Belarus

The Last Dictatorship

As an election approaches, will Europe’s remaining Soviet bastion have its own Orange Revolution?

MICHAEL PETROU October 3 2005
Belarus

The Last Dictatorship

As an election approaches, will Europe’s remaining Soviet bastion have its own Orange Revolution?

MICHAEL PETROU October 3 2005

A SHOWDOWN IS BREWING in Europe’s last dictatorship. The opening skirmishes of a looming battle were fought this summer, in back gardens and community halls in small Belarusian towns and villages. The country’s broad coalition of parties opposed to President Alexander Lukashenko has been meeting to elect regional candidates, who will in turn select one presidential candidate to stand in a national election to be held next year. Democrats in the country watched with renewed hope as popular uprisings against falsified elections toppled dictators in two other former Soviet republics—Ukraine and Georgia. They’re hoping Belarus will be the next domino to fall. And Lukashenko fears they might be right.

The pro-Soviet strongman has no intention of standing idle and watching the forces of his potential demise organize and gather strength. So this summer he sent out his own troops. But the most effective of Lukashenko’s forces are not made up of batonwielding police and armed soldiers—not yet, anyway. They are an army of bought-andpaid-for bureaucrats, bums and barking seals. Election meetings are broken up by government officials claiming there is a fire in the building, or a bomb, or that asbestos levels are too high. Delegates are subjected to random drug searches and are detained for hours in the hope that others at the meeting will drift away out of fear or frustration.

Protesters and police square off at an April demonstration in Minsk marking the 19th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident

“In trying such stupid tactics against us, the regime is not achieving its goals,” says Alaksiej Janukievic, 29, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, a centre-right party and one of the largest opposition groups in the country. “More importantly, whenever this happens we have open negotiations

with the police. And they tell us: ‘Please understand. We don’t like this, but we have to do it because we are in the service of the state.’ The majority of them are not bad people, and they don’t like to look like stupid men. It’s a very unpleasant situation for them, too.”

Janukievic has reddish hair styled in a short buzz cut, and his face is often set in a deadly serious grimace. When I first see him, he is wearing a well-cut dark blue suit like a Western banker, but he later leaves with a knapsack slung over his shoulder as if he were a university student. It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate Janukievic because of his youth. He is respected in Minsk by people opposed to Lukashenko, and he has already caught the attention of U.S. President George W. Bush, who spoke with Janukievic in Washington earlier this year.

LUKASHENKO has no intention of standing by and watching opposition forces gather strength

In the offices of the Belarusian Popular Front, photos of two revolutions line the walls. The first set of black and white images depict scenes from the Prague Spring of 1968, when Soviet troops and tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and brutally suppressed a democratic reformist movement that was pulling the country away from Soviet and Communist control. The second set of photos was taken in 1989 and chronicles the Velvet Revolution, when massive street protests in Czechoslovakia forced the Communists from power in a bloodless revolution.

Taken together, the images are the story of hope crushed and hope restored. It is a message Janukievic believes is vital for the people of his country to hear. “These images are inspirational,” he says. “People come and see photos of the police beating people, but they can also see what happens afterwards. The photos show that our situation is not fatal, our problems are temporary, and it is still possible to fight the system. The government looks strong and unbreakable. But these photos show it can collapse in days.”

All of the parties opposed to Lukashenko, from the BPF to the Communists, have agreed to unite behind a single candidate. It is a remarkable commitment to co-operation that demonstrates how badly they want Lukashenko out of office. But most Belarusians agree that the election will be neither free nor fair, and that the results are a foregone conclusion: victory for Lukashenko. The showdown, therefore, will not take place at the ballot box, but in the streets. The opposition is committed to taking part in the election so that any subsequent protests are legitimate, and they are already mobilizing for the day after the results are announced. “We are preparing to lead protest actions, which we hope will lead to the crushing of the Lukashenko regime,” Janukievic says.

Lukashenko with Putin Lukashenko with his puppetmaster, Putin, during a June visit to Moscow

In this task, Janukievic and the country’s official political parties will have support from a broad array of pro-democracy NGOs. Some are funded, directly or indirectly, by Western governments, aid organizations and wealthy Americans such as George Soros, although most refuse to discuss this. Prominent among these groups is the prodemocracy youth movement Zubr, which has led high-profile street protests and pamphlet distribution campaigns since 2001.

