Protests in Belarus and Russia – new hope for the region and EU values?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People take part in an unauthorized protest in support of Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia, 23 January 2021. [Maxim Shipenkov/EPA/EFE]

Authoritarian regimes support one another and learn each other’s “tips and tricks”, but so do the protesters who aim to topple them. The time is ripe for a change, and the EU should uphold the values they are defending, writes Darya Mustafayeva.

Darya Mustafayeva is an independent analyst, strategic communications expert and contributor with a background in international law, EU Neighbourhood Policy and civil society empowerment.

Last Saturday saw protests in the major Russian cities and the capital of Belarus. These popular movements could affect each other’s development and results.

Leaders

The protest in Russia was fuelled by the arrest of Alexei Navalny who despite the threat to his safety and freedom arrived in Moscow after being treated from Novichok poisoning.

He has been a vocal critic of Putin for many years focusing on corruption and fraud by the commander-in-chief and his close circle. Navalny has serious presidential ambitions different from those of Mrs Tsikhanouskaya at the moment.

She grew into the opposition leader role during the 2020 campaign and six months of the pro-democracy demonstrations. Tsikhanouskaya sees herself as a national leader while the country is in transition and has been advocating for the new free and fair elections to be organised as soon as possible.

Since the regime threatened to prosecute her, Tsikhanouskaya has recently confirmed that her return is possible upon guarantees of her safety.

Underlying reasons

Navalny has played his cards right, timing with his return the publication of a new sensational documentary unveiling the financial schemes behind the Putin’s extravagant Black Sea palace. Coupled with Navalny’s arrest, this film brought the protesters to call Putin a thief during the demonstrations.

Even though Lukashenka is known to have multiple residencies and exercise nepotism, the Belarusian protests do not focus on his financial dealings. The historic protest in Belarus that soon enters its seventh month was sparked by the indignation over another rigged election and unprecedentedly grave human rights violations.

‘Best practices’ exchange

Lukashenka presents the protests in Belarus as the first stage of a foreign conspiracy that ultimately aims to undermine Putin.

This month, a leaked audio recording emerged suggesting that Belarusian special forces received police ammunition from Russia. In the recording, a person who sounds like the Deputy Interior Minister confirms that this ammunition was used during the protests and caused the death of at least one protester – Aliaksandr Taraikousky who became the first fatality as a result of police violence last August.

In the meantime, Belarus also received a $1 billion loan from Russia.

Russia’s support became evident when its state propaganda experts were deployed to work for Belarusian state channels. This month, a flattering ‘tell-all’ interview with Lukashenka appeared on Russian TV.

In 2019, Navalny made an investigative documentary about the journalist behind the programme being the beneficiary of major fraud schemes through her connections to oligarchs.

Learning from Minsk, the Russian authorities blocked internet during the protests detaining over 3000 protesters last Saturday. The disregard for human rights during these political detentions also mirrors the Belarusian approach.

People and values

Both Russian and Belarusian protesters use slogans centred around the main values they are trying to defend – freedom and justice. They are calling in unison for release of political prisoners. While the population of Belarus is twice as small as that of the Moscow metropolitan area, there are over 350 political and religious prisoners in Russia and the number in Belarus is approaching 200.

Russian opposition has been inspired by the perseverance and courage of the Belarusian protest. During the demonstrations in Russia, one could hear “Long live Belarus!”, and the protests in Belarus include “Free Navalny!” slogan. While around 40 thousand Muscovites took to streets on the weekend, at its peak the Minsk protest gathered up to 200 thousand people.

This could be the future of the Russian protests set to continue on 31 January. Will Mr Putin then have less time and fewer resources for his neighbour? How long will state propaganda and violence help these rulers stay in power? Will the fall of one cause the domino effect for the other?

EU response

It is expected that the EU will discuss the fourth Belarus sanctions package in the coming weeks. Currently, there are 88 individuals and 7 companies included making it considerably shorter than that compiled following the 2010 election crackdown – 243 people and 36 legal entities.

As for Russia, Navalny’s poisoning prompted the EU to add 6 people to the list of Russian nationals against whom restrictive measures are applied.

Human rights violations in 2020 clearly gave the EU leaders some food for thought since ahead of the Human Rights Day they also adopted a new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

It had been advocated for several years by human rights defenders in the same vein as Magnitsky Act named after a Russian whistleblower who died in prison in 2009 after uncovering a major tax fraud. Will the EU Magnitsky Act be used for the first time in relation to Navalny’s case?

His case was discussed at the first Foreign Affairs Council meeting of this year. High Representative Borrell announced that he will visit Moscow and meet Foreign Minister Lavrov at the beginning of February.

He vowed to pass a clear message on human rights and have a strategic discussion on the EU-Russia relationship, announcing that in March the relationship will be discussed by the EU leaders.

The MEPs and some ministers raised the introduction of sanctions as a relevant response. It is an important tool in the EU’s toolbox that sends a clear message on the red lines that cannot be crossed. However, the EU should not stop there. Teaming up with the Biden administration would bring a meaningful dimension to the measure.

Looking at the protesters challenging autocracies in Belarus and Russia it becomes clearer than ever that a value-based policy should be at the forefront of the EU approach. Will the EU be able to show a well-weighed strategy and values-driven vision in relations with Belarus and Russia? We are yet to see.

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