The merciless crackdown that continues across Belarus looks like nothing so much as fear.
by Henadz Kesner
MINSK | On 25 March, democratic activists planned to hold a demonstration in Minsk commemorating the day when the Belarusian People’s Republic announced its independence in 1918. Called Freedom Day by some, the holiday is not recognized by the government and it is traditionally marked by protests against the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Denied a permit to hold the event in central Minsk, the organizers invited people to bring flowers and candles to a monument to Yanka Kupala. Kupala was an early 20th-century poet, who, though not explicitly anti-Soviet, is linked closely with a distinct Belarusian cultural identity that survived during the Soviet era. The monument is in a park named for him in central Minsk.
Two opposition political parties, Young Front and European Belarus, also invited people to come to a square in the city center.
But by early afternoon, downtown Minsk was crawling with police special forces. Dozens of police buses stood parked behind office and apartment buildings. Yanka Kupala park was blocked off, and 16 members of the Young Front organization who were heading to the park with flowers were detained.
Buses and trams that normally stop at the square where the parties were gathering were ordered to pass without stopping, and the nearby subway station was closed. Plain-clothes officers detained scores of passers-by. On that day alone 63 people were arrested in Minsk. Three detainees were taken to a notorious “special” detention center, one of whom declared a hunger strike in protest.
On the same day, in the northern city of Vitebsk, police arrested the mother of Pavel Sevyarynets, a KGB prisoner and a leader of the Christian Democracy party, allegedly claiming that they thought the former school teacher was a burglar. Also in Vitebsk, police arrested a Christian Conservative Party activist, Barys Khamaida, who had protested by showing the flag of the opposition. In Babruisk, in central Belarus, the leader of the local chapter of the United Civic Party found the tires on his car slashed just as he planned to drive to Minsk for the Freedom Day action. And just outside the northern city of Polatsk, a local activist was pulled off a bus en route to Minsk and taken away in a police car.
Since the crackdown on election night protesters three months ago, unsanctioned gatherings in Belarus provoke an outsized response.
“The cruelty of the government testifies to the desire of the regime to drive up the level of fear in society so high that even five years from now people won’t even think about repeating the 19 December protest,” Alyaksandar Klaskouski, a political scientist whose son was jailed by the KGB, said.
Others agree that fear is at the heart of the crackdown, but they say the fear is Lukashenka’s.
Alyaksei Korol, a founding member of the Belarusian opposition movement and editor in chief of the Novy Chas weekly, said the president has been “maniacally afraid” of a popular uprising like the one that toppled Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanbek Bakiev – who was granted political asylum in Belarus – a year ago.
“Internally, the regime is seriously concerned with the deteriorating economic situation,” Korol said. “For the first time since 1995, the economic contract between the regime and its people is at risk of being repealed. The president, who was elected in 1994 on the heels of a popular uprising against economic hardship, knows better than anyone that if, instead of students, the square gets filled with people in working class garb, as it did in 1993, regime change becomes imminent.”
Korol’s thoughts are echoed in part by Balazs Jarabik, Jana Kobzova, and Andrew Wilson, analysts from the European Council on Foreign Relations who analyzed the crackdown in a January report.
Lukashenka was afraid, they write, but not of being bested by an opposition candidate: they note that a post-election poll by the Vilnius-based Independent Institute of SocioEconomic and Political Studies indicates that the president would have won a fully transparent election with some 51 percent of the vote while the percentages for the leading opposition candidates would have been in the single digits.
Rather, they point to two trends that likely worried Minsk.
“A new belief emerged among Belarusians that social – if not regime – change was possible,” they write. “In particular, homegrown reform constituencies began to emerge beyond the boundaries of the groups traditionally financed by Western aid. What worried Lukashenka was probably this change of mindset among ordinary citizens more than the opposition.”
The second worrisome development was maneuvering among government factions in response to those demands for change.
“The security services – the so-called siloviki – stand to lose heavily if there is a successful reconciliation between Belarus and the West, especially if further reforms strengthen their more moderate rivals within the government,” the analysts write.
The rise of reformers could in turn mean that a large upcoming privatization would be more transparent and therefore less profitable for some.
“Thus the brutality used to suppress the post-election protests indicates not the regime’s strength but its internal weakness: gaps between the main factions within the regime are deepening and the main pillars of the regime’s support are eroding” they write.
That fear has persisted not only in the form of riot police arresting flower-carrying teenagers but also in the assembly-line court hearings that almost invariably lead to jail time for activists and in the intimidation or sidelining of anyone who comes to their defense.
The day after the election-night protest, with several hundred people in custody, Minsk was the scene of a wave of rapid administrative trials. Each case was allowed just three to four minutes, with police officers the only witnesses. Judges waved away the arguments of defendants, who included passers-by arrested at bus stops, even in the subway, near the square where protests occurred.
