Sunday

22nd Apr 2018

Feature

Belarus' brutal crackdown – the 19 December anniversary

On 19 December one year ago, 50 000 people gathered at Independence Square in central Minsk to protest the reelection of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. His response was decisive and violent. Around 600 were arrested and thousands of others beaten.

He has since tightened his grip on power. In November (2011), he promoted heads of the region and the mayor of Minsk to major generals. He also reintroduced a blacklist of banned artists and musicians in the beginning of the year.

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  • Eighteen years as president, and Belarus is beginning to feel the strain of an economic crisis that risks undermining his so called social contract (Photo: mb7art)

And in the summer, he outlawed any public gathering of three or more people. On October Square in central Minsk, it’s restricted to one. Standing alone for too long can get you detained. The European Council, in response, has frozen assets and banned 210 officials and politicians from entering the EU.

Looming beneath the surface of a society stricken and deeply traumatised is a growing number of committed individuals ready to risk it all for the all-elusive dream for freedom. And Lukashenko is perfectly aware of it.

People are regularly imprisoned, jobs are lost, and students expelled for speaking out against a man whose humble and provincial background somehow propelled him to the top of a power structure still deeply ingrained in a Soviet-era hierarchy and mentality.

He ran on an anti-corruption ticket in the early 90s yet, conspicuously, the city has today turned into a little Las Vegas for Russia’s playboy elite. He compares ruling the country to maintaining a countryside farm. But on his ‘farm’, the secret service is still called the KGB, statues of Lenin are still everywhere, the red Soviet star adorns the metro walls, and casinos are found in or near almost every large hotel.

“In 1999 Lukashenko was obsessed by the idea of being king and master of the Kremlin,” former presidential candidate and poet Uladzimir Niakliayeu told at his clandestine office in Minsk. “Lukashenko wanted to replace Yeltsin. I did not agree with his views on what Belarus should become,” he added looking at a map of the city displayed on his wall.

Niakliayeu was exiled in Europe for 12 years before making his return. He was one of seven presidential candidates that ran against Lukashenko in 2010. He nearly died because of it. Images of his broken body, beaten by police, were displayed across the front pages of some of the world’s largest newspapers. All other presidential candidates, except for himself and Dzmitry Uss, are now in jail.

“I have such a longing to go to the seaside and swim,” said Niakliayeu after a few moments of silence. “I can stay under water a long time. When I’m there I imagine how small the ethereal world is, compared to the vastness of life in the ocean. Instead of discovering the secrets of the ocean world, we destroy our own.”

A dictator's obsessions

Lukashenko’s love for ice hockey has resulted in dozens of so-called ice palaces. Every evening he strolls across the grounds of his palatial home in the city outskirts to one such ice palace he uses for his own personal amusement.

He is infatuated with his 5-year old son whom he sometimes parades in full military uniform to the chagrin of the country’s Afghanistan war veterans. In the immediate aftermath of a bomb that ripped through a metro station in Minsk in April, Lukashenko walked through the debris and still smoldering bodies while holding the young boy’s hand.

Eighteen years as president, and Belarus is beginning to feel the strain of an economic crisis that risks undermining his so called social contract. In January this year, the Belarus ruble hovered around 3000 for $ 1. It is now nearly 9000. Petrol has more than doubled in price and beef is no longer sold in supermarkets.

People, said one local resident, can no longer afford the basics. Many peruse the chicken and pork on display behind the supermarket counters only to gauge, in exasperation, at how expensive everything has become. A kilo of chicken cost the equivalent of nearly $ 5 this past November. Within half a year, average wages have dropped from $500 to around $ 250 per month.

Stability has always been Lukashenko’s maxim and one that has a compelling appeal to many. So long as Europe reels under the intolerable weight of runaway capitalism with massive protests and riots staged in London or Athens, Lukashenko can make his case for an economy that is almost entirely state-run.

The evening state-run news regularly reports on the dire straits of Europe’s advanced economies. It is a turgid response that never fails to remind the viewers of the incredibly high unemployment figure among Spain’s youth for example. Most people, in response, remain passive and let the dictator determine a fate that has never truly belonged to them anyway.

“Belarusians are condemned to a history of defeat,” said Alina Radachynskaya, 23-year old Belarusian who constantly risks arrests because of her work as a journalist. Radachynskaya, who works for Belsat, is denied accreditation and is constantly harassed by the KGB. The history of defeat, she explained, is mired in a country still coming to grips with a brutal Nazi pogrom, a Stalinist regime that terrorised the people for generations, Chernobyl, and now Lukashenko.

Indeed, in 1988 mass graves were uncovered at Kurapaty park on the outskirts of Minsk. Experts estimate as many 250 000 or more Belarusians were shot in the back of the head. Thousands of shell casings found among the remains came from bullets that only standard Nagan pistols fire – the same used by the NKVD during the 1930s.

It’s a moment in time Lukashenko never speaks of. He had, initially, blamed the Nazis and then threatened to bulldoze it all into oblivion. People protested and staged sit-ins. Eventually, Lukashenka capitulated but at a time of his rule that had not yet given way to the totalitarianism that now reins the country.

Over time, his erratic behavior and rash presidential decrees, revealed a man and a state apparatus conjoined by a desire to efface Belarusian history. The country’s former red and white national flag [from 1991-1995] is a symbol of the opposition and is banned.

In 2008, he introduced a law that banned small and medium-sized enterprises from hiring non-related staff. Local businessman Alaycsandr Makaev had to fire his employees including his nephew. “According to the law, a nephew is not a close relative,” he said. Makaev is the chair of the Coordinating Council of Individual Entrepreneurs in Belarus. Thousands of small businesses were forced to close. People protested and many went to jail.

The Belarusian language has been replaced with Russian. Musicians who sing in Belarusian, like Lavon Volski of Krambambula, cannot hold concerts or have any press coverage whatsoever. “The first time we were banned we became depressed. Now it’s normal. We are banned everywhere,” he stated.

A dictator’s greatest weapon is maintaining a silence through oppression. Yet, despite the enormous risks, young and old are speaking out. Their hope is to awaken a society that is either numb with fear or with apathy.

Opinion

Belarus as a permanent challenge for the EU

A new project for economic integration proposed by Russia's prime minister to create a Eusian Union based on the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is a major challenge for the European Union.

Opinion

The EU and Belarus: Sanctions? What Sanctions?

Brussels and Paris' decision to let Belarusian interior minister Anatoly Kulyashou - a man accused of torturing political prisoners - is a a shameful betrayal of the Belarusian people.

Slovenia shields Belarus oligarch from EU blacklist

Belarus oligarch Yuri Chizh could get off the hook after Slovenia stalled the latest round of EU sanctions, prompting concern it is putting petty commercial interests before the welfare of political prisoners.

Getting secret EU trilogue documents: a case study

On Thursday, the European Parliament will vote on a political deal on organic farming, following 19 months of behind-closed-doors negotiations. EUobserver here details a five-month odyssey to get access to the secret documents that led to the deal.

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