Since that awful Election Day, and worse night, in December, Belarusians have been under siege. I will count a few of the ways.
Families of political prisoners have been unable to deliver things to them: food, clothing, toiletries. In many cases, lawyers have been unable to see their clients. One lawyer — a human-rights lawyer — tells me, “No lawyer can work in this environment.”
The homes and offices of democrats and dissidents have been searched and raided; the property of these people has been confiscated. They have been stripped of their phones and computers. Communication with them is obviously very difficult.
Passports have been taken away, trapping people within Belarusian borders — Lukashenko’s borders. Independent media outlets have been shut down. A blogger named Andrei Pachobut was beaten by the KGB. One could name many others.
Since 1998, the OSCE — the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — has operated in Belarus. It has been a representative of the West and democracy in that battered country. After the election, Lukashenko flicked it out.
Lukashenko and his government have portrayed the protesting democrats as bandits, saboteurs, drunkards, drug addicts, and terrorists — people out to destabilize wonderful, stable Belarus. Lukashenko made the following, remarkable declaration:
“That’s it. I warned you that if some commotion started, we’d have enough forces. Folks, you tangled with the wrong guy. I’m not going to hide in the basement. So let’s be done with it. There will be no more hare-brained democracy. We won’t allow the country to be torn to pieces.”
By that last statement, he means, “I won’t allow democracy to dislodge me.”
Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, and other Poles are reminded of the imposition of martial law — which occurred in their country on December 13, 1981. Then as now, people were arrested in the dead of winter; some simply disappeared.
And Belarus’s brave and struggling democrats remind Poles of the Solidarity people, who toughed it out against the Communist dictatorship.
As we have mentioned that dictatorship: Sikorski says that Lukashenko “could have gotten onto the path of General Jaruzelski,” who “very much sinned in the past,” but “then transitioned his country toward democracy.” Because he did this, “he lives in Poland. He has court cases, but otherwise he’s unmolested.” Instead, Lukashenko “has firmly taken the route of Ben Ali” — the Tunisian dictator who turned with ferocity on his people, after they rose up against him. (In the end, of course, he had to flee.)
Anna Gerasimova, you remember, is the Belarusian human-rights advocate living and working in Lithuania. I mentioned her early on in these notes. She says that Lukashenko made a “huge mistake” in his crackdown: because now more people than ever are against him; and the democratic opposition is united. Before, that opposition was relatively weak. “No one believed it could do anything,” says Gerasimova. Now, however, the particulars of the opposition hardly matter. “What matters is that this president should go. He cannot be in power. He didn’t win the election,” and everyone knows it.
Before, people could say, “Okay: Whatever he did, he probably got more than 50 percent of the vote, legitimately.” But not in 2010: He lost it, and this is plain to one and all.
The before-quoted human-rights lawyer — who is in Belarus and of course cannot be further identified — says, “Even regular people have been aroused, and they are coming out to help us.” What does she mean by “regular people”? She means ordinary citizens who have not previously been engaged in the democracy movement. “They say, ‘What should we do now?’”
The lawyer adds, “I am very proud for my people. Finally, we had the courage and wit to show that our opinion has to be considered.”
I ask the lawyer, “How can you keep going, in the face of these dangers, all this imprisonment, all this beating, all this breaking of bones?” She says, “There’s not another choice. . . . We have to continue working under all conditions. The human-rights cause in Belarus has not been shut down.”
I will quote once more from Aleksandr Bialiatski’s 2009 speech before the Oslo Freedom Forum. He said, “When I am asked whether I would like to leave Belarus, where time seems to have stopped over ten years ago, my unequivocal answer is, ‘No.’ . . . We did not start the democratic movement in our country to stop halfway to the goal. We Belarusian human-rights advocates tread our soil with confidence. We are sure of the final outcome of our struggle.”
Why don’t the democrats retreat, as Lukashenko and his forces are doing their worst? Joanna Rohozinska, a specialist with the National Endowment for Democracy (in Washington), says, “In my experience, they’re not built that way.” That is my experience too, with democrats and dissidents in tyrannies all over.
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.”
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.