In a few rare cases the judges threw out the large fines for “participation in an unsanctioned event.” Most defendants ended up in jail for 10 to 15 days. So many people were sentenced that Minsk jails quickly ran out of room. Several “administrators,” as the detained became to be known, were taken to a prison in Zhodzina, about 30 kilometers from Minsk.
Immediately after election night, prosecutors initiated several criminal cases for “mass disorder,” punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment. Of the 28 people involved, seven have gone through the courts while 16 have not yet been formally charged.
In violation of Belarusian law, those detained by the KGB have been denied the right to see their attorneys, with officials saying the building lacked sufficient room for such meetings. In the few cases when attorneys were allowed inside, they were not given the chance to speak to their clients privately. Some defendants, including Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party, and presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich, did not see their lawyers in private until March. Defendants – whether those in jail or outside – say they receive far from all letters addressed to them.
The first trial - involving Vasil Parfiankou, who worked on the campaign of another presidential candidate, Uladzimir Niakliaeu – lasted one day and resulted in a four-year sentence. The next defendant, Alyaksandr Atroshchankau, press secretary for candidate Andrei Sannikau, also received four years, but in a maximum security prison. Others have received similar sentences, fines of 10.5 million rubles ($3,500), or detention outside of prison (an ex-Soviet method widely used in Belarus whereby the defendant is confined to a dorm-like facility and ordered to work for minimal wages in an unskilled job).
Since 19 December, five attorneys who represented detainees have effectively been banned from practicing their profession. Among them is Pavel Sapelka, a well-known defense attorney who represented Sannikau and Sevyarynets, the Christian Democracy leader whose mother was mistaken for a burglar. The disbarments provoked a protest letter to Justice Minister Viktor Golovanov from a council of European bar associations.
Meanwhile, thousands of people whose mobile phones were found to be in operation where and when the election-night protests took place were summoned by police to explain what they were doing there.
In arguing that Minsk is especially concerned about the hearts and minds of ordinary Belarusians, Jarabik, Kobzova, and Wilson note that “while the number of political prisoners remains high, the authorities targeted NGOs’ means of gathering information (e.g. computers) rather than the activists themselves.”
Indeed, as early as the morning of 20 December, special services had searched the offices of the Vyasna human rights organization and confiscated almost all its office equipment and recording devices. The next morning, the Vyasna headquarters was stormed by the police a second time.
Over the next several days and nights, police searched the Minsk offices of Warsaw-based European Radio for Belarus and took away computers, cameras, and other equipment. Security services also targeted the Belsat satellite TV channel, the Belarusian PEN center, and the offices and apartments of staff members of the independent Nasha Niva newspaper. In their raids, police and KGB agents hauled away more than 100 computers, hard drives, flash drives, compact discs, and recording devices.
Journalists themselves have also been a primary target, with dozens arrested or harassed.
Tatsiana Haurylchyk, a video journalist for Nasha Niva who recorded an election-night attack on opposition candidate Niakliaeu, was summoned to KGB headquarters for questioning. She refused to speak without her attorney. Afterward, she reported receiving an anonymous threatening phone call.
Iryna Khalip, a well-known journalist and Sannikau’s wife, was released from custody but placed under house arrest, which involves two KGB officers living in her apartment and a ban on seeing anyone except her parents, using the Internet, or even approaching the apartment’s windows. Two other reporters who had been held were released on condition that they not leave Minsk.
In the border city of Hrodna, prosecutors charged Andrzey Poczobut, a correspondent for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, with the criminal offense of defaming the head of state. The government also stripped accreditation from Alexander Lashmankin, editor in chief of Svoboda, a Russian information agency. He had been previously taken off a train traveling from Moscow to Minsk and imprisoned for three days, for alleged petty hooliganism on the train.
In the days before the 25 March demonstrations, the trend continued. Police in the eastern city of Mahilyou arrested three journalists. In Vitebsk, they detained a TV reporter long enough to prevent him from covering the local activities.
On the day of the demonstrations, security services again prevented several reporters from covering the events. Days later, a high court rejected complaints against the Justice Ministry by the Narodnaya Volya newspaper and the Avtoradio radio station over alleged warnings from the ministry not to report on the demonstrations.
For all the screw-tightening, however, Belarusians have acted, often spontaneously, to show their solidarity with those behind bars. Some people did brave the intimidation to come out on 25 March. And after the election night violence, the headquarters of the Belarusian Popular Front, an opposition party, became the center of an unsolicited and uncoordinated campaign of support, with ordinary people bringing food, clothing, and letters for prisoners.
It is those ordinary people who seem to frighten Minsk the most. “And today, when Middle Eastern popular uprisings are shaking long established dictatorships, that fear is reaching paranoid proportions,” Korol said.
Henadz Kesner is a staff writer for Novy Chas, an independent newspaper in Minsk.
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