When I meet Vlad Kobets, coordinator of Zubr, in a café across from the enormous headquarters of the Belarusian KGB on Minsk’s main drag, he is wearing a black baseball cap emblazoned with the letters FBI. We pick a deserted corner of the café, but soon a man appears alone at a nearby table and slips a tiny earphone in his ear. We find somewhere else to talk, and the spook doesn’t follow us. “You have to understand that ‘election’ is just a word—it means nothing to the Soviets,” Kobets says. “On election day the struggle will just begin.”

Zubr grew out of the 2000 revolution in Serbia, when the Serbian youth movement Otpor led an uprising that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic. Both Kobets and Aliaksandr Atroshchankau, Zubr’s press secretary, were there and have since forged close links with similar pro-democracy youth movements in Georgia and Ukraine. Hundreds of Zubr members travelled to Ukraine in 2004 to support the Orange Revolution, which overturned a fraudulent election and brought Victor Yushchenko to power.

Several, including Kobets and Atroshchankau, were arrested, and one of their friends had his arm broken. “They were afraid of this solidarity,” Atroshchankau says. “It is impossible to talk about the situation in Belarus in isolation. When the revolution happened in Serbia, it was an inspiration to freedom fighters here. But the pessimists said, well, it’s not a post-Soviet state. Then when the revolution happened in Georgia, they said people are different in the Caucasus, they have a different mindset. But Ukraine is right next door. And when the revolution happened there, the pessimists shut their mouths.”

But there is a crucial difference in Belarus: many fear Lukashenko will not go quietly. If he loses office, he likely faces a future in jail, and there is a real possibility he will use violence to quell any demonstrations and hold on to power. Janukievic and the youthful members of Zubr are worried but optimistic. Janukievic hopes that the army and police would come over to the side of the protesters if they were ordered to open fire. Atroshchankau believes the police will not shoot into a crowd for fear of hitting friends or relatives.

But most opposed to Lukashenko concede the showdown will be decided by numbers: if enough people take to the streets, a tipping point might be reached, and Lukashenko will have no choice but to back down. A small and timid demonstration, on the other hand, may lead to bloodshed. “We stand for non-violent action,” says Stanislau Shushkevich, 70, an impressive and brooding bear of a man, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, and a former leader of Belarus. “We know perfectly well that if there are 200,000 people in the streets, there will not be bloodshed. But if there are only 15,000 people, a lot of violence can happen. And that scares me.”

THE LAND that is now Belarus has always been squeezed between opposing empires, and some say this has made its people both adaptable and passive. Belarus was absorbed into Russia in the late 18th century, and later found itself on the front lines of both world wars. The Nazi invasion of 1941 was particularly savage, and by the time the Soviets liberated the country in 1944, 25 per cent of the population had been killed. Hundreds of villages were wiped out, and Minsk itself was reduced to rubble.

Belarus prospered economically under Soviet rule, but the Belarusian language and cultural identity were suppressed. These flourished briefly for a few years following independence in 1991.

But when Lukashenko was elected president in 1994, he began dragging the country back into the Soviet era. He banned from government buildings the red and white Belarusian flag, which flew following independence, and replaced it with one virtually identical to the old Soviet banner. He suppressed newspapers publishing in the Belarusian language and switched national Independence Day from July 27, the date of the country’s declaration of sovereignty in 1991, to July 3, the day Soviet tanks rolled into Minsk in 1944.

Golden arches aside, Minsk still evokes an era before the Soviet Union’s implosion

More seriously, Lukashenko has tried to stamp out all democratic opposition. He dissolved parliament in 1996 and extended his term from five to seven years, after a rigged referendum gave his plans to increase his power the gloss of popular approval. His 2001 election victory was condemned by the West for its illegal tactics. Anyone opposing the regime risks harassment, fines, intimidation and almost certain unemployment. Some people are sentenced to years in prison or to “corrective labour.” Others simply disappear. Newspapers are shut down or banned from governmentcontrolled newsstands. State-approved media link those opposing the regime to dark foreign plots. “If you watch Belarusian TV, you’ll see a world of enemies,” one woman tells me. “It is very effective propaganda.” A visitor to Belarus, however, will at first notice little of this. The streets of Minsk are spotless, swept clean of even the odd cigarette butt, and dotted with cafés and restaurants. There are almost no drunks or beggars. Women are gorgeous, and everyone appears dressed well. Even on a national level the economy appears to be humming along. But this, like much in Belarus, is something of a facade.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, afraid of losing yet another former Soviet state to the influence of the United States and the rest of the free world, props up the Belarusian economy with cheap energy exports and favourable trade arrangements. And no sooner had I arrived in the country than a taxi driver taking me to my hotel cautioned me to not pay him with American dollars where a policeman might witness the transaction. “This is a country where everyone is afraid of everyone,” he said.

