An article on Belarus’ efforts to build bridges with the European Union
Times are tough in Belarus with the supplies of medicines available in pharmacies drying up. With the release of political prisoners by Lukashenko just before meetings with the EU, are times about to change in Belarus?
Belarus is a landlocked Eastern European country that has suffered negative public opinion with the ruling President Alexander Lukashenko who became president in 1994. A country which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it is now run by (in George W. Bush’s words) ‘Europe’s last dictator.’
It is surprising that a country which sits on Europe’s door step is a nation where abuses of human rights are rampant; from allowing the death penalty to the lack of freedom of opposition. In mid December 2010, Belarus’s leader, Lukashenko was re-elected into another term of Presidency with a staggering 79.65% of the votes. The OSCE (Organization for security and cooperation in Europe) denounced the election to have been ‘fundamentally flawed’. The same day of the vote, thousands of protesters demanded a resignation of the President which led to mass arrests of many of the opposition and journalists.
As a result of the arrests the EU and USA imposed heavy sanctions on Belarusian state owned companies and introduced travel restrictions. Subsequently, the relations between Belarus and the EU have become strained. As a gesture of appeasement, Lukashenko released four political prisoners immediately prior to an informal discussion on Belarus with 27 EU foreign ministers took place earlier this week. Lukashenko has also promised to release all the remaining political prisoners by mid October this year.
Most countries have felt the ripples from the economic tidal wave over the past few years, but Belarus has additional economic woes. She is experiencing a devaluing currency of 36%, the highest figure of devaluation in 2011 worldwide. In June 2011, she was forced to ask the IMF for a bailout of $8 billion. This is a country headed for economic disaster unless Lukashenko loosens his iron fist on manipulating currency exchange rates.
The devaluation of the Belarusian rouble has lead to many other trading countries to steer clear of this currency in their bank accounts, with fears of further devaluation in its worth. The country is therefore running out of medicine; with only a small quantity of basic medical supplies produced by the state, imports are heavily depended upon. Foreign currency is nearly impossible to buy legally in Belarus. What can this say about a country with a leader who declared ‘healthcare as a strategic priority’?
The informal EU meetings in Poland in respect to Belarus show the concern and priority the EU are placing on the dire economic and political situation in Belarus. These talks have lead to four political prisoners being released now with the promise of more on its way. With the EU foreign ministers refusing discussions, or to move in any way with Belarus before the prisoner’s release, Lukashenko is showing that he wants and needs relations with the EU to move in a positive direction. The question is whether in October it will be too little, too late for some civilians in Belarus with life threatening diseases and a dependence on medicines. Something needs to be done to put an end to the devaluation in the Belarusian currency so that imports of vital medicines can be delivered.