While the world watches the turmoil in the Middle East and argues whether it portends anything good or not, another drama is being played out almost unnoticed on the eastern border of Europe.
On the Middle East the Obama administration dithers, sending contradictory messages from one day to the next. But so far the administration has had nothing at all to say about the tiny country of Belarus, at precisely the time a strong, unambiguous message of support for those demanding an end to the last communist dictatorship in Europe would hearten its people and create a legacy of friendship for generations.
Belarus, was once a constituent republic of the Soviet Union which declared sovereignty in 1990 and independence in 1991. A Kansas-sized country of 9.5 million people sandwiched in between Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, Belarus was considered a desirable posting for officials of the USSR because of its relatively well-developed infrastructure, low crime rate, and comparatively moderate climate.
Belarusians are generally well-educated, hard-working and western-oriented. While the readiness for political liberty remains problematic among the peoples of the Islamic Middle East, every indication shows Belarusians would willingly go the way of Poland, the Czech Republic, and other the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe.
Instead, the country remains an anachronism. An official at the Minsk office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe once said, “Belarus is the Soviet Union. It’s the rest of the country that disappeared.”
The hammer and sickle and red stars still adorn public buildings, a huge bronze statue of Lenin still stands in front of parliament, and the secret police is still called the KGB.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko maintains warm relationships with fellow-dictators. Recently the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s private jet had landed in Minsk Friday, February 25, possibly to drop off a member of Quaddafi’s family seeking sanctuary. Qadaffi very well might find himself welcome if he is forced out of Libya.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994. His regime continued the Soviet policy of state ownership of the means of production, brutally suppressed opposition and manipulated media and according to the Belarusian opposition and outside observers, falsified election results to keep power. In 2004 a referendum was passed abolishing presidential term limits, allowing Lukashenko to retain power indefinitely.
However, Lukashenko has found it necessary to maintain the appearance of free elections. Opposition parties are allowed to field candidates, and print and distribute campaign literature, though access to the major media remains tightly controlled. And apparently nobody believes the official results of the December 19 election which gave Lukashenko a first-round win without requiring a runoff.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe calls for free and fair elections. Pressure from European countries mounts. The Polish parliament passed a resolution condemning the post-election crackdown on demonstrators and mass arrests of opposition leaders and journalists. Some members of parliament called for Lukashenko to face trial. In Warsaw demonstrators demand the release of imprisoned journalists.
And Lukashenko may have lost the support of his Russian patron. Arch-nationalist and vice-president of the Russian State Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovski has called for Lukashenko to stand down, according to Charter 97.
Nonetheless Lukashenko clings to power and arrogantly stated publicly he would not have hesitated to use the army against demonstrators on election night “if they had gotten out of hand,” according to the United Civil Party of Belarus website.
On election night December 19, demonstrators gathered to protest the election results in Independence Square in Minsk. Reportedly the crowd marched to the government buildings nearby, where some minor vandalism allegedly occurred. The crowd was then brutally dispersed, and hundreds of demonstrators, including seven of the eight opposition presidential candidates were arrested and imprisoned.
The night of the election, presidential candidate of the United Civil Party Jaroslav Romanchuk read a statement on television condemning the organizers of the march on the government buildings. He later claimed he made the statement under threat of imprisonment or murder of his party colleagues. UCP leaders later passed a vote of no confidence in Romanchuk, but as of this writing he remains deputy chairman.
Independent presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, arrested following the election and released on his own recognizance February 19, said he had earlier signed a statement of cooperation with the KGB. He ripped the statement up at a press conference, claiming he had been tortured in the KGB prison, according to the Charter 97 website.
Daria Korsak, wife of imprisioned journalist Alyaksandr Atroscschankau who served as spokesman for presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, said her husband confirmed he had also been tortured.
According to the Human Rights organization Viasna (“Spring,”) out of 42 opposition leaders accused of mass riot after the demonstrations of December 19, 33 are still in custody, two are under house arrest, and seven have been released on personal recognizance on condition they not leave the country.
On February 16 Viasna headquarters reported it had received notice from the General Prosecutor’s Office to cease its activities or face criminal prosecution. Viasna said it will defy the order.
But though there are calls for the imprisoned opposition figures to be freed, and for free and fair elections, there have been no further demonstrations.
The opposition is fragmented. Though attempts were made before the election to rally behind one candidate, in the end negotiations failed and eight opposition candidates opposed Lukashenko in the primary election.
Aside from naked brutality, the KGB also skillfully exploits intra-opposition conflict. Charges and counter-charges of being KGB pawns fly among people who formerly worked closely together.
Romanchuk, an economist by training, said the regime has till now remained moderately popular because it delivers on social services, roads and infrastructure, and the streets are safe. This is largely due to the presence of two oil refineries in the country, large deposits of potash, favorable trade agreements and economic support from Russia amounting to 15 to 20 percent of GDP.
But Romanchuk said, 2010 was the last year the situation was stable. The IMF made loans, and the national bank printed money to loan to enterprises, which will add up to high inflation and a very bad situation in the banking sector. He called the doom of the system inevitable, and said it would probably begin to fall in 2011.
As the trial and imprisonment of journalists, demonstrators, and opposition leaders goes on amid reports of mistreatment and torture in KGB prisons, the European Union contemplates economic sanctions. The people of neighboring Poland demonstrate in solidarity, mindful of the legacy of their own heroic struggle.
The Obama administration remains mute, giving no indication it’s even aware of events in Belarus.