The would-be Belarus revolution seems to be running out of steam -- its leadership is divided on tactics and the state has finally shown its ugly face, with riot police bashing demonstrators with truncheons and arresting a leading opposition politician. The European Union has expressed its alarm but the authoritarian regime response has been merely to accuse the West of "anti-Belarussian hysteria."
Opposition leaders in Belarus had called for a mass rally in Minsk's October Square on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the declaration of the first Belarus Republic in 1918. However, riot police blocked off the square and the demo had to take place in a nearby park. Addressing an estimated 7,000 people who had gathered, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said that "the more the authorities conduct repression, the closer they bring themselves to their end." After the rally Alexander Kozulin, another opposition contender in the March 19 election, led a group of demonstrators in an attempt to storm a jail holding demonstrators arrested during the past week of protests. Riot police responded by attacking the crowd and arresting Kozulin, who is being held at a prison outside Minsk. The EU and Milinkevich called for his immediate release. However, in signs that the opposition movement may be splitting, the politician also criticized Kozulin's decision to march on the prison, while Kozulin's supporters retorted that Milinkevich was activity cowardly. Milinkevich has now called for a month-long suspension of the protests.
The German press assesses the leadership of the Belarus opposition, its prospects for success and the influence of the West on events over the past week and into the future. Many of the papers look at the question of whether the popular movement is losing momentum or if time is on its side.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung poses the question "how many people are required for a revolution?" and answers that it is more than the 10,000 who took to the streets of Minsk. "With a brazenly rigged election, sharp criticism from abroad and a clever, brave opposition leader and enough examples from Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan," the circumstances for a revolution had never been so favorable before. "It seems as though Alexander Milinkivich has missed his only opportunity for reaching a critical mass which might have sent Lukashenko and his vassals packing in the direction of Moscow." The paper warns that there is now a danger that the opposition and a West aroused out of its lethargy may fail to keep up its momentum. "Regime change demands a short yet strong dynamic," it argues, and the abandonment of further demonstrations means that this seems to have abated in Minsk. However, the paper comments that the opposition has still achieved something: the many passersby who spontaneously joined the protests saw that resistance does not necessarily have to have personal consequences. For even though hundreds were imprisoned, even Belarus doesn't have enough space in jail for the thousands. The paper argues that the opposition now needs to be patient and that the "election farce" has served as a wake-up call for the West. In the end, only the Belarusians can decide what their limits are and if they are prepared to rise up again against the machinery of repression, the paper writes, but the EU and the US can help to break the government's information monopoly. The Süddeutsche concludes that EU should have learned one lesson from the election in Belarus: that Moscow, which jumped to Lukashenko's defense, "may share strategic interests with the Europeans. But not their democratic values."
The Financial Times Deutschland is also optimistic about the long-term chances of success for the Belarus opposition. It comments that the regime has shown its first signs of weakness and that the greatest success of the "shamelessly manipulated" election is that the people are less afraid, with many supporting the demonstrators in Minsk and openly voicing criticism to foreign TV teams. The paper argues that it is not yet a popular movement, but it is a beginning, and it praises opposition leader Alexander Milikenvich and his "calm, cautious manner" that has led people to identify with him. According to the paper, "time is on the side of the regime's opponents," because the economic growth that has lead to some of Lukashenko's popularity "is built on sand" and the catastrophic position of the state-owned companies will soon become evident. "The IMF is already predicting a sharp decrease in growth for this year," the paper reports. It then argues that Milinkevich is right to call for a pause to the street protests, as it won't be possible to mobilize the same numbers given the crackdown. "The opposition can now build on what they began in October Square. The EU now has a concrete partner for dialogue and should support him with all its strength."
The financial daily Handelsblatt is also hopeful that Europe can support the pro-democracy movement. It comments that, although Europe's last dictatorship easily crushed the protests, there is still cause for hope. According to the paper," the fact that 10,000 people protested shows that the people will not allow themselves to be suppressed for ever." It argues that this should be enough for the country's European neighbors to support the democracy movement in the long term. The change will come from the country itself but "sanctions against those in power, the support of civil society and a clear position, also towards Russia's autocrat Putin," will help its people.
The left-wing Die Tageszeitung is more critical of Western influence over events in Minsk. It argues that "the revolution in Belarus is over, before it has even begun" and comments that it never gave it much chance of success. The paper blames the opposition for the sudden end of the revolt. "The call of the opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin to storm the jail and free demonstrators gave the completely unsettled regime a scapegoat." According to the paper, Kozulin was irresponsible -- after all, he must have known that the regime would react with violence. "He has discredited himself morally." The paper argues that Lukashenko's opponents lost their grip on reality. "The many Western TV cameras and the rare unanimity of Western diplomats strengthened their belief that they almost had victory in the bag. But revolutions are created by dissatisfied people, not by camera teams. In Minsk their presence led the people astray." The paper concludes that the authoritarian leader still enjoys broad popular support and that only Russian President Vladimir Putin can do anything to change that. "If Moscow were to cancel energy subventions," it concludes, "then the Belarusian economic miracle would break apart and so too would the belief in the superhuman powers of the shaman of Minsk."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes that, on the surface, all is well in Belarus, where joblessness is low, wages and prices are stable and nobody goes hungry or is in need. "In the 12 years of Lukashenko's reign, Belarus has become a peaceful territory, isolated from the rest of the world." It's a country where people are protected from the vagaries of globalization. But in reality, the paper argues, nobody believes in this "island of happy souls ... not even Lukashenko himself." According to the paper, the 10,000 people who took to the streets were not enough to cause the collapse of the regime. And the fact that there were not more protestors "is the consequence of disinformation, intimidation, blackmail and repression". That is the price that the Belarusians have had to pay for their supposed security."
