Tuesday, 17 May 2005

Belarus: Spy Agencies Open Presidential Election Season

By Jan Maksymiuk

Last week the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, accused Western nongovernmental organizations of plotting a government overthrow in Belarus during the 2006 presidential election. The Belarusian KGB swiftly and eagerly echoed these charges, claiming additionally that it has already thwarted specific steps taken by ill-wishers of the Belarusian government in this direction. The allegations of the Russian and Belarusian Chekists seem to have inaugurated an international publicity and propaganda campaign focused on Belarus's 2006 vote.

Speaking in the Russian State Duma on 12 May, Patrushev said the U.S.-based International Republican Institute held a meeting in Bratislava in April with the directors of its offices in CIS countries to discuss "the possibility of the continuation of velvet revolutions in the post-Soviet territory." In this context, Patrushev added: "$5 million has been allocated in 2005 for the implementation of programs by this nongovernmental organization to finance opposition movements in Belarus. [The organization] is currently considering involving the leaders of the Ukrainian 'orange' [activists] for training opposition members in Belarus and creating a network of opposition youth organizations."

The following day U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher rejected Patrushev's charges that U.S. nongovernmental groups are part of a Western conspiracy to unseat Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as "completely false, most of them ridiculous." "The work that nongovernmental organizations do in terms of promoting democracy, educating people in democracy, helping the growth of civil society is open, is transparent," Boucher said. "Our election aid in Belarus and elsewhere is for civic participation in the election process, balanced media coverage, nonpartisan political party training, election monitoring, and election administration. These programs are nonpartisan, they are transparent, they are peaceful in nature and we'll conduct them in Belarus in order to support efforts to build civil society and democracy."

Steven B. Nix, the International Republican Institute's Regional Program Director for Eurasia, told RFE/RL on 13 May that his organization's program for Belarus averages about $500,000 a year. "We don't have $5 million, so I'm not sure what connection [Patrushev's allegation may have to] the IRI," Nix said. "We provide technical assistance and training to political parties and nongovernmental organizations in various countries.... We provide training how to build organizational structures; perhaps, communications; perhaps, public relations -- all the things political parties try to do from a functionality standpoint."

NGOs Viewed As Subversive

Whatever foreign NGOs may say about what they do in Belarus, they are surely unable to convince the Belarusian KGB that their activities are not tantamount to political subversion. It is simply because the mere ideas of "democracy" and "civil society" are highly subversive for the Lukashenka regime. "Apart from [what Patrushev said], the KGB possesses other data that confirm the intention of foreign organizations, funds, and private individuals to spend significant sums to export the revolution [to Belarus]," Belarusian KGB Deputy Chairman Viktor Vyahera said on Belarusian Television on 12 May. "These activities are under our control, and we have already thwarted concrete steps."

And Vyahera's chief, KGB Chairman Stsyapan Sukharenka, said the following day on Belarusian Television that international conferences and seminars for Belarusian pro-democracy activists serve for training "the so-called colored revolutionaries from the radical Belarusian opposition." "Moreover, we have information that on the territory of adjoining countries bases are being created to train militants who will subsequently be used in violent actions of disobedience toward law-enforcement agencies and for destabilizing the situation in society," Sukharenka emphasized. He claimed that the West has already provided $5 million "for a coup in Belarus" and is going to spend as much as $50 million to oust Lukashenka.

Belarusian Television, the main mouthpiece of the Lukashenka regime, noted on 13 May that "the strengthening of an anti-Belarusian campaign abroad and the holding of street protests by the Belarusian opposition" are being accompanied by more and more frequent shipments of narcotics, weapons, and money into Belarus. "This year alone more than 700 small arms pieces were confiscated in Belarus, including those manufactured in the West," a Belarusian Television commentator said over footage showing a stockpile of small arms and explosives.

"It is noteworthy that [law-enforcement bodies] have begun to detect caches with weapons in late April, when the opposition was calling for street protests," the Belarusian Television commentator went on. "On the eve of the so-called Chornobyl Way protest [on 26 April], in which foreign militants [editorial note: presumably, Russian and Ukrainian youth movement activists] took part, stores of small arms and explosives were seized near Minsk and in Brest. According to Interfax, the Interior Ministry is taking into account the possible preparation of terrorist acts and the organization of illegal shipments of arms into the country by opposition activists." In other words, the state propaganda machine has already begun portraying Belarusian oppositionists as dangerous maniacs who are getting ready to kill Belarusians or, as a minimum, to narcotize them during the 2006 presidential election.

Does such propaganda work in Belarus? United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, a potential challenger of President Lukashenka in the 2006 election, shrugs off such pre-election propagandistic excesses by the regime. "Only pensioners believe this [propaganda]," he told RFE/RL on 16 May. "After what they were shown [on Belarusian Television] over this past weekend, they went to the pharmacy to buy tranquilizers. These people have been intimidated for the past 11 years to such an extent that I'm really sorry for them." That said, one should not forget that pensioners in Belarus account for one-third of the active electorate, and they usually vote overwhelmingly for Lukashenka.