Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bleak Future for Belarus Seen If Europe Follows US and Ends Backing for Opposition



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – US President Donald Trump has proposed cutting all assistance to the democratic opposition in Belarus, a move that if copied by European countries which currently provide far more aid, could make the future of Belarus ever bleaker, according to a Russian analyst.

            Denis Lavnikevich argues on the Rosbalt news agency today that such a cutoff in assistance would lead to the end of many opposition groups without strengthening the authoritarian regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka given that the population is prepared to rise against him as it did earlier this year (rosbalt.ru/world/2017/05/25/1617820.html).

            He cites the observation of Alyona Anisim, one of two independent deputies in the Belarusian parliament, that the opposition “over the course of many years has taken principled positions by directing all its efforts and rhetoric at criticism of the powers that be.” But with few exceptions, the latter have been unwilling to engage in “sincere” negotiations.

            Yury Zyankovich, a Belarusian opposition figure now living in the emigration, notes that “the opposition has lost its authority” over the population, a situation that would only worsen if outside funding and support is cut off.  That makes mass protests more likely and the result of them “will be not even an invasion by Russian tanks,” but something “much worse.”

            In that event, the emigre activist says, the Belarusian state will simply collapse because “the authorities won’t be able to hold power … and the opposition will not be able to take over” because its organizations will have collapsed.

            “In reality,” the Rosbalt commentator adds, “the mass protests of the spring of 2017 in Belarus were largely spontaneous. The local opposition had to play “catch up” and then tried” to exploit the popular anger.  But if the opposition disintegrates as it might without outside support, there would be no one to channel popular anger.

            Lavnikevich adds: “a sharp reduction of foreign financing [would] force the Bealrusian opposition to begin its own reformation. Today the opposition is studying the problems of people and seeking sensitive social issues for their further politicization.” But soon Belarus may be a place where an angry but unorganized people confronts a frightened and shaky regime.

Russian Police Arrest More Long Haul Truckers and Then Plant ‘Incriminating’ Evidence



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – In a move that suggests the Russian authorities have decided to crack down hard on the striking long-haul truck drivers, police last night arrested more than 20 drivers legally parked near Moscow and then planted evidence that could be used against them and began more serious harassment of drivers elsewhere in Russia.


                The basic facts are these: Some two dozen truckers were parked legally near milepost 51 of the Moscow ring road. They planned to put up banners and signs to show that their strike against the Plato fee system continues.  But they were unable to do so before police and other siloviki arrived and detained more than 20 of them.

            Then, officers in plain clothes put the signs on the trucks and even acted as “drivers” so that they could be photographed and these pictures used as evidence against the drivers.  The location of those detained is unknown because the police confiscated the drivers’ cell phones, according to union leaders.

            Meanwhile, in Sverdlovsk oblast, some 900 miles from Moscow, police detained drivers as well, again ignoring the fact that the drivers were parked legally and that they did not yet have any banners or placards about the strike on their vehicles.  Drivers there have posted a video clip showing what happened on Youtube (youtube.com/watch?v=KHZep0FpDXg).

            It thus appears that the powers that be in Russia have decided that they are going to try to stamp out the strike via arrests. According to one commentator sympathetic to the drivers, all these things show that “the powers have begun to tighten the screws” after refusing to negotiate with them as promised (forum-msk.org/material/news/13245681.html).

                Aleksandr Gavrilin adds that in his view, “the long-haul truckers have made one fatal mistake. By declaring that they ‘aren’t involved in politics,’” they have been unable to avoid a situation in which “politics is getting involved with them.” 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Proposed Penal Reforms Point to Return of ‘Renewed’ GULAG, Novaya Gazeta Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 24 – Moscow has taken great pride in the fact that the number of Russians incarcerated in its penal system has fallen in recent years, but it has not stressed two current shortcomings of the system: the number of prisoners per 100,000 (434) remains vastly higher than most countries and the number of recidivists has doubled over the last decade.

            Nor have regime media outlets pointed out that current proposals for reform instead of making things better will lead to a situation in which Russia’s prisons “will very much resemble a renwed variant of the GULAG,” according to Aleksey Kozlov and Olga Romanova of Novaya gazeta (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/05/24/72542-strana-otmotala-sto-let-lagerey).

            They offer that conclusion at the end of a long article today which begins by quotimg Aleksand Auzan, the dean of the economics faculty at Moscow State University who says that present-day Russian society “educates the individual in three institutions: the school, the army and the jail.”

            The first two are important, but the third is far more significant than many think.  If one counts not only the number of Russians who have passed through the prison system but also their families, friends, police, court officials and jailors, “almost half of the population of Russia is one way or another connected to prison,” Kozlov and Romanova say.

            “And what is the prison teaching them at present?  It is teaching them to lie and to conform. To give bribes to get out early … to avoid contradicting the authorities and to avoid showing any initiative and to be a cog in the system.”  And it is also teaching those who go through it to have contempt for the rules and the rulers.

            “More than that,” they continue, “besides faith in the state and in other people, prison also takes away from the individual his future, that which he could have after being freed.” And it does nothing to help him in that direction while incarcerated, having failed to provide prisoners with any useful training or habits for life outside the walls.

            Prison officials say that what they do in the camps is because there is no other way to establish order. “But this isn’t the case,” the journalists say. What is needed for order is a complex system of infrastructure and rules that promote different outcomes than the ones being promoted at present.

            Most of the prisons and colonies in Russia are antiquated: according to the penal system itself, 80 percen tof them need “immediate reconstruction.”  Fifty-two of them don’t have plumbing, most are horrifically overcrowded, and few correspond even to Russian let alone European standards of hygiene.’

            Those who work are paid so little that they have to turn to criminal authorities within the jails for the most basic needs. But that pattern means that they are quickly recruited into the ranks of those who commit more serious and violent crimes.  There was some progress against this practice in 2011 when first timers and recidivists were separated. But little else.

            A great deal of additional money is needed to address all these problems, but more important, the two journalists say, but more important are fundamental structural reforms.  Those are not being proposed by the penal administration. Instead, all of its proposals suggest that they will end by creating “a renewed version of [Stalin’s] GULAG.”

            Under the proposed changes, prisoners will lose control over where they are sent – often distant from their families – what they are employed to work on and how much they will receive.  Moreover, the already inadequate medical care the prisoners now receive will become even worse.

            And such an arrangement just as it did earlier will cast a dark shadow on Russia’s future, quite possibly making it impossible for Russia to reform and at the very least placing burdens on it that will add to the difficulties its citizens now must bear.