Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

Mikalai Statkevich: Hero, Politician, Person - Opinion by the EaP CSF Co-Chair

by Andrei Yahorau, Co-chair of the EaP CSF Steering Committee

The release of political prisoners will result in the improvement of Belarus’ relations with the European Union and the United States, but not in the recognition of the presidential election and its winner. Today, Statkevich’s authority is sufficient for the launch of a real protest movement, but for this to happen he has to act contrary to the plans of the Belarusian authorities, as well as contrary to the opposition leaders’ habitual petty intrigues.

The release of the six political prisoners, among whom Mikalai Statkevich is the most prominent, has already generated a wave of various interpretations concerning the political significance and implications of this event. Let us try to put aside our emotions and joy for the fact that the wrongfully condemned people are free now and try to ignore the speculative discussion on the reasoning of Belarusian authorities in this situation. In this way we will be able to see the essence. 

The Essence

1. The release of the six political prisoners formally makes it possible to freeze the European Union’s restrictive measures against Belarus. In the nearest future, if there are no new circumstances (e.g. the condemnation of the arrested graffiti artists or mass repressions during the election), the European sanctions will be suspended.

2. The release of the political prisoners does not influence the course of the 2015 political campaign in any way. It does not make anybody’s participation in it more politically meaningful, does not imply any democratisation of the regime, and does not bring this election closer to democratic standards, freedom and legitimacy. The genuine political situation can manifest itself only after this election, but not during the senseless election campaign.

3. Mikalai Statkevich is the last of the repressed presidential candidates of the 2010 election to be freed. The story of the politically inept and absurd 2010 election campaign is over. His release also eliminates all moral restrictions for its main actors - now they can reveal the circumstances that led to what happened on 19 December 2010, which still have not been disclosed to the public.

4. During the years of his imprisonment, Statkevich has earned sympathy of many (if not the majority of) political opponents of the current regime thanks to his courageous behaviour and endurance. Statkevich was not broken, he did not write Lukashenko a petition for clemency, and this has become his absolute moral victory. Statkevich left the prison as a hero and a symbol of resistance.

5. Statkevich enters an almost empty political field unoccupied by other actors. None of today’s presidential candidates can be considered seriously, including the most popular (according to the polls) Uladzimir Niaklajeu after he left the politics and then returned. Those who see no prospects in this political campaign will now turn their attention to Statkevich and expect from him answers on the plan and strategy for the opposition’s future actions.

As a result, this event entails important consequences for the foreign policy situation, but it affects practically nothing in the internal situation in the country. Possible consequences for domestic politics will depend on the future actions or inaction of Mikalai Statkevich.

The External Dimension

The Belarusian authorities and their henchmen, despite all their statements and actions, failed to do anything for the lifting of sanctions and renewal of the real cooperation with the EU without the release of political prisoners. Nothing helped: lobbying on sanctions removal by some EU countries, similar attempts by a number of public structures in Belarus, changes in the geopolitical situation due to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, meeting of the Normandy format heads of states in Minsk, Minsk agreements and other foreign policy "breakthroughs".

Everything that happened in relations between Belarus and the European Union since November 2013 can be described as diplomatic dialogue, coordination of positions, and development of future cooperation plans, but not as real actions. The EU has never gave up the release of political prisoners as the precondition; thus, it is only now, when they are released, there are prospects for real projects and cooperation programs with the EU.

The release of the political prisoners does not provide any grounds to consider the Belarusian political regime legitimate. Besides, in the nearest future there can be new political prisoners - human rights defenders already recognize the status of the arrested graffiti artists as such.

This release does not mean either that the international community will consider the upcoming election free and democratic. For this the election should be conducted in compliance with international standards, which will not happen due to the logic of the authoritarian regime’s functioning.

However, the very situation of the absence of political prisoners creates a more positive election context. Along with the unrestricted collection of signatures, more freedom during the election campaign, etc. it will be recognized by OSCE observers as "improvement in the election process".

If there is nothing similar to what happened on 19 December 2010, then in the final evaluations we will see the non-recognition of the election and its winner, however there will be a statement on "essential progress" or, at least, "progress", which will be enough for the normalization of Belarus’ relations with the European Union and the US.

The Hero and the Square (Ploshcha)

Statkevich left the jail as a hero and a symbol. In this capacity, he attracts hopes and expectations of a considerable number of people who are ready to respond to his appeal. Potentially, it creates a possibility to gather if not a massive Square (Ploshcha; in Belarusian the word “Ploshcha” means “square” and is similar in this context to the Ukrainian word “Maidan”*), then at least quite a large number of people who will protest on the election day. In his recent interviews, Statkevich himself underlines the right of citizens to peaceful protest and “does not understand the fear of the Square (Ploshcha)”. The hero will be on the Square, but it is not going to make this protest more manageable and organized, which creates a potentially dangerous situation.

Everything will be in the hands of Belarusian authorities, including in the hands of the forces that provoked the crackdown in December 2010. It means there may be provocations, mass arrests, and new political prisoners again. They will be enough to exclude any possibility for normalization of relations with the EU and the US.

The Politician and Environment

A politician as a TV screen image and a symbolic character is created not only by the behaviour of a real person, but also by efforts of a team surrounding him. Right now, the way Mikalai Statkevich is going to act depends not only on his own vision, but also on what image of the situation and what pattern of conduct will be offered to him by his environment.

This environment will most likely impose upon him standard templates and behavioural clichés of established opposition. In a year – maximum one and a half years - if he repeats the actions and statements typical for the old Statkevich-politician, the image of the new Statkevich-hero will disappear into thin air. And other opposition politicians will help him in this with pleasure.

The Strategies and Actions

In order to make use of the existing symbolic political capital, Statkevich has to act contrary to the Belarusian authorities’ plans and contrary to the opposition leaders’ habitual petty intrigues. Statkevich’s authority is sufficient for the launch of a real protest movement, and it can find its roots in moral and symbolic opposition to Belarusian dictatorship. However, it is impossible without any theoretical work and serious analysis of the situation.

Mikalai Statkevich and the team of his former comrades-in-arms do not have relevant resources in their possession at the moment. Will they be looking for them?

The original text was published in Russian by Belarusian Journal

* EaP CSF comment

Project funded by the European UnionEU