News Column

Fear and fragility in domain of the 'last dictator of Europe': Inside Belarus At least one revolution behind the rest

June 9, 2014

As the Guardian launches a new site focusing on ex-USSR countries, Mark Rice-Oxley finds Soviet habits die hard in Minsk

Tucked away behind the charmless apartment blocks and broad thoroughfares so beloved of Soviet town planners, the Minsk History Museum boasts Belarus's best exhibition of the summer. Back in the BSSR is a nostalgia fest of Soviet memorabilia and propaganda that takes visitors back a generation to a time when this was one of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics.

"Of course, it was my time, so I remember it fondly," says Maya Borisovna, a septuagenarian guide, as she explains the artefacts on display. "But now we live better. There are things in the shops. It's completely different," she says.

Or is it? Some would argue you don't have to enter the exhibition to be Back in the BSSR. Streets in the capital are still named after Marx and Engels. A statue of Lenin dominates a city centre square. There's even a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the original Soviet secret policeman. A metro ride costs 20p. People smoke indoors. Almost no one has tattoos. This feels like a place that is at least one revolution behind the rest of us.

And then there is the leader. This summer, Europe's longest-serving ruler - the only post-Soviet president that Belarus has had - marks 20 years in office. Since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, parliament has been emasculated, political opponents driven into exile or disappeared, and the media have been silenced. This is a country where the KGB is still called the KGB. It is the last European country to use the death penalty - a bullet to the back of the prisoner's head.

In the west, they call Lukashenko Europe's last dictator, but he doesn't care. Better a confident dictator than a chaotic democrat, is his argument, and he points to the turmoil in neighbouring Ukraine as a handy counterpoint. But below the surface lurks a nagging question: could the same upheaval happen here? And if not, how much longer will this 59-year-old despot last?

In the pantheon of dictators and autocrats, Lukashenko is a middleweight, vain and verbose but not bloodthirsty. He hasn't renamed a month after his mother, as his Turkmen counterpart did, nor built statues or other follies in his own name. And though he has found plum jobs for two of his sons, he insists he is not grooming anyone to succeed him in the way of the Aliyevs of Azerbaijan.

And yet the man who likes to be called "batka" ("father") is omnipresent. Night after night, his every move leads the country's absurd TV news, whether he is inspecting a tractor, ticking off the cabinet, arriving in Kazakhstan, or all three.

Before last month's world championships of his beloved ice hockey - the biggest sporting event Belarus has ever held - the president was taking no chances. Concerned about possible shows of dissent, dozens of activists were rounded up and sent to jail.

Natallia Pinchuk fears for what lies in store for them. In a cafe a stone's throw from the mighty Lenin statue, she describes how justice works in Lukashenko's Belarus.

"It's really hard to say everything I want to because in this country you pay for what you say," says Pinchuk. Her husband, the internationally renowned human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, did just that, jailed in August 2011 for four-and-half years on tax avoidance charges that he, and human rights organisations, call spurious. Pinchuk was allowed just one brief visit to him last year.

"It's like a conveyor belt," she says. "People are put in jail, then freed, they criticise the authorities and they are put back in jail again."

Pinchuk says her husband has been ostracised by fellow prisoners out of fear of political contamination. She is concerned about his psychological and physical health in the labour camp at Babruysk penal colony. "People come out of Babruysk with no teeth. It's the lack of vitamins. The food is a joke."

She says she is pinning everything on February 2016, the month when Bialiatski should be released: "But nothing's certain in this country."

One thing that has been certain since Lukashenko came to power is the result of elections. Lukashenko likes to win, and his favourite figure is 80% - not quite Soviet or central Asian levels of approval but enough to draw condemnation from observers inside and outside the country.

"There hasn't been a fair election since the first one [Lukashenko] won in 1994," says Andrei Sannikov, the opposition leader who competed for the presidency in 2010, only to find himself imprisoned shortly afterwards.

