The Alexander Lukashenka regime in Belarus is infamous. Rights abuses, authoritarianism, Soviet throwback policies and media control have long been the hallmarks of this 16 year-old-regime. December 2010 ushered in a new era of repression, after the disputed presidential elections, which the President used as a pretext for the large scale oppression of the political opposition. This trend shows no signs of abating. The last elections in October 2012, in which Lukashenka’s party won all the seats, failed to meet democratic standards and were widely criticised by international bodies such as the European Parliament, which refused to recognise the results. Despite sanctions by the EU and Washington against the regime, the situation has worsened. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch noted: “We feel that the human rights crisis in Belarus has deepened in 2012. The fact that in the last parliamentary election the opposition won no seats in parliament basically shows that the status quo of the repressive regime led by Alexander Lukashenka was preserved.”
The authorities are unrelenting and ingenious in their ways of repressing the political opposition. Their application of the law is so elastic that they can find virtually any pretext for the detention of opposition-minded citizens. At the start of January a court in the western city of Hrodna convicted three human rights activists, Uladzimer Khilmanovich, Viktar Sazonau, and Raman Yurhel, for participating in an unauthorized demonstration in defence of imprisoned rights defender Ales Byalyatski on December 10, International Human Rights Day. During the rally, the three held photographs of the imprisoned activist. They were each fined 1.5 million roubles, the equivalent of $173. Byalyatski, in jail for four and a half years for tax evasion, has been named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty. “In truth, I understood, I was convicted for what I advocate, for having engaged in activities not prohibited by law,” said Sazonau, “I was convicted for what I had done: cooperation with Ales Byalyatski.” There are echoes here of the teddy bear drop of August last year. When Swedish activists dropped teddy bears onto Belarusian soil in support of the domestic opposition, Belarusian activists who merely posted photos of the bears were fined. On January 29, yet another activist, Syarhey Malashenak, was fined $290 for posting pictures on the internet of himself and a colleague holding photos of Ales Byalyatski.
It is not merely fines and the prospect of incarceration which loom large in the mind of the Belarusian opposition. Reports on the brutal conditions that those imprisoned are forced to endure make sobering reading. Andrei Sannikov, the former presidential candidate who was violently beaten and imprisoned in December 2011 and now lives in exile in Britain, revealed to reporters that he was encouraged to commit suicide during his spell in prison, as well as being subject to humiliating rituals which are apparently a daily part of a prisoner’s existence. Once in jail, the authorities can use alleged violations of regulations to increase or tighten sentences. At the end of October it was ruled that incarcerated opposition activist Dzmitry Dashkevich would be transferred to a maximum security prison (after he allegedly broke prison rules) for the remaining part of his two year sentence. His fiancée, Nasta Palazhanka told news agency RFE/RL that: “The goal is to isolate him to the maximum [degree], to make his detention conditions harsher, so that he feels less comfort and faces more restrictions.” At the time of his trial, Dashkevich, who has also been named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, was recuperating from a hunger strike in protest against the conditions which he had been forced to endure. A rare piece of good news for the leader of the opposition movement Young Front, was that he and his fiancé were allowed to marry on December 26.
Violence as a tool against the opposition is a commonplace tactic outside prison walls. On January 14, it was reported that opposition activist Yulia Stsyapanava of the European Belarus opposition group was assaulted near her home in Minsk. On January 19, poet and journalist Yury Humenyuk was found dead in what police deemed a suicide. His family have expressed serious doubts as to the veracity of this claim. Humenyuk had been a frequent critic of the government. The press is given scant opportunity to convey any opposition-oriented sentiment. The chief editor of “ARCHE” magazine, Valer Bulhakau, decided in November not to return to Belarus after state-run television described his recent book on World War II as “potentially extremist.” He has in the past been fined for “illegal business operations.” The internet is a hub of censorship. The British-based Index on Censorship has found that the Belarus government intends to introduce even tighter restrictions on citizens’ access to the world wide web. It has, the watchdog says, “one of the most hostile media environments in the world and one of the worst records on freedom of expression” and uses “surveillance techniques which allow the state to intercept all online traffic.” It is increasingly difficult for any participants in civil society to draw attention to government abuses as conditions are increasingly problematic, if not to say prohibitive, for NGOs. In November it was reported that the Vyasna (Spring) Human Rights Center, run by Ales Byalyatski, had been evicted from its premises in Minsk.
