In Soviet-Style Belarus, Crackdown Extends to Those Outside Politics


MINSK, Belarus — Andrei Vilkin has long been celebrated in Belarus for his skills as a karate master and a coach. The patriarch of a family of decorated martial artists, he has filled his living room with the hallmarks of his success: trophies from world championships and national awards for “service to the motherland.”

But they are little help to him now.

The authoritarian government of this former Soviet republic has branded the Vilkins “enemies of the people,” a phrase dating from Stalin-era purges, for taking part in protests over the widespread fraud they suspected in the re-election of the president.

Mr. Vilkin; his wife, Svetlana; and their 21-year-old son, Aleksei, were among thousands of people who gathered on a central square here right after the election in December. The police responded violently, corralling them and hundreds of others into vans and shuttling them to prison.

A judge summarily sentenced Mr. Vilkin and his son to roughly two weeks in jail for participating in an illegal rally and, bizarrely enough, for chanting “Long live Belarus!” Mrs. Vilkin was detained overnight, fined and released.

The arrests, however, were only the first of their troubles.

The secret police, still called the K.G.B., first moved against opposition leaders and their supporters. Some have already been tried and sent to prison for up to four years. But now, the crackdown has spread to people who had previously been strangers to politics, like the Vilkins, who dared to voice their anger at the government.

The scope of the repression suggests that the president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, believes that he needs to bolster control over the country in the face of populist opposition. Beyond the election, which independent monitors said was undermined by fraud, prices are rising, social mobility is limited and many people are increasingly frustrated with the government’s control over most spheres of society.

“The authorities have realized that they can survive now only through provocations and total oppression,” said Inna Kuley, the head of Solidarity, a Belarussian rights group.

Dozens of people who took part in the protests have been fired from jobs or kicked out of universities, rights groups say. The government has disbarred at least five lawyers representing jailed opposition leaders, and few have been willing to step in to replace them.

A large measure of the government’s control comes from its near monopoly on employment and education, Ms. Kuley said. In exchange for jobs and free education, Mr. Lukashenko demands loyalty. Few have much choice. Within Belarus’s Soviet-style economy, private sector jobs are scarce, as are independent universities.

Events abroad may also be contributing to the crackdown. Mr. Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, has made clear that he will smother attempts to organize the kind of uprisings that have occurred recently in North Africa and the Middle East.

“If there arose a real threat of coup in our country, a threat to our 10 million people,” Mr. Lukashenko said on a visit to a military base last month, “I would not hesitate to use the armed forces.”

Upon release from prison, the Vilkins found their lives upended.

Mr. and Mrs. Vilkin, both martial arts instructors at a Minsk university, were deemed a poor influence on young people and forced to resign. They have been barred from their specially built workout center at the university and have nowhere to conduct private lessons.

Mr. Vilkin, 52, said he worried that his son could be thrown out of college and drafted into the army. More than a dozen students arrested at the protest have been expelled, according to rights groups.

“You have to remain loyal,” Mr. Vilkin said, slouched over a cup of tea at his kitchen table. “We violated this rule, and are now out of the game.”

Mr. Lukashenko has described people like the Vilkins as both traitors and pawns in a Western-backed plot to oust him.

Tens of thousands of people converged on Independence Square here in the capital in December, angered over what appeared to be fraud in elections that Mr. Lukashenko officially won with 80 percent of the vote.

More than 700 people were arrested that night, crammed into police vans and thrown into dank and often overcrowded prison cells.

Mr. Vilkin spent Christmas, the New Year and his 52nd birthday at a high security prison in the town of Zhodino, where he said he was at times beaten (he said he did not fight back) and verbally abused by guards. His cell was freezing, he said, and filled with cigarette smoke.

He said he and his fellow prisoners from the protest amused themselves with a chess set made of black and white bread — until a guard discovered it and threw it away.

Asked about his prospects now, Mr. Vilkin sighed. “Let’s not discuss it, O.K.? I haven’t been able to find decent work in Belarus, yet.”

Mr. Vilkin had worked at the Belarussian National Technical University as a karate instructor since 1988. His team has won the national karate championship in Belarus for the last 12 years.

“Now, everything we’ve done these past years has come to nothing,” he said, covering his mustachioed face with a hand. “All the memories of us will be forgotten.”

Fyodor Panteleenko, an assistant rector at the university, said that he knew little about the case, but that it was Mr. Vilkin’s “right” to resign if he wanted to.

Like many who gathered for December’s demonstration, Mr. Vilkin and his family had never protested before. They did not have ties to opposition groups, and of the nine opposition candidates, they did not support one in particular.

Yet they and others who were interviewed said they sympathized with those calling for Mr. Lukashenko to be removed. In 16 years as president, Mr. Lukashenko seems to have modeled his country on the Soviet Union itself, complete with collective farms and five-year plans, largely obsolete factories and the pervasive K.G.B.

Supporters credit him with staving off the aftershocks of the Soviet collapse — the runaway corruption, political instability and economic disarray that have plagued neighbors like Ukraine.

But many have begun to view the stability as stagnation. To the west, Belarus borders the European Union — Poland, Latvia and Lithuania — and people look upon those neighbors with envy.

“We were born in this country and we really love it,” Mr. Vilkin said. “And we think that it is worthy of a higher standard of living and development than it has. For this, there needs to be some kind of change.”


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