Hope for Religious Freedom in Belarus

By: Fernando Perez

Many lost hope after a recent crackdown by the authoritarian regime on those protesting the fraudulent election. On December 19, thousands of people flooded the streets of the national capital to register their protests against the election that gave a landslide victory to Lukashenko. Many were arrested and beaten, including young women and most of the nine opposition presidential candidates.

Hope for Religious Freedom in Belarus
 
The former Soviet state of Belarus in Eastern Europe is one of the worst violators of religious and other freedoms. The country’s strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in office since 1994 by virtually wiping out opposition and rigging elections. He secured a fourth term in office by an allegedly fraudulent election last month (December 2010), and the nest vote is five years away. So is there hope for change?
 
Many lost hope after a recent crackdown by the authoritarian regime on those protesting the fraudulent election. On December 19, thousands of people flooded the streets of the national capital, Minsk, to register their protests against the election that gave a landslide victory to Lukashenko. Many were arrested and beaten, including young women and most of the nine opposition presidential candidates.
 
The severe international condemnation that followed had little effect on the President. A day later, he shut down the office of the human rights watchdog, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in operation since 2003, as its monitors had reported flaws in the election.
 
Then, he sent a feel-good Christmas message to the Christian-majority population. “I wholeheartedly congratulate you on Christmas. For all Christians, Christmas is a source of faith, purity and sincerity. It teaches us compassion and humanity, and therefore helps us become better, more humane, and more honest... On these days we very clearly understand that peace on our land depends on us. Only together, by joining efforts, we can maintain peace in our common Belarusian home and make it even richer and more beautiful,” read the message.
 
Lukashenko is an “Orthodox atheist,” as he describes himself. But a majority of the 10 million Belarusians are not. Around 60 percent of the people consider themselves religious, according to data from the Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs. Over 82 percent belong to the Belarusian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which enjoys a special status with the government, though only on paper. Roughly 12 percent are Roman Catholic, four percent Muslim, Hare Krishna devotees and Baha’is. Protestant groups account for just two percent of the population.
 
The regime led by “Europe’s Mugabe” – Lukashenko is often called – heavily regulates religious groups. The constitution promises legal equality and freedom for all religious communities, but it also provides for government regulation pertaining to “their influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.”
 
A 2002 religion law recognises traditional faiths, especially the Orthodox Church, and also Catholicism and Evangelical Lutheranism as well as Islam and Judaism. However, it excludes newer groups as well as some denominations dating back to the 17th century such as the Priestless Old Believers and Calvinist Churches.
 
The 2002 law provides for strict government control over the functioning of churches and other religious institutions. It requires registration of all groups, and the formalities are so complex that authorities can deny registration to any or all groups on technical grounds. Unregistered groups are not allowed to function. And any activity by an unregistered group is punishable by heavy fines and/or three-year imprisonment. Religious communities are allowed to work only in areas where they are registered. Moreover, religious groups are required to receive prior government approval to import or distribute literature.
 
The ideology of the Belarusian regime is post-Soviet left-wing conservatism and therefore it cares little about democracy or religious freedom and other civil rights. However, the repression is apparently rooted in Lukashenko’s lust for power more than anything else.
 
Lukashenko became more autocratic after a wave of revolution began to sweep across the region, including in former Soviet states. Dictatorial Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic had to resign in 2000 amid widespread demonstrations against the disputed election that year. The “Rose Revolution” in Georgia – marked by massive protests over the fraudulent elections – forced President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign in 2003. A year later, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, involving protests over the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, led to the collapse of the government. In 2005, the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan following the parliamentary election in 2005 also saw a change of power.
 
To pre-empt any such attempts by progressive sections of the people and the opposition in Belarus, Lukashenko further tightened control over economic activities, the parliament, the courts and the media, and began to eliminate civil society. Over the years, the Lukashenko regime succeeded in consolidating its control over the country, socially, culturally and politically.
 
The Belarusian government owns around 80 percent of all industry and is the main employer. And the government employs workers on short-term contracts to be able to punish disloyalty of any sort with the refusal to renew contracts.
 
Lukashenko’s problem with religion should be seen against the same backdrop. Religion has a potential to mobilise people around a cause of justice, especially in a country where the rights of religious groups are restricted. And some churches have sought change openly. For example, the New Life Church organised a hunger strike and sought participation of other churches in 2006 to seek amendment to the 2002 religion law – though the movement did not result in the repeal of restrictive clauses in the law. In addition, many opposition leaders are known to be committed Christians.
 
The European Union and the United States have made efforts to encourage reforms in Belarus but with little success. Lukashenko has shown his diplomatic skills by taking advantage of Belarus’ strategic location between Russia and Europe.
 
With the promise of integration with Russia, Lukashenko has exploited Moscow, which gives highly subsidised oil to Belarus thereby helping it to survive, and even prosper to some extent. While Russia knows that Lukashenko has done little towards the creation of the Union State and its relations with Belarus fluctuate at times, Moscow doesn’t want to lose Belarus to the EU entirely.
 
Initially, the EU sought to bring about change in Belarus by the “stick” – banning the President and high officials from travelling to Europe, for example. But isolation of Belarus achieved little. In 2008, the European block lifted the ban and promised aid hoping “carrots” will do what the “stick” could not, but that too failed the block. Partly, the change in EU’s policy came to deal with the consequences of the Russia-Georgia war – Russia was expected to offer sops to Belarus to seek its support.
 
Coercive diplomacy has little scope in Belarus also because it has few links to European institutions. Belarus is member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is dominated by Russia. Also, Lukashenko seems to be avoiding both, membership of the EU and any substantial integration with Russia.
 
With Russia having understood that a real integration of Russia and Belarus is nowhere in sight, it may not provide oil with high subsidies for very long – putting the regime in trouble given that the people have got used to a fairly high standard of life. And that may force Lukashenko to liberalise its economy and thereby pave the way for political change – unless Belarus chooses to woo investments from Venezuela, China and Iran as an alternative.
 
However difficult, the change in Belarus is not impossible.
 
As an alternative to – or to supplement – the-carrot-and-stick approach, the EU could seek to establish a closer link with the Belarusian society in general and civil society actors in particular. Many non-governmental organisations exist in Belarus – though they do not openly participate in political activities – and if strengthened and supported, they will be capable of leading change.
 
Building public opinion for religious and other freedoms is equally imperative. Blocks and rights groups could support independent media, give grants and fellowships to Belarusian students and scholars, and promote any other activities to inform and educate the people of Belarus.
 
The Belarusian Orthodox Church in particular should be lobbied for affecting public opinion. Although there is separation of church and state in the country – and the support of the latter to the Orthodox Church is insignificant – being a large organisation, some of its leaders can help shape people’s opinion in a strategic and sensitive way.
 
Meanwhile, Lukashenko's support base, comprising mainly the older generation and rural population who still take pride in the nation’s Soviet past, is evidently fading out. On the other hand, the people are increasingly plucking up the courage to unite and speak against the government’s unjustifiable practises – as was evident on December 19 when hundreds of thousands of them protested against the election result. And that's the hope.