New Zealand has role to play in resolving crisis on ‘geopolitical fault line’, Helen Clark says

New Zealand has role to play in resolving crisis on ‘geopolitical fault line’, Helen Clark says

By Geoffrey Miller

New Zealand should continue to champion human rights in Belarus amidst an ongoing crackdown on protests by the country’s regime, former Prime Minister Helen Clark says.

Protests in Belarus often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ erupted after the country’s disputed presidential elections on August 9 and are now entering their seventh week. The regime, headed by President Alexander Lukashenko, has responded to opposition protests with a brutal crackdown. Thousands of demonstrators have been beaten or arrested since last month’s vote. Numerous accounts of torture inside Belarusian prisons have also emerged.

Helen Clark told the Democracy Project that she met the now disputed Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko twice during her time as head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a position she held from 2009 to 2017.

Helen Clark meets Alexander Lukashenko in 2016 (Source: Belarusian Presidency)

Clark says she also knows another key figure in the crisis – Russian President Vladimir Putin – from the pair’s joint attendance at many annual APEC summits during Clark’s three terms as New Zealand Prime Minister from 1999 to 2008.

Addressing the complexity of the Eastern European region’s geopolitics, Helen Clark told the Democracy Project that Belarusians “may well be wary of becoming part of a tug of war” between Putin’s Russia and the West.

“My observation would be that to date those calling for a process of change in Belarus have not been voicing anti-Russian sentiment, but that that could change if repression of the opposition were to be openly backed by Russia. Belarus sits on the geopolitical fault line which still runs through Europe and the Caucasus,” Clark says.

More diplomatic efforts needed, Clark urges

Helen Clark told the Democracy Project that she would “like to see more active attempts to support dialogue from the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe [OSCE]”.

Clark notes that Belarus was one of the UN’s 51 initial founding members in 1945, a status that it shares with New Zealand. According to her, both the UN and the OSCE – an intergovernmental organisation formed in 1975 and of which Belarus is also a member – have the credibility inside Belarus to lead talks to resolve the crisis.

The OSCE announced on Thursday that it would investigate human rights abuses in the election’s aftermath.

Helen Clark has been vocal in calling for greater diplomatic efforts against the crackdown in Belarus – often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ – since the crisis began. After the most recent weekly mass protests were held, she tweeted: “Sobering to watch videos of large peaceful crowds coming out to protest in Belarus with hooded & helmeted riot police attacking & detaining both women & men. Takes incredible courage for 100,000+ people to turn out in #Minsk each Sunday in such circumstances.”

The former Prime Minister told the Democracy Project that New Zealand also has a role to play in resolving the crisis.

“New Zealand has long advocated for human rights and should continue to do so in the current Belarus context,” Helen Clark says.

Noting New Zealand’s diplomatic efforts to date, Clark points to a July 2020 resolution on Belarus that was co-sponsored by New Zealand and a number of other countries at the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution – which pre-dates the election itself but which was passed during a time of growing tensions in Belarus during the election campaign – expressed concern at the state of human rights in the country, including arbitrary detention and torture. The resolution also called for a “free, fair and transparent presidential election on 9 August.”

That plea that clearly fell on deaf ears in Minsk, with the official election result giving 80% of the vote to Alexander Lukashenko – a result widely seen as fraudulent. Photos of polling station reports reportedly showed as many as five times the number of votes were cast for the main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

New Zealand response

New Zealand’s sole official statement on the post-election crackdown on Belarus appears to remain a tweet by foreign minister Winston Peters on August 17:

An e-mail sent from Winston Peters’ office at the end of August and seen by the Democracy Project refers to this tweet as New Zealand’s “public statement”. The e-mail states that “New Zealand has joined the international community in condemning the events occurring in Belarus”.

The e-mail, sent to Belarusians enquiring about New Zealand’s diplomatic response, concludes with this sentence: “As a Member State of the UN, New Zealand implements sanctions when they are mandated by the UN Security Council.”

However, any resolution by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions in relation to Belarus would almost certainly be vetoed by Russia, which is one of the Security Council’s five permanent members.

The New Zealand National Party criticised Winston Peters and the government in 2018 over perceived reluctance to take diplomatic action against Russia after the so-called Salisbury poisonings in the United Kingdom of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

In 2014, New Zealand imposed what then foreign minister Murray McCully called “modest and careful” sanctions against Russia after its invasion of the Crimea. Until the Russian invasion, the Crimea was part of Ukraine, which borders both Russia and Belarus. The sanctions imposed at the time by New Zealand involved travel bans against Russian officials and were seen as largely symbolic. Most countries, including New Zealand, still do not recognise the Crimean Peninsula as belonging to Russia.

It was reported in 2014 that New Zealand had come close to signing a lucrative free-trade agreement with the country, which has a customs union with Belarus, before talks ended over the Crimea invasion. Russia was New Zealand’s 27th biggest export market in 2019.