Walking through Minsk today is like stepping back in time to an era before the Soviet Union imploded. Streets are named after Lenin, Marx and Engels. Soviet hammer and sickle emblems still adorn public buildings. And a statue of Lenin, guarded by a solitary soldier, glowers at passersby in the city centre. “When my mother and father got married, they came here to lay flowers,” says my translator, Erna, a recent graduate. “No one does that anymore.” She pauses. “Well, maybe some old people still do.”

BUT IF STATUES of Lenin have not been tom down, other monuments, smaller ones, have been erected that never would have been possible under Soviet rule. Just down the road from KGB headquarters, the owners of the trendy London café have built an elaborate miniature model of Westminster, complete with a working Big Ben. Here you can drink overpriced Earl Grey tea, surrounded by photos of Queen Elizabeth II. Spend enough time in places like this, among the city’s students and young artists, and you can convince yourself that revolution really is just around the corner.

But young people have always pushed for change, and cafés can be deceptive. I decide I should talk to someone with a longer memory. And so we pay a visit to Yuri Vrubel, a 69-year-old professor who has lived through most of the changes that have impacted Belarus since before the Second World War. “Come into my flat,” he says. “I will show you how a Soviet scientist lives.”

Vrubel leads us up the staircase of his dingy apartment building, known colloquially as a Khrushchovka, after Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet dictator who succeeded Joseph Stalin and ordered the construction of thousands of equally lifeless properties. Inside, his apartment is small but tidy. Jars of pickled mushrooms and jams line the shelves. He pulls down three enormous bottles of homemade vodka mixed with bark and twigs and opens them up on the table in front of us. It’s about 9:30 in the morning. “I don’t know what this stuff is— my wife brews it,” he says as he pours me a glass. “But my mother-in-law is 87 and my father-in-law is 92, and this stuff is why they’re so healthy.”

I drain my first glass.

It tastes like death, with a lingering aftertaste of hellfire. Seeing me wince, Vrubel pushes a plate of smoked fat toward me.

“Whatever you do, don’t eat the skin,” he says. “You’ll get appendicitis.” It’s too late, and I tell him this.

“Oh. Well, I’m sure you’ll be fine. More vodka?”

“Please.”

We drink from all three bottles, “for good luck,” and Vrubel hides each one when we are finished with it. “That way if someone comes in we can say we’re drinking tea,” he explains with a smile.

‘THIS IS a country where everyone is afraid of everyone,’ one driver said as he warned me not to pay with U.S. dollars

In between the pickles and liquor, Vrubel talks about his life in Belarus. He lost six members of his immediate family during the Second World War, but the end of the conflict brought little relief. As ethnic Poles, Vrubel and his family were considered “enemies of the people” by Stalin and treated like second-class citizens. Things got better under Khrushchev, but not much. “All empires fall,” he says when asked about the Soviet Union. “This is a law. I’m just glad this empire fell without blood.”

Vrubel was happy to watch the democratic revolution unfold in neighbouring Ukraine, but he thinks it is unlikely that something similar will happen here. His students are mosdy opposed to Lukashenko, but few will talk about it. A long history of occupation by outside powers has taught Belarusians to keep their dissent to themselves. His students don’t protest the dictatorship, but they don’t join Lukashenko’s pro-government youth groups either. “It’s a hidden resistance,” he says. “Belarus won’t follow the situation in Ukraine or Georgia. The Georgians are hotheaded, and the Ukrainians are courageous. We are very tolerant and very calm. We’ll wait for someone else to do it for us.”

Vrubel spoons some homemade jam onto a biscuit, takes a sip of tea, and continues. “And anyway, many people think it’s already good enough here. There is no war and we have enough to eat and drink. And the fact that someone somewhere else lives better than us, well, let them lead their own lives. We have it pretty good.”

I WANT TO talk to people outside Minsk. But first, on the outskirts of town, we stop at a small pine forest in Kurapaty, where the bodies of up to 250,000 men and women executed by Stalin’s NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) are buried. The bodies were first revealed by excavations carried out in 1988. But since coming to power, Lukashenko’s government has covered up all research into the massacres, blaming the murders on the Nazis or claiming the death toll was never more than 7,000. The mass graves have become a rallying point for Belarusians opposed to Lukashenko and his kowtowing to the country’s Soviet past. Numerous vigils were held, and today rows and rows of roughmade crosses, erected without government help or permission, are scattered among the trees. There is no official memorial.

