Belarus. In February, EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana came to Minsk for talks with Aljaksandr Lukashenka. The year before, the EU had lifted its entry ban for the Belarusian president and decided to bring in contacts. Lukashenka was invited to attend the EU summit in April on the so-called Eastern Partnership. It sparked strong reactions within the opposition in Belarus, which considered themselves the betrayal of the EU. Political prisoners had been released last year, but human rights activist Aljaksandr Barazenka had been sentenced to prison just before New Year. Lukashenka chose not to travel to the EU summit in Prague but sent the Deputy Prime Minister. Belarus applied for EU financial support during the year and also hoped for a free trade agreement. Lukashenka traveled to Rome in April and was welcomed by Pope Benedict XVIand Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In September, Lukashenka visited the neighboring country and the EU country Lithuania. That trip coincided with regime-critical demonstrations in Minsk, when police battered and arrested opposition politicians and activists. The demonstrations were held in memory of the fact that two regime critics “disappeared” ten years earlier.
According to countryaah, the EU later declared that it was dissatisfied with the pace of reform in Belarus, especially when it came to human rights. Amnesty International criticized the country for still using the death penalty and doing so without insight from the outside world and from relatives. However, the Supreme Court chairman declared that the death penalty could be abolished shortly. Several human rights organizations noted that Belarus had the worst repression of freedom of expression in Europe. The regime’s ideological oversight of the mass media was compared to George Orwell’s classic dictatorship. Journalists are eavesdropped and monitored and charged with a professional ban.
At the same time as relations with the EU improved, Belarus’s relationship with the Russian Federation became more strained. Moscow was critical of Belarus being invited to join the EU’s Eastern Partnership and of its failure to recognize the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and his Finance Minister visited Belarus in May, harsh criticism was brought against the lack of market adaptation in the country’s economic policy. A planned Russian loan was delayed, which upset Lukashenka, who explained that Belarus would not beg the Russian Federation. A temporary Russian border stop for dairy imports further worsened the situation. In June, the country abstained from a regional security meeting.
The country’s economy deteriorated in the wake of the global financial crisis and due to reduced Russian subsidies. An earlier preliminary settlement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on support loans of USD 2.5 billion was finalized at the beginning of the year. The agreement included that Belarus must raise interest rates and devalue the Belarusian ruble by 20 percent. The devaluation meant severe hardship for already poor residents, and many who saved in Belarusian rubles felt fooled. The government was also forced to hold down a planned 25 percent increase in government salaries to 5 percent. In the pressured situation, the IMF decided that loans to Belarus would be increased to USD 3.5 billion. This also resulted in stricter demands for liberalization and privatization of the economy.
During the autumn, the US and Belarus decided on regular contacts. The improvement in relations came after Lukashenka pardoned a Russian-American lawyer who was sentenced to prison accused of, among other things, industrial espionage. In September, Belarus and the Russian Federation jointly conducted the largest military exercise in the region since the Soviet era. Among other things, land ascension was practiced in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. In November, Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi became the first Western leader in 15 years to visit Belarus and President Lukashenka. Prior to Berlusconi’s visit, the Belarusian parliament adopted a new electoral law with small steps in a democratic direction. In December, Belarus was criticized by the EU President Sweden for suspending a student from a Belarusian university.