The Assault on Belarus, Part III


Now to the question of what to do — of what can or should be done by the United States and Europe. Here in America, we have something called the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004. (As I said before, I believe, George W. Bush and his people took a strong interest in Belarus and its fate.) The act is supposed to help Belarusian society, as it copes with a dictatorship. The act could be better funded.

As I understand it, the U.S. cannot do much more in the way of sanctions. We have virtually no trade with Belarus. The EU — again, as I understand it — can do more. Belarusian democrats are pleading for the strongest sanctions. Only in that way can Lukashenko be “touched,” says the human-rights lawyer. Someone else uses the word “dented.”

Anna Gerasimova has a particular point about visa sanctions: They “should be extended, to cover not only the top officials, but everyone who was involved in falsification on Election Day, and during the election campaign, and everyone who was involved in the repression afterward. That would be a very broad list. It’s not easy to do.”

The human-rights lawyer says, “If Belarus is part of Europe, both historically and geographically, we have to fight this together, as we would fight an anomaly or an illness. But if Belarus is seen as a playing card, or a place of political games” — there is little chance. She says, with palpable indignation, “The main thing is that normal, civilized countries should not strike deals with dictators who tyrannize their own people.”

Foreign Minister Sikorski makes a poignant, true-ringing statement: “Belarus is Europe’s Cuba. There are no good policies and no easy solutions.” In early February, there will be a donors conference in Warsaw, to help Belarusian society — it is being billed as “Solidarity with Belarus.”

Presumably, there will come a time when Russian coffers run low again. Moscow can do a lot when oil is $100 a barrel; it can do a lot less when oil is cheaper. Will Europe bail Lukashenko out, when he is forced to look westward once more? Sikorski says, “What’s very important is that we don’t rescue him when the financial consequences of his policies arrive. Having reluctantly endorsed him, the Russians probably don’t look forward to the costs.”

Eva Neklyaeva, the daughter of imprisoned (and bludgeoned) candidate Vladimir Neklyaev, wants people to know something about the recent crackdown: While it is spectacularly bad, of course, it is “a manifestation of the daily harassment” that the Belarusian people have been under for a long time.

She says that, when she travels to Poland, the Czech Republic, and other such countries, people understand. “You don’t have to explain to them what Belarusians are going through.” They have had recent experience of the same sort of thing. People in countries to the west have a harder time comprehending. “They see videos of what happened on Election Day, and they think it’s kind of a one-off event,” like the dispersal of “G-8 demonstrators in New York or something.”

But no.

In his 2010 speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum, Aleksandr Kazulin said that the authorities decided to do all they could to turn young people into “a well-behaved herd of sheep, following the government’s orders.” That’s when he became involved in the democracy movement. It was “a normal citizen’s reaction to the unlawfulness of his country.”

In an interview last year, Stanislau Shushkevich, the heroic first leader of post-Soviet Belarus, said, “One should not be a sheep, one should become a highly conscious person and citizen.” (I have taken the liberty of adjusting the English.)

Kazulin said, “Europeans say that the opposition in Belarus is too weak. Do you really think that people who risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones are weak?”

At the 2009 Oslo Freedom Forum, Aleksandr Bialiatski said, “ . . . despite all of the challenges, I look optimistically into the future. I am sure that the time will come when the dam of fear and lies that the current Belarusian government has painstakingly erected will give and crumble, swept away by a wave of people’s will for human rights, democracy, and freedom.”

Belarusians, like all people in Orwellian and Kafkaesque situations — I think of the Cubans — long for normality. Simple, unfancy normality. Shushkevich said, “When I am asked how my life is, I always answer: normal, in the conditions of our abnormality. Andrei Sannikov, in his address today, voiced a good appeal: for a normal Belarus! We are now living in an abnormal country, and we should do everything possible to start living well.” (Again, I am adjusting the English.)

He later said, “Look in what abnormality we are living. In a lie, amorality, ostentation, primitiveness. Don’t you think it’s about time to start living as human beings?”

On one thing, all observers agree: The dictatorship is scared. Lukashenko was spooked by the election, in which it is clear he did not get 50 percent. He is very nervous, scared. That’s why he is lashing out, cracking down. Observers also agree on something else: that he is doomed. That this dictatorship will fall.

The problem is, Lukashenko can break a lot of bones, and wreck a lot of lives, before he’s through.