Foreign exile is an option increasingly, if reluctantly, chosen by the opposition. Presidential runner up Andrei Sannikov, who was violently beaten and imprisoned following the disputed presidential elections of December 2010 is the most famous example. He was forced to seek asylum in Britain last year after it was clear that re-arrest and a long prison sentence in unendurable conditions were almost unavoidable. His former press secretary Alyaksandr Atrashchankau has also decided to remain abroad. An organisation which has campaigned from exile for greater awareness of the problems in Belarus is the Belarus Free Theatre, whose founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, were forced to seek asylum in London after the 2010 crackdown. In December a group of British actors, among them Joanna Lumley, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Sam West, Adjoa Andoh and Simon Callow, and lyricist Tim Rice, offered a video message urging British Prime Minister David Cameron to exert pressure on Lukashenka in order to see the release of a number of political prisoners in Belarus.
Lukashenka has recently broadened his attacks on society as a whole. Whilst his ire is normally reserved for those critical of the regime, he is beginning to cast a much wider net. Rights of citizens to other basic freedoms are increasingly jeopardised. The right to religious expression is frequently challenged by the regime. Minority faiths face all manner of persecution. In recent months, the New Life Evangelical Church in Minsk was evicted from its property. In another instance, the chairman of the Judaic Religious Association of Belarus, Yury Dorn, was put on trial for alleged bribe taking just before Christmas. Other manoeuvres which show little respect for property rights have been witnessed by citizens. In December, villagers from Paulovichy, a small settlement in northeastern Belarus, lamented that their houses were razed with little warning and scant compensation in advance of a visit from the President. The land is apparently due to be used for buildings for the leather-industry.
The Paulovichy episode reflects Lukashenka’s desire to see industrial modernization completed, no matter whose rights this contravenes. The country’s finances are in a dire state and economic migration, particularly to Russia, is prevalent. The President now has a new, alarming idea for improving industrial development and preventing migration, which he wants to apply to the wood-processing industry. He plans to make it legally binding for workers to continue their employment within this industry until the five-year modernisation programme that he has planned is completed. “Workers cannot quit their jobs without the agreement and permission of the management of the enterprise,” he told assembled employees at Barysaudrev wood-processing plant in Barysau. The scheme, which many see as an equivalent to proposing slave labour, has provoked outrage. Syarhey Antusevich, deputy chairman of the Belarus Congress of Democratic Labor Unions announced that “the concept of forced employment […] is completely illegal […] On the other hand, we all know that in our country the law takes a backseat to the backroom instructions that control our courts, our prosecutor’s office, and so on.” Stephen Benedict, the director of human and trade union rights at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in Brussels, seconded these concerns, noting: “We think this is a direct and absolute violation of the most fundamental principles and rights of workers.”
That the country needs a major economic overhaul is indisputable, but Lukashenka has made it clear he believes the sacrifice should come from ordinary citizens rather than the elite. At the end of November, he declared 2013 to be “The Year of Frugality” in Belarus. Binding workers to their contracts will not suffice to cure the country’s financial ailments. A general lack of infrastructure impedes development and very low wages do not encourage workers to remain on home turf. The IPM Research Center has warned that Belarus’s plans for modernisation will not reach fruition if the government fails to address the problem of demographic deficit. In addition, the state has a $12-billion debt pile, which is significant in a country which, according to government figures, has an annual gross domestic product of about $60 billion. Remittances from migrant labourers do much to buoy the economy in the short term, but they do not help long-term growth. Many have suggested privatisation to speed economic modernisation. Belarus does have a State Property Privatisation Plan for 2011-2013, but little of it seems to have been acted upon. The very statist nature of the regime means that even small-scale privatisation remains unpalatable for Lukashenka, a one-time collective farm manager, and his cronies.
