resulting European pressure will be on Belarusian President Lukashenko’s actions, and whether Russia will restrain itself from intervening, unlike in the case of Ukraine. Will the people of Belarus be allowed to decide freely about their own future, as were the peoples of the Baltic States and Central Europe in 1989?


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