Helen Clark told the Democracy Project that New Zealand will have “a further opportunity to voice concerns” over Belarus during the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in November. The UPR process examines each UN member state’s human rights record at five-yearly intervals. New Zealand’s own last Universal Periodic Review was held in January 2019.

New Zealand comparisons

Vadim Chausov, a Belarusian IT specialist now living in Auckland, told the Democracy Project that comparisons between the current New Zealand election campaign and the recent Belarus vote could not be starker.

“No one [in New Zealand] is going to question the goodwill of the Electoral Commission or that it will count all the votes accurately. The government does not arrest opposition leaders or refuse to add someone to the ballot.

“In Belarus, sadly, the only possible agenda is the demand for free elections, respect for human rights, and freedom for political prisoners.”

Chausov said that he was disappointed by the lack of speed by the European Union in imposing sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.

The EU agreed in principle to sanctions – including asset freezes and travel bans for key Belarusian officials – in the immediate aftermath of the rigged Belarus election result and President Lukashenko’s crackdown. But the sanctions are yet to be formally implemented, after Cyprus reportedly vetoed their imposition until unrelated sanctions are imposed on Turkey over a separate dispute.

Chausov says economic sanctions play a crucial role in maintaining pressure against Belarus’s regime. The EU maintains external borders with Belarus – managed by Lithuania and Poland – and is a major trading partner. Belarus refines much of Russia’s oil, in turn exporting it into the EU.

“If the Netherlands and Germany stop buying petrol from Belarus, its economy will collapse. Lukashenko will have to leave,” Chausov believes.

Sochi deal

Around 100,000 people are continuing to take to the streets in mass protests each Sunday in the capital Minsk. However, Belarusian security forces have appeared to regain some control of the streets they seeemed to be losing in the immediate aftermath of the disputed election – possibly as a result of Russian support.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Alexander Lukashenko this week in the Russian resort city of Sochi, with the Russian leader pledging financial and military support for the regime:

“We are in favour of the Belarusians sorting out the situation themselves, without any external help.

“Russia remains committed to all agreements within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Union State, we will fulfil all of our obligations. We will give Belarus a $1.5 billion loan and continue our cooperation in the defence sphere.”

However, Putin also noted “that starting work on changing the Belarusian constitution is timely and appropriate” – likely a signal that he also is looking for change from the Belarusian regime. Moreover, Putin’s body language towards Lukashenko – largely expressing disinterest – was visibly at odds with the verbal commitment of support.

Imprisonment or exile

The Belarusian regime has also imprisoned or forced into exile leading opposition figures. Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the opposition Coordination Council, was arrested and imprisoned in early September after she refused to leave for Ukraine, destroying her passport at the border. Another member of the Coordination Council, Olga Kovalkova, left for exile in Poland in September, after serving a ten-day prison sentence.

The main opposition candidate and founder of the Coordination Council, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, remains in exile in neighbouring Lithuania.

IT industry under threat

Aleksandra Dikan
Aleksandra Dikan

Meanwhile, Aleksandra Dikan – a human rights activist who the Democracy Project podcast interviewed in August – has been forced to flee fled Belarus after her husband, Victor Kuvshinov, was arrested. Kuvshinov is a senior executive at business software company PandaDoc. The company’s US-based Belarusian founder, Mikita Mikado, had pledged to financially support Belarusian police officers who defected from the Lukashenko regime. A total of four PandaDoc staff are now being held on charges of tax evasion.

Tatsiana Chypsavana, a New Zealand-based Belarusian whose brother works for an IT company in Belarus, says that she knows of at least 12 companies in Belarus that are already moving hundreds of jobs away from the country amidst the instability and the crackdown against PandaDoc.

The burgeoning IT industry had been one of the Belarusian economy’s few bright spots, making up 6.5% of the country’s GDP and earning some $US2b in export receipts.

Civil disobedience

Ekaterina Averchenko, a Minsk resident who lives close to an area that was the scene of major protests in the days immediately following the August vote, told the Democracy Project that the protests have become increasingly localised in their focus, often involving acts of symbolic civil disobedience.

A key element in the protest movement is the use of the historical white-red-white opposition flag. The opposition flag was a key symbol of Belarus’s independence resistance movement during World War II and was also briefly used after the break-up of the Soviet Union, before being replaced by Lukashenko via a referendum in 1995.

“Every day at 8pm we gather together with our neighbours, discuss what we can do – decorate trees with white-red-white ribbons, paint benches and rubbish bins and so on,” Averchenko says.

But security forces have been removing opposition symbols when they see them and fining residents who display the flags. This has turn led to a new opposition tactic to show discontent with the regime – affixing sheets of white paper on the inside of apartment windows.

New Zealand-based Tatsiana Chypsavana, who lives in Nelson and works as a photojournalist, says she is proud of the Belarusian people – but so far, she has been disappointed by the international response.

“Putin has his army in Belarus already and the West does nothing,” she says.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.