The President makes few attempts to hide his nostalgia for the Soviet period and all its trappings. On October 16 of last year, one day after it was announced that the EU would extend sanctions against his regime, he apparently asked the press: “In half a century, how will we be judged? If Western trends catch on here, I will be considered worse than Stalin. [They will say I] snatched people on the street and ate them, especially women, and other things. This is exactly how Stalin and Lenin are demonized.” The rehabilitation of Stalin and his cohorts is not only a strategy used by the president; it has some grass roots support across the population as a whole. At the start of November, the Kurapaty memorial, which remembers victims of a major purge by the Soviet-era secret police, the NKVD, in 1937-1941 was vandalised. Apparently leaflets reading, “Stalin was right!” and “We are AKM fighters!” were found close by and “Clinton’s Bench,” which was presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1994, had the letter AKM written on it. The AKM stands for the pro-communist organization Avant-Garde of the Red Youth. The following month, it was reported that a wooden cross commemorating Polish officers killed by Soviet forces during World War II had disappeared three days after it was placed at a memorial site outside the Belarusian capital.
Lukashenka revels in his status as the enfant terrible of post-Communist Europe and appears impervious to criticism. He recently told Reuters, “I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world [….] They say that even bad publicity is good publicity.” As Andrei Sannikov told the Guardian newspaper, “Lukashenko is a dictator. He openly calls himself that. Sometimes he tries to be coquettish and says he isn’t, but he’s admitted it several times. I think it’s true […] The system has no ideology. It denies national values such as history, culture and language. It’s based only on the necessity to keep power.” Lukashenka also relies heavily on another tactic familiar to Russia and other autocratic states; he attempts to demonise the West. At the end of last year, he mimicked a tactic commonly use against him by western NGOs by releasing his own report on “Human Rights Violations in Certain Countries in 2012.” The first of its kind to be issued by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, this tit-for-tat measure tackles human rights abuses in 23 European countries, the United States, and Canada. It is reportedly particularly trenchant on the US, which has been vocal in attacking the Lukashenka regime.
The regime has also courted international controversy by welcoming the former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, to Minsk for a liver transplant. Whether or not this is the case, in a press conference on October 16, Lukashenka announced that Dagan had come to Minsk because doctors in the United States, Germany, and Sweden, among other countries, had refused to treat him because of his professional history. Dagan is not the only persona non grata that the regime defends. Lukashenka also ruffled feathers by encouraging the Kyrgyz government to offer some financial assistance to exiled former leader Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was given Belarusian citizenship in February 2012. Since Bakiev is wanted on corruption charges and for allegedly issuing orders to fire on antigovernment protesters when he was president, it is unlikely that Lukashenka’s suggestions will be greeted with open arms. The leader can afford risky moves because his isolation is not entirely complete – he can still rely upon Russia for support. Putin is keen to keep Russia’s Soviet footholds entrenched and welcomes Lukashenka’s adherence to authoritarian practices and hostility to the West. However, Lukashenka has in the past learnt that fealty to the Kremlin can be a costly exercise. The two governments have frequently clashed over gas prices and crude oil exports.
Lukashenka shows no signs of softening the approach which has earned him the status of an international pariah. The role of eccentric dictator is one which he seems to relish. Recent reports from Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper revealed details of the extravagant refurbishment of his $124 million private jet, bought from Turkmen despot Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, which exemplify the flamboyant, insouciant tendencies markedly ill-fitting for a country in financial free fall. It is unsurprising that Belarus was ranked 123rd on Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index out of 176 and described as “utterly untransparent and nonaccountable to citizens.” Lukashenka’s radical plan to make factory workers the indentured servants of the nation’s debt is unlikely to resolve any of the state’s economic problems. It could potentially widen the ranks of the opposition to include more and more of the state’s ordinary citizens.
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