Magazine | February 7, 2011, Issue

Belarus, Assaulted

The state of affairs in ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’

On December 19, at 7:30 p.m., there was still a half hour of voting to go in Belarus. One of the presidential candidates, Vladimir Neklyaev, a 64-year-old poet and democracy leader, left his office in the capital city of Minsk. He and his supporters were headed toward October Square, for a mass protest rally. They didn’t get very far. Plainclothesmen jumped Neklyaev and others. They beat the candidate about the head, knocking him unconscious.

Eva Neklyaeva, his daughter, speaking from Finland, tells what happened next: Neklyaev was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He was there for “a few hours,” then “people in black” burst in. They “kidnapped him from his bed.” As they did this, they held his wife, Olga, who was screaming for help. When some of the men dragged Neklyaev away, others locked Mrs. Neklyaeva in another room. The candidate was not heard from for eight days. His family and supporters feared that he had been “taken somewhere in the forest and shot,” as had happened to others. On December 29, Neklyaev was seen by his lawyer, at the KGB prison. He has not been seen since, although he was allowed to send one letter to his wife. At the end of December, he was on the verge of death.

This is Belarus today. It has been called “Europe’s last dictatorship,” and “the last dictator” is one Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. He and his regime have now plunged Belarus into a nightmare of repression. Anna Gerasimova, a Belarusian human-rights advocate living in Lithuania, says, “What is happening there, it’s hard to believe, even for a Belarusian.” She further says, “We believe we are reliving 1937” — a period of Stalinist terror.

Belarus is on the eastern edge of Europe, ringed by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine. It has a population of 9.6 million. As part of the Soviet Union, it was bludgeoned, along with the other “republics.” In the 1930s, the terror killed many thousands. Intellectuals, artists, peasants, members of ethnic minorities, various other people — they were all shot in the woods. When the war came, the occupying Nazis 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. Last year, when I interviewed Lech Walesa, I asked him who should have won the Nobel peace prize but did not. (Walesa was the first president of a free Poland, and, as the leader of the Solidarity movement, he won the peace prize in 1983.) He gave just one name: that of Shushkevich. In his short years as president, Shushkevich set a course of democracy and liberalism. That course was soon reversed by the next president, Lukashenko.

He won a free and fair election in 1994. He then arranged things so that he would never have to participate in such an election again. Lukashenko is an open admirer of Hitler and his politics. The Belarusian democracy activist Aleksandr Bialiatski, in a 2009 speech before the Oslo Freedom Forum, called him a “former minor Soviet functionary” and a “great populist and demagogue.” Lukashenko quickly turned the country 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 Belarusian intelligence agency is the only one that still has the name “KGB” — which tells us something about the country.

#page#Rodger Potocki, a specialist with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, says that there are many touches of the Soviet Union in Belarus. But this is not so much a Communist dictatorship, or a party dictatorship, as a personal one. Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, has dealt with Lukashenko, up close. The dictator is not without a rough appeal, in common with other dictators and strongmen. Says Sikorski, “The guy is physically impressive, has a booming voice, and speaks with the conviction of his own propaganda.”

Lukashenko held sham presidential elections in 2001 and 2006. One of the candidates in the 2006 election, Aleksandr Kazulin, spoke at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum. He is a mathematician and former university rector, as well as a democracy leader. He had our rapt attention as he talked about the agony of his country: which leads the world in suicides, and numbs itself with alcohol. “The only way to succeed in this system is to dismiss your moral principles and blindly follow orders,” he said.

Before the 2006 election, Kazulin was beaten and detained, and after the election he was beaten and imprisoned. His wife, his greatest champion, died during this time. The authorities would not allow him to attend the funeral. He began a hunger strike, and refused even to drink water. He said, “If I’m not allowed to attend the funeral, you’ll have to bury us both.” They let him out for three days. Thousands came to the funeral, despite open threats from the government, and the heavy presence of the armed forces.

In that Oslo speech, Kazulin said that he was lucky to be alive, and he credited the administration of George W. Bush — which took an interest in Belarus — with saving him. He also said, “Interestingly enough, I’m not afraid of the authorities; they’re afraid of me.”

From his position as dictator, Lukashenko essentially made the trains run on time. He told Belarusians that they would have a nice, stable, tolerable life — as long as no one challenged him. He enjoyed a close relationship with Moscow, which subsidized him. There came a time, however, when Russian coffers ran low, and Lukashenko had to look west for a little help. The West, in the form of the EU, dangled carrots in front of his nose: If he made some moves toward democracy, he would have European loans and credit.

In the 2010 election, there were nine opposition candidates, and they were allowed some privileges — more than opposition candidates had ever been allowed. For example, they could collect signatures in the streets, and they appeared (briefly) on television. Lukashenko was showing the West a more human face. But, on the eve of the election, he secured a deal with Russia: billions in oil and gas concessions. This gave him some latitude, a stronger dictatorial hand.

Announcing the election results, Lukashenko made a preposterous claim: that he had won 79.7 percent of the votes. Sober analysts say that he actually won more like 40 percent: meaning he could not have avoided a run-off election, 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 duly cried foul. Russia’s president Medvedev commented merely that the election was “an internal matter.” Tens of thousands of people gathered in October Square, and later in Independence Square, to protest the crushing of their democratic hopes. Lukashenko crushed them. He arrested about 700 people, who face as many as 15 years in prison. Among the people arrested were seven of the nine opposition candidates.

#page#Sannikov and his wife, the journalist Irina Khalip, were dragged from their car. The candidate was beaten to a pulp, and had one of his legs broken. He and his wife are in prison, while their three-year-old son, Danil, is with his grandparents. The state is threatening to remove the boy from their care. They may well claim that his grandparents are too old and sick to look after him. 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.”

In the days since December 19, democrats have been under siege. Their phones and computers have been confiscated; their passports have been taken away; their media have been shut down. Sikorski and other Poles are reminded of the imposition of martial law in their country, in December 1981. Then, as now, people were arrested in the dead of winter; people simply disappeared. Lukashenko’s state media have portrayed the democrats as bandits, saboteurs, drug addicts, and terrorists. The dictator himself made a ringing 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.”

Anna Gerasimova believes that Lukashenko has made a “huge mistake”: because now the democratic opposition is united as never before. A human-rights lawyer in Belarus says, “Even regular people have been aroused, and they are coming out to help us.” By “regular people,” she means ordinary citizens, not previously 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.”

Belarus’s democrats are pleading for more sanctions from the West, the maximum pressure on Lukashenko. “Only in that way can he be touched,” says the human-rights lawyer. Sikorski refers to Belarus as “Europe’s Cuba.” What does he mean by that? For one thing, “there are no good policies and no easy solutions.” Lukashenko has given the back of his hand to the West, as well as to his own people. He sits relatively secure, with Moscow’s backing. But what if Moscow should start to run dry again? Let Lukashenko suffer the consequences, say the democrats, with no rescue by the West. The human-rights lawyer says, with palpable indignation, “Normal, civilized countries should not strike deals with dictators who tyrannize their own people.”

Everyone in the opposition agrees that the crackdown shows one thing: Lukashenko is scared. The election spooked him. All Belarusians know that, in reality, he lost it. Also, he is doomed. There will come a time when Europe has no more dictators (until the next one). But here’s the bad news: Before he falls, which he will, Lukashenko can crack a lot of heads and wreck a lot of lives.

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