Norway’s dilemma over Belarus

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Norway has found itself in another awkward dilemma over what some Norwegian politicians and human rights activists call “the dictatorship at our doorstep,” Belarus. Two of them argued publicly on Thursday over how Norway can live up to its high-profile promotion of human rights, while also keeping another powerful neighbour, Russia, a happy trade partner.

Thorbjørn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister and foreign minister who now heads the Council of Europe, called for tougher and more unified measures against the dictatorship in Belarus. PHOTO: Views and News

More than a hundred human rights activists, foreign policy experts, diplomats from embassies in Oslo, journalists and politicians attended a conference Thursday calling for “Action on Belarus.” It was organized by Nowegian PEN, Human Rights House Foundation and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and participants seemed to agree on at least one thing: Belarus remains a dictatorship characterized by political repression, and the human rights situation has gone from bad to worse in recent years.

Keynote speaker Thorbjørn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who now heads the Council of Europe, noted that Belarus is the only country on the European continent that’s not a member of the council, because of its oppressive regime under the grip of Alexander Lukashenko. “We’re dealing with a classic dictatorship,” Jagland said. Lukashenko’s biggest goal, Jagland claimed, “is to survive every day. We will never get Lukashenko to reform himself and give up power.”

That implied that only regime change will bring real change and usher in human rights and democracy. The main goals of the conference were to draw attention to Belarus, and to come up with ideas or strategy to bring the change that “can allow the people of Belarus to live normal lives.”

Ending Lukashenko’s ‘game’
Jagland candidly admitted that “engagement policies haven’t worked” and what’s needed now is a “strong, much more rational, unified international strategy” that can offset Lukashenko’s “game” of playing Russia and Europe against each other. According to Jagland, that will require better cooperation between Russia and Europe (including Norway), intensified contact with the civilian population in Belarus, working closely with Belarus’ neighbouring countries who are most familiar with Belarus, and working with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has influence both in Russia and Belarus. Jagland believes the church can play a critical role as an agent of change.

There are diagreements, however, over whether economic sanctions are effective or whether they’ll only hurt the civilian population. “Lukashenko is a businessman, hit him in the wallet,” urged Natallia Radzina, a journalist who’s been arrested and interrogated many times by Lukashenko’s regime and who recently felt forced to seek asylum in Lithuania. Yury Zisser, who owns a website in Belarus, doesn’t believe sanctions will help, arguing there’s “no proof” business supports the regime. “Putin (the Russian president) supports the regime,” he claimed.

Peter Gitmark (left) of the Conservative Party and Torgeir Larsen of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry argued over how to deal with what Gitmark called "the dictatorship at our doorstep." PHOTO: Views and News

The Norwegian dilemma
In Norway, there’s the major dilemma over ongoing negotiations for what was supposed to be a free trade agreement between the countries in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which include Norway, and Russia, until Russia entered a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus and then insisted that both be included in the talks. Norway went along, but now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of decrying Belarus’ dictatorship and lack of human rights while also negotiating a trade pact with Lukashenko’s regime.

Torgeir Larsen, state secretary in Norway’s foreign ministry, didn’t mention either the trade talks or Russia in his initial address at the conference, in which he said “we really want to have a relationship with a country that’s so close” but “there’s no relation now” because of the  regime’s “unacceptable” practices and “we lack the tools to engage in a way to move ahead.” He said Norway had boosted its financial support of activities aimed at promoting human rights and democracy in Belarus, to NOK 18 million, but added “what else can we do? I must admit we need creative ideas.”

Peter Gitmark of the goverment’s opposition in Parliament had a few to offer when he quickly brought up the awkward trade talks that Larsen hadn’t mentioned, and then the two ended up in an argument over Belarus. Gitmark, a member of the Conservative Party who sits on the parliament’s foreign relations committee, called for the insertion of prerequisites into an eventual trade pact that would make it valid only for members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), effectively leaving Belarus out. Without any prerequisites, or insistence on human rights improvements, “we stand to recognize and even condone what’s going on in Minsk,” Gitmark said. “That politically wrong, and morally wrong.”

Gitmark also called for a “much clearer Norwegian voice” in dealing with Belarus. “I see Norway wobbling when it comes to human rights,” he said, suggesting that the entire trade pact with Russia should be scrapped if it threatens to undermine efforts the EU is making through a series of planned sanctions to push for change in Belarus.

Larsen admitted that there’s been no mention of human rights in the trade negotiations yet, but claimed “the process is far from being concluded” and that “we have no wish to increase economic activity with Belarus.” Economic activity with Russia, though, is very important, and “we have to maneuver” in that situation.

Morten Høglund, a member of the Norwegian Parliament for the Progress Party and a delegate to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), had an idea as well. The OSCE is one of the few organizations where Belarus is a member, but Høglund said he and his colleagues have been disappointed and frustrated by Belarus’ lack of cooperation.

“In 2014, the world championships in ice hockey are going to be held in Belarus,” Høglund said. “I’m not advocating a boycott, but we could use it to draw attention to the situation.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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