Sunday, March 6, 2005

Why you should care about Belarus freedom

Nation epitomizes Eastern retreat to totalitarianism

By Aleh Panamarou


Aleh Panamarou, a journalist from Belarus, is visiting Cincinnati to observe how a U.S. newspaper operates in a free society. In the Enquirer newsroom last week, he followed closely President Bush's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During that exchange in Slovakia, Bush said: "The democratic revolutions that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine. In 10 days Moldova has the opportunity to place its democratic credentials beyond doubt as its people head to the polls. And inevitably, the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies."

Panamarou wants all of us to know why recent events in tiny Belarus should be of interest to the Western world.

The current backslide from the ideals of freedom and democracy in Russia was a motivating force for last week's meeting in Slovakia between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. What is happening in today's Russia - the curtailment of freedom of speech, stifling of private capital and enterprise, and the pursuit of close economic, political and military ties with "rogue countries" of the Arab world - was inconceivable at the dawn of glasnost (outspokenness) and perestroika (reconstruction) in the early '90s.

What has made Russia, since then, decide to turn against the civilized world all over again? One answer to this question can be found in a small state wedged between Russia and Poland called Belarus.

"A boil in the center of Europe" is how Belarus was described recently by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The reason for such harsh language is the odious leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who can easily qualify as Putin's teacher. The path Russia has veered toward lately is the same direction Lukashenko has taken since assuming power in 1994 - toward dictatorship, away from freedom. This is troublesome, given the still-influential position of Russia on the international stage.

Lukashenko's first step upon assuming power was to cut the state constitution "to size" and dismiss the popularly elected parliament. The indignant parliamentarians promptly declared a hunger strike; yet, with the assistance of a SWAT team and a police detail, were forcibly thrown out of the "oval hall" (or congress).

The next step was to do away with the more influential among the opposition politicians.

In 1999, Mikhail Chigir, who had resigned as prime minister three years earlier, was subjected to judicial persecution. April of the same year saw the death under mysterious circumstances of Gennady Karpenko, a famous opposition leader. A month later, his active cohort, Yuri Zakharchenko, former secretary of internal affairs, vanished without a trace. In September, Victor Gonchar, former chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, and his friend, businessman Anatoly Krassovsky, were on their way out of a steam bath one evening. They were never seen again.

A year later, Dmitriy Zavadskiy, a young but quite famous TV journalist, also vanished without a trace. His mother, wife and son have waited for his return ever since - almost five years now.

All of these "disappearances" have been linked by the Belarusian press to Lukashenko and his "inner circle." Last year, the European Council published a report titled "People Who Disappeared in Belarus," which said there is substantial cause to assume that the people in power in Belarus were involved in the disappearances, as well as in the growing number of "prisoners of conscience" in Belarusian prisons.

In 2004 alone, about 20 independent newspapers were closed down in Belarus, and 81 periodicals received 160 written warnings from the Department of Information. A number of journalists and editors face a variety of prison terms.

The entire Western world has condemned the Belarusian regime and introduced sanctions, including Bush, who signed the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004.

Putin's Russia, however, responded with silence, then proceeded to offer economic and political support not unlike that rendered to Eduard Shevardnadze's regime in Georgia not long ago, or the regime of Leonid Kuchma, the previous leader of Ukraine.

As everyday life in Russia increasingly shows, Putin has taken the first step toward the authoritarianism of Lukashenko - and the Belarusian dictator still has quite a bit to teach his eastern colleague.