For the last 15 years or so, Belarus has lived in agony. It has been called “the last dictatorship in Europe”; its ruler, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has been called “the last dictator in Europe.” Since December 19, life in Belarus has become much, much worse. On that day, Lukashenko stole his latest election. Citizens rose up to protest en masse. Lukashenko cracked down on them, hard: breaking bones and filling up his cells.
Anna Gerasimova is a Belarusian human-rights advocate living in Lithuania. She says, “What is happening there, it’s hard to believe, even for a Belarusian.” She further says, “We believe we are reliving 1937.” This was a period of Stalinist terror. The very mention of the year 1937 sends a chill through many Belarusians.
I have a piece about that country in the current National Review. Over the next few days, I’d like to say more here at National Review Online.
‐Belarus is at the eastern edge of Europe, surrounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine. It has a population of 9.6 million. Russian and Belarusian are the official languages; Polish and Ukrainian are also heard in the country.
In English, there are several ways to refer to this land: Belarus, Belorussia, Byelorussia. One may refer to Belarusians, Belarussians, Belorussians, Byelorussians. Formerly, one spoke of “White Russia” and “White Russians.”
‐Belarus was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Kosciuszko, who gained fame in the American Revolution, was born there. Belarus was absorbed by the Russian empire at the end of the 18th century; it stayed there until 1918, when it had a short season of independence. Then it was swallowed by the Bolsheviks, made a “Soviet socialist republic.”
The terror killed many thousands of people. I quote from a speech by the Belarusian human-rights leader Aleksandr Bialiatski, given at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2009. He said, “People remember well this swishing of black ravens in the night, the special cars that took away enemies of the people, the mass shootings in the suburban woods” — of intellectuals, artists, peasants, religious activists, members of ethnic minorities. Indeed, “anyone who was perceived as a potential threat to the ruling Communist ideology.”
When the war came, the Nazis, of course, committed their own atrocities.
‐Belarus won its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. One of the key figures in this dissolution was Stanislau Shushkevich, a physicist and mathematician who became the first president of the new Belarus.
Readers may remember a piece I did last year, based on an interview I had with Lech Walesa, at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum. (For that piece, go here.) Walesa, as you know, was the first president of a free Poland. In 1983, he had won the Nobel peace prize for his leadership of the Solidarity movement. I asked him, “Who else, over the years, should have, or might have, won the peace prize, but did not?” He gave just one name: Shushkevich’s.
‐As president, Shushkevich set a course of democracy and liberalism. Light was dawning over Belarus. The next president, Lukashenko, soon extinguished it.
He won a free and fair election in 1994. You know the deal: He then saw to it that he never again would have to participate in such an election.
Lukashenko is an open admirer of Hitler and his politics. Bialiatski called Lukashenko a “former minor Soviet functionary” and a “great populist and demagogue.” He lost no time in turning Belarus into a dictatorship. He seized all sorts of powers for himself, assuming control of many aspects of life: the courts, the banks, the universities, and so on. The country’s intelligence service is the only one that has retained the name KGB. That tells us something about Belarus.
Rodger Potocki, a specialist with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, says that there are many touches of the Soviet Union in Belarus. There is also a degree of “nostalgia” — Soviet nostalgia — there. But Lukashenko’s is not so much a Communist dictatorship, or a party dictatorship, as a personal one.
Like many dictators, Lukashenko has a certain rough appeal. There is an animal spirit about him. Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland, has dealt with him, up close. He says, “The guy is physically impressive, has a booming voice, and speaks with the conviction of his own propaganda.”
‐Once Lukashenko established his dictatorship, Belarus did not merely lie down. There was a substantial democracy movement: one that was repeatedly harassed and squelched. Bialiatski leads an organization called “Viasna,” which means “Spring” — that is what democracy movements are always hoping for. It was banned, and all of its works were considered criminal.
Lukashenko held sham presidential elections in 2001 and 2006. One of the candidates in the latter election was the democrat Aleksandr Milinkevich. Needless to say, he did not win the election. But he won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought that year — it is given by the European Parliament.
‐Another of the 2006 candidates was Aleksandr Kazulin, a mathematician and former university rector, as well as a democracy leader. He spoke at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum. And he had our rapt attention as he told us about his country. A country that led the world in suicides. A country that tried to numb itself with alcohol. Kazulin said, “The only way to succeed in this system is to dismiss your moral principles and blindly follow orders.”
I wish I could recapitulate the entire speech for you. You can see it on video, here. It lasts about 23 minutes. You will want to make the time for it, I believe.
Kazulin was beaten and detained before the 2006 election; he was beaten and imprisoned afterward. His wife, who had done everything to win his release, died while he was in prison. The authorities would not let him out to attend the funeral. He began a hunger strike, refusing even to drink water. He said, “If I’m not allowed to attend the funeral, you’ll have to bury us both.” Relenting, the authorities let him out for three days. Thousands attended the funeral, despite open threats from the government, and the heavy presence of the armed forces.
In Oslo, Kazulin said he was lucky to be alive, and he credited the administration of George W. Bush — which took a keen interest in Belarus — with saving him. “Thanks to their efforts, I am still alive today, even though I was at death’s door.”
He also said, “Interestingly enough, I’m not afraid of the authorities; they’re afraid of me.”
In my online journal about that conference — the conference in Oslo — I wrote, “You know how sometimes you can just sense you are in the presence of a great man? That’s how I felt — I must confess — about Kazulin.”
That is how you feel about most people who risk everything for what is right in the world.
Thanks for joining me today, friends, and I will continue tomorrow.