Blast shatters Belarus' peaceful facade

By Kiryl Sukhotski
BBC News

Thursday's bomb explosion in Belarus has come as a complete shock.

This former Soviet republic bordering with three EU member states has never seen anything like this. And the consequences could be unpredictable.

Belarus is a country of 10 million people in the middle of Europe - a few years ago it even claimed to have the geographical centre of Europe on its territory.

Yet you rarely hear any news from there. Authorities argue it is a sign of stability.

After the break-up of the USSR, Belarus was one of the very few post-Soviet countries that did not experience any violence, huge public uprisings, or war.

Independence came very quietly and new democratic rulers tried to put forward some liberal reforms.

It did not last long. Washington has dubbed Belarus "the last dictatorship in Europe".

It is ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko, a former director of a collective farm who assumed office in 1994 at the age of 39 and never looked back.

A few years ago I asked him what he would do when he steps down. "I can't imagine myself not being a president", he told me then.

Under his rule reforms have been stalled, private business has all but disappeared, any dissent has been crushed.

War trauma

In the early years of his presidency, the opposition tried to bring dozens of thousands people to the streets almost every month or two.

But year after year those numbers diminished, and now at a typical opposition rally the few hundred protesters are far outnumbered by police.

They are usually beaten up and arrested, but this is hardly noticed by the population as there is not a single private TV station, radio channel or newspaper in the country.

People who live there are quite poor, especially by the standards of neighbouring Poland, Latvia or Lithuania. You barely see any billboards on the streets, while a 10-year-old foreign car is still considered a decent vehicle.

Throughout all these years President Lukashenko has successfully argued that Belarus is a peaceful place where there is no violence, explosions, Russian-style hostage-taking incidents, or Ukrainian-style "orange revolutions".

That struck a chord with ordinary people in Belarus, where World War II left deep scars in the national psyche.

One in three Belarusians died in that war. Every family lost someone, and almost 200 villages were burned to the ground, along with all their inhabitants.

"Maybe we're poor but we live in peace" - was the president's message that won him support. (Critics say a couple of rigged elections helped too.)

But this blast has changed it all.

Moreover, it happened on the very anniversary of the capital's liberation from Nazi occupation, near the impressive monument to WWII heroes. It could have hardly been more symbolic.


The opposition now fears that it will be blamed for the explosion, which will provoke a massive crackdown.

But it is hard to see how things can get much worse for Mr Lukashenko's opponents. They are weak and divided and have not recently posed any real threat to the authorities.

Their leader, who dared to stand up against the incumbent president in the last election, was put into prison shortly after the vote and has remained there ever since.

Another theory is that a power struggle is under way within the ruling elite.

Quite a few officials privately admit that they are fed up with the president and the isolation he has imposed on the country. But they are very, very afraid of him.

President Lukashenko controls the army and the police, who are very loyal to him.

But there are rumours of discontent among the ever-present secret police, which has retained its name - KGB - and much of its power in Belarus.

Some observers note how shell-shocked the president and police chiefs appeared after the blast.

They announced that they were treating it as "hooliganism" - which is usually a way to play down the significance of an attack.

But whatever the motives for the explosion are, it has surely changed the image of Belarus as a stable and peaceful country.

With a second bomb found in Minsk on Friday, the European Union may have suddenly found an unstable country on its borders.