We leave Kurapaty and drive toward the scene of another slaughter. Belarus, like much of eastern and central Europe, suffered the ravages of both Communism and Nazism with hardly a break between the two. Khatyn is a village that in 1943 was burned to the ground by German soldiers. All of its inhabitants, save one man, were murdered. Today it is a haunting memorial to hundreds of similar villages razed by Germans during the war, and to the 2.2 million Belarusian civilians who were murdered by Nazi firing squads or shipped to their deaths in concentration camps.

A few kilometres outside Khatyn I meet Maria Vysotskaya, an 80-year-old woman with long black and grey hair wrapped in a kerchief, selling honey and blueberries by the side of the road. “We like him, we love him, we are pensioners, and he gives us our pensions,” Vysotskaya says when asked about Lukashenko. “There are people in the cities who don’t like him. But we in the villages support him. This is my feeling. I don’t know what’s wrong with the people in the cities,” she says, waving at the traffic roaring past her roadside stand. “We have it good now. Look at all these cars. Young people these days want everything and don’t want to work for it.”

Vysotskaya says she comes from the village of Kozyri, near Khatyn. During the war the Germans murdered one person from each family in the village. The rest they took to Germany as slave labourers. “But they didn’t take me,” Vysotskaya says. “I was sick and no good for working. I had to go to Minsk and stayed there in very difficult conditions. Those who survived the slave labour now get euros as compensation from Germany. But I don’t get anything.”

When she returned to her village after the war, everything was burned or looted. “It was as if ghosts lived there,” she says. “It was empty and broken. People today remember. They can compare things now to the way they were back then. Now we have it good. For us old people, it’s good now. This is because of Lukashenko, and that’s why we love him.”

At Kurapaty, rough crosses commemorate 250,000 people executed by Stalin's NKVD

I buy some honey and tell Vysotskaya I am from Canada. She smiles. “My grandfather went to Canada in the 1920s or ’30s,” she says. “We thought he was going to America, but it was Canada. For us it was all the samejust the land across the ocean.” Vysotskaya’s grandfather wanted to take her mother and the infant Vysotskaya with him, but they stayed behind. Now, a lifetime later, Vysotskaya asks me to write down the name of her grandfather’s village—Zhyrflevichy.

“Maybe someone in Canada will read this and find me,” she says.

BACK IN MINSK I meet with more opposition politicians, journalists and members of NGOs trying to bring democracy to Belarus. They are not passive men and women waiting for someone else to liberate their country. They are resolute. Many seem tired. And although the word is often misused, they are all brave. They live and work in bugged offices and apartments. They are watched and harassed. And they know that if their revolution is not successful, they have little hope of leading normal lives or finding normal work under Lukashenko’s regime.

THE ACTIVISTS are resolute. Many seem tired. And although the word is often misused, they are all brave.

Their offices are adorned with the banned Belarusian flag—and with banners and mementoes from past democratic revolutions that successfully toppled dictatorships. Several walls display the Polish Solidarity slogan, written in its famous blood-red letters. The Solidarity movement began an uprising against Communism in Europe that many in Belarus feel must end with one final victory here.

Flags of the European Union and NATO are also prevalent. Belarusian democrats are looking west, to Europe and the United States. And most are partial to America’s clear denunciations of Lukashenko’s dictatorship over attempts at “engagement” preferred by some western European countries such as Germany. “I believe it is important to have an accurate assessment,” says Andrei Sannikov of the prodemocracy NGO Charter ’97. “Whenever there is a softening of positions, I can tell you that we have more repression.” But outside help can only do so much. “We are not expecting foreigners to bring us freedom,” Alaksiej Janukievic says. “We have the hard work to do ourselves. But at a decisive moment, Western help will be a deciding one.” The hardest work remains to be done by ordinary Belarusians who want Lukashenko gone but haven’t yet decided to risk standing up to him. And it is a tremendous risk. Those who take a public stand against Lukashenko jeopardize employment, admission to university—essentially their entire lives. The sad truth is that repression works. Lukashenko knows this.

My translator, Ema, began protesting against Lukashenko almost a decade ago, but has since drifted away from the opposition movement. “I thought it would change when I started going to these demonstrations,” she says. “I really thought things would change in the country. But it has been 10 years since I first got involved and nothing has changed. So I started thinking about my own education.” Ema is no longer active in Belarus’s democratic movement, but she still believes in it. She says she hasn’t given up: “If there is a revolution, if people do take to the streets, I’ll be there too.”

Hope, it seems, is hard to stamp out.