Over the past few years Vilnius has served as something of a sanctuary for Belarusian human rights activists, critically minded students, independent journalists, and other “enemies” of the regime. There is a Belarusian Human Rights House, which provides a meeting space and facilities for human rights defenders, and perhaps the only university operating completely in exile—the European Humanities University, with around 600 students—has its home here. A short and cheap bus trip from Minsk, the city has also proven to be a popular venue for international meetings that gather opposition types.
All of that could be changing, after the recent arrest in Belarus of Ales Bialatski, chairman of the Viasna Human Rights Center. The Belarusian authorities have accused him of tax evasion over money that he received through accounts in Lithuania for his human rights work. Disturbingly, it has emerged over the past week that the authorities in Lithuania were directly involved with providing the Belarusians with the financial information that led to his arrest.
Apparently, Lithuania and Belarus have an agreement on the books that requires each country, upon request, to provide reciprocal information on the foreign bank accounts of the other country’s citizens. As a result, the ministry of justice has this year alone sent information on around 400 people to Minsk, including Bialatski and, according the Belarusian Human Rights House (HRH), additional human rights defenders.
At a press conference, the deputy justice minister said the ministry had sent only a recommendation to the banks to pass along account information, not an order, and the banks had a right to refuse. But one can only imagine how a typical bank official – likely unaware of the potential repercussions back in Belarus – would have reacted to such a “recommendation”. The justice ministry should have known better, and perhaps, some are now positing, did.
As Edward Lucas asked a few days ago on the Economist’s “Eastern approaches” blog:
The big puzzle is why this happened. In the past Belarus has routinely made such requests and they have been routinely refused. The Foreign Ministry has issued a statement condemning the arrest and insists that it warned the Justice Ministry against sharing sensitive information with the Belarusians (this is true, but probably happened some time after the information was handed over, in response to complaints from worried Belarusian NGOs). The Justice Ministry says it was not aware of Mr Bialatski’s status when it dealt with the request. It also says it doesn’t get involved with politics when dealing with such requests. It also says it was “too trusting” and deplores the use made of the information…
Was it just bureaucratic bungling that led to the information about Mr Bialatski’s accounts being handed over. Or old Soviet-era institutional reflexes? Or was it a cynical bit of realpolitik, conducted in exchange for some other favour? Or perhaps the result of outside penetration or manipulation of government structures in Vilnius? Whatever the verdict, Lithuania comes out badly.
Lucas also reported that “Some Belarusian activists and their friends say they scented a sea change in the attitude of the Lithuanian authorities about three months ago,” a result of pressure from the Lithuanian secret service.
In Belarus, activists are having a hard time buying into the bungling bureaucrat explanation, partly because they inherently do not trust Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (she has sharply opposed economic sanctions against Belarus and many believe she is too accommodating to Lukashenka).
As one Belarusian activist told me: “Activists tend to think and talk of what has happened as a betrayal at the state level. It’s hard to believe in a bureaucratic mistake of such a scale and from a neighbor, who claimed to be one of the main supporters of the Belarusian democratic movement. It is also confusing that different state agencies in Lithuania seem to be trying to push responsibility from one to another.”
The activist said that people were obviously now more scared of conducting activities in Lithuania and didn’t know whom could be trusted, but said that there wasn’t much choice of moving to another country. Poland would be a natural choice, but it’s more expensive to have a bank account or run activities there (each trip costs between $100-120 roundtrip by bus, three to four times as much as the Vilnius journey, and take at least twice as long). The Czech Republic, a large supporter of the Belarusian democratic movement, is even farther away.
“If the Lithuanian authorities have already disclosed the financial information of 400 people, even if all of them close their accounts today, the banks will still have all the data for the last 15 years, which, if disclosed, can be used for criminal persecution,” the activist said. “The problem is that we don’t know what exactly happened, but the feeling is that Lithuanians handed a gun to the regime, which can be used any time to destroy the opposition.”