The release of Andrei Sannikov and his campaign manager Dmitri Bondarenko will come as great relief to those concerned at Belarus’ plight. The leading opposition challenger to Alexander Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential elections, Sannikov was sentenced in May 2011 to five years in a penal colony on the fantastical charge of organising “mass riots” in the centre of Minsk following the results’ announcement. Over the next year and a half, he was subjected to unspeakable counts of torture, threatened on numerous occasions with the lives of his wife and child, on the verge of losing all custody of his three-year old Daniel upon the incarceration of the former, for months on end barred all contact with his family and lawyer, extensively condemned to solitary confinement and transferred on seven occasions from one colony to the next. As chronicled by his courageous wife and the Novaya Gazeta journalist Irina Khalip, her despairing pre-Christmas entry, after months of uncertainty surrounding her husband’s whereabouts, flooring me in the lounge of a Munich hotel. Upon release, he was virtually unrecognisable bereft of his signature beard and his facial features markedly hollowed, not far off the description Khalip gave at apress conference in January, having seen him for the first time in months, of a man “looking as if these last three months he had spent ten years in Stalin’s camps.” His freedom was also conditional upon his signing of a clemency plea issued by Lukashenko; nothing like amounting to full political rehabilitation.
The motives of the Belarusian authorities are inevitably the source of much speculation. Charter 97, the human rights group and news website which Sannikov co-founded, suggested the decision was linked to the European Council’s planned revision at the end of April of its sanctions for Lukashenko and hundreds of other high-ranking officials and their relatives, responsible for electoral fraud and human rights abuses, in the least encouraging of diplomatic contexts following the withdrawal of all 27 of its ambassadors to Minsk. European isolation, especially at a time when Belarus is in the throes of a financial crisis, has left Minsk dangerously vulnerable to Russia, cherry-picking at the best bits of the economy, and Lukashenko may well be reverting to his age-old trick of bargaining political prisoners. Whatever they may be, it is necessary to press for those ten remaining to be immediately released, and fully rehabilitated. The pleas which Sannikov and Bondarenko are said to have agreed to may have also been offered to the other prisoners, and the refusal to sign them, as is reportedly the case of fellow presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich, may condition release, does not effectively clear their names and hinders their eventual re-immersion in society and respective professional fields, justice remaining just as unfulfilled as before.
While recently undertaking an internship in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I was commissioned to write a report assessing the history of the international community’s recent relations with Belarus and surveying the level of convergence of its key players’ policies since 1996, the year a referendum to approve of sweeping powers for the presidency was held in dubious circumstances and widely seen as a crucial moment in the country’s slide towards authoritarianism. Throughout my research, I was able to meticulously discern the international community’s patterns of interaction with Belarus and the very factors, inter-dependent or not, upon which they hinged. The immediate parallel with these releases are the years 2007 and 2008, when Lukashenko freed the political prisoners held after the 2006 presidential elections. In the wake of those polls, the results of which were not recognised by the international community, and the incarceration of numerous members of the opposition, restrictive measures against Belarus were significantly bolstered, the United States and the European Union jointly slapping financial and travel sanctions on high-ranking officials and several state-owned companies. But the following year, a thaw was anew as Belarus made tentative political reforms, beginning to release its political prisoners and slightly liberalising the media landscape. It re-engaged the Council of Europe and OSCE, discussions even held in the former’s Parliamentary Assembly to reinstate the Belarusian Parliament’s guest status and the latter allowed to increase its democratisation initiatives in the country. The European Union suspended sanctions, boosted its financial and technical aid for Belarus and invited the country to adhere to several of its partnerships, while the United States minimally relaxed its restrictive measures and partially restored high-level contacts. As the Belarusian authorities’ enthusiasm for reform stalled, the international community’s patience wore, but its key players remained hopeful of further progress. The farcical conduct of the December 2010 elections, and brutal crackdown which followed, all but ruined those small advances and enabled the freeze in relations which persists to this day.
The international community cannot afford to let go of those lessons. Simply tying improved diplomatic and economic ties to the release of political prisoners, having previously and consistently punished and condemned electoral fraud, disappearances of opposition politicians and use of the death penalty, was not only an unprincipled stance but a disservice to Belarus. It only enabled Lukashenko to mess around European politicians, who a little cynically were perhaps too eager to sign up gas deals, and buy time, only for him to fall back in his dictatorial ways. It is encouraging to see senior European politicians cautiously welcoming Sannikov and Bondarenko’s release, hopefully mindful of past failures. But the success of the sanctions programmes cannot cloud the realisation that reform in Belarus must be all-encompassing and deeply-rooted, prioritising the stake of the country’s democratic forces and civil society. Political prisoners are merely one symptom of a rotten system bearing no resemblance of an independent judiciary, political competition nor transparency or respect for fundamental civic liberties, inviting to few both within and abroad. A dictator in Lukashenko has betrayed the hopes of his people and the international community far too many times to be reliably trusted to oversee those required reforms, these very releases are in all probability a sign of his desperation and cynicism. The isolation of him and his surrounding circle cannot be let up, the international community needing to again insist upon the due investigation of the egregious failings of his administration over the last fifteen years, underscored at one time or another but dropped on more convenient occasions. Only then may one hope the likes of Sannikov and Bondarenko are free to live in a Belarus more worthy of their immeasurable dignity and courage.