Do not let the hard line against Belarus be linked to occasional, extraordinary events

Regardless of which party runs Sweden, its policy towards Belarus must be clear, write Gulnara Akhundova, Head of the Global Response department at IMS, and Ognjen Radonjic, Head of Eastern Europe at Forum CIV.

This op-ed originally appeared in Sydsvenskan.

In May, Belarus’ dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko ordered the hijacking of a civilian aircraft en route from Greece to Lithuania. Why? To arrest journalist and activist Roman Protasevich. The next day, Europe’s toughest media legislation came into force in Belarus.

In addition to far-reaching restrictions on the ability of independent media to operate, the new laws severely restrict the right to demonstrate and disseminate information. Organising or participating in demonstrations can result in three to five years in prison.

Sweden now needs to provide long-term support for independent media in Belarus and follow through on the hard line towards Belarus that the government has adopted.

Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years and does not seem to have any plans to resign.

More than 2,000 criminal cases have been brought against political opponents, journalists and protesters since the widely-disputed election in August last year.

Today, some 30 journalists are imprisoned along with more than 500 people who are considered political prisoners.

UN human rights investigators have received reports of hundreds of cases of torture and several hundred websites have been shut down.

The Belarusian regime is in the process of dismantling freedoms of the press and expression and thus suppressing all opposition.

By intimidating journalists and activists into silence, the regime aims to pull the rug out from under new protests. There is an imminent risk that the reports of abuse will cease, that there will be silence around what is happening in Belarus. That is exactly what Lukashenko wants: for the country to return to how the situation was before the wave of protests that started in August last year.

As information from within Belarus becomes increasingly limited, the outside world’s interest in the country will diminish.

If Lukashenko succeeds in avoiding widespread protests and halting independent reporting from the country, there is a risk that sanctions will be lifted and that politicians will make decisions based on insufficient evidence.

Those in power around the world have long closed their eyes to the situation in the country. The hard line from Sweden and the outside world that is being taken right now right now is strongly linked to occasional, extraordinary events such as the hijacking.

It is also paradoxical that the Swedish government condemned Belarus’ actions at the same time as it offered the country loan guarantees and export credits. That the guarantees now have been withdrawn is good, but not enough.

Regardless of which party runs Sweden, its policy towards Belarus must be clear:

  • Sweden needs to provide long-term support to independent media and journalists in exile. As foreign financing is banned in Belarus, flexible solutions are required.
  • Sweden needs to push for countries close to Belarus to offer asylum to journalists, media workers and opposition figures so that they can continue their work.
  • Sweden needs to use its chairmanship of the OSCE to highlight Belarus. So far, Sweden has been remarkably quiet about the situation in Belarus.

There is a risk that the new media legislation will have devastating consequences for the country’s opportunities for democratic development. If Sweden and other countries do not continue to put pressure on the regime in Belarus and provide support to independent media, there is a great risk that the coming years will be marked by the continued abuse of the population.