- Siobhán Dowling, 1:00 p.m. CET
Germany's Regional Elections
On Sunday, voters in Germany went to the polls in the first regional elections since Angela Merkel's grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU) came to power in November. All three elections saw the incumbent regional premiers re-elected -- the CDU retained its hold over Baden-Württemberg in the southwest and Saxony-Anhalt in the east, while the SPD managed to increase its votes to secure an outright majority in the western state of Rhineland Palatinate. The vote has been widely interpreted in the German press as a vote of confidence in the current government. However, a low turnout in all of the elections -- with only 43 percent showing up to vote in Saxony-Anhalt -- has led to some concerns that the results are less a sign of voter satisfaction than voter apathy. According to manyGerman papers, the elections should also mark the end of the honeymoon period for Merkel's coalition and the beginning of the hard task of governing.
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes that the governing coalition is in a preliminary stage, having not got down to negotiating reforms before the March 26 elections. The paper argues that the citizens have indeed confirmed the big parties at a state and also at a federal level and that the coalition can think of itself as elected for a second time. It argues that "the voters have given the message that they are serious about the grand coalition. But also that they expect something from it." The paper comments that Chancellor Merkel has spent the past few months making a good impression internationally but now its time for domestic politics. And there are enough tasks: "pensions, tax, health, job market" and enough suggestions on what to do about them. According to the paper, what has "prevented the grand coalition from getting off the mark -- apart from the fear of the voters -- is mistrust. Mistrust of the merits of their own suggested solutions." The paper chastises the current administration for its piecemeal attempts at reform so far and its inability to tackle unemployment. "The citizens are not resigned," it writes. "They are ready to make sacrifices if they also know to what end these sacrifices are being made." "They want a 'yes' or a 'no,' not a 'maybe' or 'a bit.'"
The Financial Times Deutschland does not ascribe such levels of political engagement to the voting public. It writes that the Germans are weary of elections after the super election year of 2005. According to the paper, the low turnout was partly due to the fact that there wasn't the usual shrill party fighting that usually accompanies elections: "Where there is no polarization, it is difficult to mobilize voters." The paper argues that for the ruling parties it is a case of going on as before. "The doubts about their own strengths and the fear of losing profile have not been diminished by these election results, nor have they increased." However, the paper predicts that the conflicts between the partners will increase. "Those themes that were postponed until after March 26 will have to be worked through." Yet, whoever thinks that the coalition is now going to take giant leaps instead of small steps will be disappointed. "This coalition is and remains one of limited possibilities."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes that the coalition has been stabilized but that its first victim has been voter participation. The paper also comments that Merkel has made an election victory out of the election setback in October, gaining respect on the international stage and unexpected popularity at home. "She has achieved this not by embarking on a wave of activity but rather by doing nothing. She has created a mood instead of policies." The paper argues that the chancellor has stepped back from the "neo-liberalism" (freemarket conservatism) of the election campaign and now appears to have a certain social sensibility. In the meantime, the paper argues, the SPD hasn't managed to regain its core competency in social affairs. In fact it seems as if its ministers are dismantling the social state. The SZ concludes that the Social Democrats aren't suffering for being the junior party in a coalition, but rather for their "own failures" and lack of party management.
The left-wing Tageszeitung writes that while there won't be unabated joy breaking out in any of the political camps, the governing parties have saved face. According to the paper, this is the best of all possible results for the continuing successful cooperation between the two parties. "The grand coalition can continue to work undisturbed." The old theory that such a coalition always strengthens the parties at the margins has not been proved. The voters are in effect saying: "Keep going as you have been up until now. We are not exactly enraptured, but we also don't see any better alternatives." However, the paper also warns that "the low turnout is a warning sign -- for all the parties."
The conservative daily Die Welt also comments on the low voter participation. "There was no landslide, but the turnout was shockingly low," it writes. It also points out the that small parties don't seem to have made much of an impact. "Who talks about the Greens now? Or of the Left Party in the West?" According to the paper, it is the SPD that now has the most options for potential coalition partners, both at a state and federal level. "One wonders what the SPD was so afraid of over the past few weeks, to the point that it was even quarrelling with its own leader." The paper concludes that the grand coalition can now breathe easy. "But it also has nothing more that it can hide behind."
- Siobhán Dowling, 4:00 p.m. CET