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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

NOTEBOOK (SEPTEMBER – PART I)

One of the biggest challenges since I started this blog is that there is so much going on in, or otherwise affecting, eastern Europe and that I would wish to write about given the time. As a way of clearing my mind (and proliferating browser tabs!), I'm going to use this post and the next as a way of mentioning the things that have caught my attention and which I consider significant from the past couple of weeks.


Jottings about Belarus


Last week, Open Democracy published an article of mine about the exiled Belarusian opposition. More specifically, it concerned those in the opposition working with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her office's recent policy advocating closer ties with the European Union (EU). As she said in a speech to the European Parliament on 13 September, the 'strategic objective' of the Belarusian pro-democracy movement was membership of the EU. It was, she averred, '[their] ultimate destination. Period.' Strong words -- and the European Parliament has responded favourably to these EU ambitions.


In my article, however, I argued that this objective is at odds with Belarusian public opinion and 'risks exacerbating differences within the opposition.' For my evidence and reasoning please do have a look at the article! (Grigory Ioffe has also filed a related piece for the Jamestown Foundation.) Like any short article, much has to be left out. One thing I didn't address in the text was the ties the exiled opposition appears to have with EU institutions.


Given that relations between the European Parliament and Tsikhanouskaya's office look to be the ones developing most fruitfully, we might want to think about the relative significance of the European Parliament within the EU system. On the one hand, the parliament is directly elected by EU citizens and represents their interests; its power in Brussels has grown over the course of European integration and through attempts to address the so-called 'democratic deficit'. On the other hand, it is the European Council that sets the EU's overall agenda and most citizens know that the European Commission has a lot of power. The parliament is really quite constrained, in my opinion, and so of itself Tsikhanouskaya's office might reflect on which ties they are cultivating in Brussels and to what cost.


Some in the Belarusian opposition seem unhappy about the attention lavished on Tsikhanouskaya by the EU in any case. Valery Tsapkala, who tried to run against Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 2020 election (his application for candidacy was rejected), says that he has 'filed a lawsuit' against the European Commission for actions that he says 'dismantled the unity' or Belarus's opposition and for policies that harmed Belarusians. He criticises the Commission for 'favouritism' in its funding for the Belarusian democracy movement. He sounds bitter, on my reading, and I can't imagine his claim will get anywhere.


Court proceedings


Also relevant to the situation in Belarus, a significant court hearing began this week in Switzerland. The defendant, Yuri Harauski, is standing trial in relation to a small number of 'disappearances' of Lukashenka's opponents in 1999. Harauski came forward in December 2019, giving an interview to Deutsche Welle in which he confessed to being part of the state's 'death squad'. I write about the disappearances in my book, although I confine Harauski's confession to an endnote (on p.284) because I'm not sure how much credibility to give his claims.


Harauski says he was involved in abducting Lukashenka's opponents, although he denies any involvement in their murders. He has provided details about both the killings and the disposal of the victims' corpses. The trial potentially offers an important opportunity to establish some facts concerning this crucial moment in Belarus's recent history.


There are three other court cases making the news which I will simply mention in passing. First, on Tuesday, a court in Moscow refused to hear the appeal of Evan Gershkovich against his pre-trial detention. Gershkovich, readers will recall, is the Wall Street Journal journalist accused of spying by Russia; charges roundly refuted by his employer. I wrote something about him here.


Secondly, the International Court of Justice -- the UN court -- is hearing a case in which Russia and Ukraine are each accusing the other of genocide. Ukraine initiated proceedings last year after the 24 February invasion, saying that Russia's justification for launching the war was based on an abuse of international law; specifically, that it was claiming it was stemming a genocide in the Donbas, which Ukraine 'emphatically denies'. Many will be sympathetic to Ukraine's view that the Russian claim is highly ironic, since Russian officials have blatantly used genocidal rhetoric towards the Ukrainian nation in describing their war aims. Russia is trying to have the case thrown out. So basically, each accuses the other of genocide. It's worth remembering that in eight years of war in the Donbas, from 2014 until February last year, there were fewer war fatalities than in the first weeks of the war. (The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports 14,000 deaths between 2014 and the end of 2021; roughly that number of citizens (i.e. non-combatants) have died since the invasion according to the UN, and the US recently estimated that battle deaths had reached 190,000).


Lastly, closer to home, five Bulgarians have been charged with spying for Russia. Thanks to the friend who sent me this amusing Tweet (or am I supposed to call it an X?).

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