Yesterday, I started a series on Belarus, a country that is going through a particular hell right now. Part I is here. I will begin Part II without fanfare or recapitulation.
The dictator, Lukashenko, essentially made the trains run on time. He told Belarusians that other countries — Ukraine, for example — were experiencing chaos. But not Belarus. Here at home, everything was nice and peaceful. Stable. And so it would remain, if no one challenged his rule.
Politics was closed, to Belarusians. So were the media, for the most part. Lukashenko controlled the media, as he controlled virtually everything else in the country.
Would you like a taste of Lukashenko on the campaign trail — to the extent there was something deserving of the name “campaign trail” in Belarus in the year 2010? He said, “I guarantee you and your families a secure and peaceful life in their land, an opportunity to study, work, and live in safety.” That, of course, is greatly attractive, to a great many people.
Lukashenko was propped up by Putin’s Russia, which made sure he had a stream of energy: oil and gas. There came a time, however, when Russian coffers ran low. There was not so much to spend on the ally in Belarus.
So Lukashenko looked west for a little help. And the West was eager, or certainly willing. The EU offered a deal: loans and credit in exchange for steps toward democracy. Besides, wouldn’t Belarus, a European country, like to be part of the West? Why should Belarusians be out in the cold?
The dictator, needing support from somewhere, and with Russia weakened, economically, seemed willing to play ball. Foreign Minister Sikorski of Poland says, “There were grounds for dangling carrots in front of Lukashenko’s nose. There were tangible signs that he wanted to become more respectable.”
In the 2010 presidential election, there were nine opposition candidates. If no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, there would be a run-off election, between the two top vote-getters.
Lukashenko allowed the opposition candidates more privileges than he had ever allowed opposition candidates before. For example, they could collect signatures in the streets. They could even appear on television, very briefly.
Vladimir Neklyaev was a candidate in the election. He is a 64-year-old poet and the leader of Tell the Truth, a civil-society campaign. Truth has been scarce and ever so valuable in Belarus. His daughter, Eva, speaking from Finland, says that he and two of his colleagues were detained for three days last summer. During this time, their homes and offices were searched, and their property confiscated. That is perfectly normal in Belarus.
On the eve of the election, something happened: something very important to Lukashenko. He secured a deal with Moscow: billions in oil and gas concessions. This gave him a freer, stronger dictatorial hand. He could tell the West to go hang. He could tell Belarusians to do the same, for that matter. And so he did.
When the election occurred, he announced that he had won 79.7 percent. This was preposterous. Sober analysts say that he actually won more like 40 percent: meaning that he could not have avoided a run-off, with either Neklyaev or another democratic candidate, Andrei Sannikov.
Sikorski says, “We feared Lukashenko might steal the election, but we didn’t expect him to do it so blatantly.” The West, not just Europe but the United States, too, cried foul. In Russia, President Medvedev dismissed the election as “an internal matter.”
Lukashenko, if he had been a cooler and cagier dictator, could have had life both ways: He could have had his deal with Moscow and his deal with the West. He could have stolen the election more modestly, allowed some protests, and sailed on. But he chose to steal the election baldly and flagrantly, and to smash his fist over the country.
On Election Night, tens of thousands of protesters massed in the capital city of Minsk. They began in October Square, then moved to Independence Square. They shouted “Get out!” and “Long live Belarus!” One of the opposition candidates, Sergei Kalyakin, said, “Let’s melt the ice of this dictatorship!”
Lukashenko cracked down, arresting about 700 people. They face as many as 15 years in prison. Among the people arrested were seven of the nine opposition candidates.
Eva Neklyaeva tells what happened to her father. It was 7:30 p.m., and there was still a half-hour of voting to go. With a party of supporters and press, he left his office, to join the protest in October Square. He didn’t get very far — only 100 or 200 meters. He and others were jumped by men in civilian clothes — obviously agents of the state. They beat Neklyaev about the head, knocking him unconscious.
He was taken to a hospital in an ambulance. He had been there for four or five hours — when men dressed in black, who would not show papers, burst in and seized him from his bed. Some of the men held his wife, Olga, who was screaming for help. They then locked her into another room, as her husband, the candidate, was being dragged away.
Neklyaev was not heard from for eight days. His family and supporters feared he had been taken into the woods and shot — it had happened to other opposition figures, nuisances to the dictatorship. At last, he was heard from: A lawyer was able to see him on December 29, at the KGB prison. Since then, he has not been seen. He was allowed to send one letter to his wife. At the end of December, he was very near death.
Earlier, I mentioned another democratic candidate, Andrei Sannikov. He was dragged from his car, along with his wife, the investigative journalist Irina Khalip. State agents beat him to a pulp, breaking one of his legs. He and his wife are in prison, while their three-year-old son, Danil, is with his grandparents.
In a case that has garnered international attention, the authorities are threatening to remove Danil from his grandparents’ care. They may well claim that the grandparents are too old and infirm to look after the boy. A state official had a creepy warning: “God forbid that all is not well with the health of the grandmother.” The grandmother, Lyutsina Khalip, said, “Even in my worst nightmares, I could not have conceived that this could happen.”
Would you like to see a picture of the happy Sannikov family, as the candidate was voting on December 19? Go here. They are holding hands, as if they were doing something both wonderful and perilous, requiring strength and love. That they were.
This series will return tomorrow, for the third and final part.