Lukashenko's fourth presidential election should, in theory, have been as straightforward as the others. He is not unpopular - some estimates suggest that perhaps half of all Belarusians broadly approve of him. That figure would have been enough to win, but not enough for Lukashenko. Belarus's election commission declared him the 2010 winner before the polls had even closed.

Sannikov joined tens of thousands of demonstrators who filed up Independence street in Minsk for an unprecedented show of outrage. For a few moments, Sannikov recalls, there was a euphoria, and a sense that something might be about to change. Then the KGB stepped in.

"I don't remember how I was first kicked, but I was on the ground and then I lost consciousness." On the way to hospital, he says, KGB officers pulled him and his wife from a car and beat him again before taking him to a detention centre. "They separated me and Iryna [Khalip, his journalist wife] and said they would take me to hospital - and they took me to KGB prison instead."

Sannikov got five years for "organising mass disorder". With Khalip in detention too, the authorities tried to take the couple's only child from kindergarten and put him in an orphanage. Sannikov was eventually freed, soon after new EU sanctions were announced against Belarusian officials in March 2012. "When I was released we organised a press conference and immediately after it, Lukashenko said that if there was another word we would be in jail again in two hours," Sannikov recalls. He now lives in exile in Warsaw.

Lukashenko argues that under his leadership his people have education, health care and security. He claims that after centuries of subjugation, annihilation and reconstitution, the country has, on his watch, avoided the evils of terrorism, separatism, and that all-encompassing Russian word "banditism".

"Do you think I stay in power just because I revel in it?" he said in a recent interview. "Permit me to be immodest, but I did something for this country. I don't want all of it to come crashing down in an hour."

The crisis in Ukraine hasn't quite threatened that, but it has rattled the Lukashenko administration. Many have asked: if Russia could take Crimea, then why not Belarus? Of Belarus's 10-million strong population, 15% are ethnically Russian. Belarus is far more Russian than Ukraine: the language ubiquitous, the culture almost indistinguishable. Lukashenko said recently that he saw his country as "the most pro-Russian province" - an admission akin to the Austrian chancellor declaring his country to be a loyal subject of Germany - and agreed that Crimea was part of Russia.

Yet he has also come to Kiev's defence. In the face of prolonged, pro-Russian separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, he has been vocal in saying the country must not be split apart, and pledged his support for the newly elected western-backed Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko.

Lukashenko maintains Russians are Belarusians' best friends, but warned: "No matter who comes to Belarusian land, I will fight. Even if it is Putin."

Taking sides is problematic: too pro-Kiev and he looks like another thorn in the Russian side. Too pro-Russian and he looks like a man happy for Moscow to start taking over its former Soviet frontier lands. Belarus (White Russia) and Ukraine (Borderlands) have an eponymous problem that no other former Soviet republic has: both are defined in their very name by their relationship to the Russian heartland.

Roman Yakovlevsky, a Belarusian political analyst with opposition sympathies, says Lukashenko's administration has been scared by recent events in Ukraine. "The entire country is divided over Ukraine," says Yakovlevsky. "The authorities were scared, but the people are also scared when they see blood spilled and civil war."

Belarus has a long history of invasion, war and destitution. In the second world war, a third of the population died. The overriding feeling is: never again.

"Ukraine frightened people here," says one diplomatic source in Minsk. "They see that Russia can just come and take what they want if they don't like what's happened. They realise that changing things through demonstrations is not an option."

The economy, meanwhile, slowly flatlines. "Belarus is in second-last position in Europe on life-expectancy," says Stanislaw Shushkevich, a Soviet-era leader who ran against Lukashenko in 1994. "GDP per capita is two to three times lower than in Poland. We are the world's highest per capita consumers of alcohol. The Belarusian rouble is worth 2,900 times less than it was in 1993 against the Russian rouble."

European and American administrations have imposed sanctions on Belarusian companies and individuals, though critics say they have had little impact. Belarus is dependent on Russian bailouts (Lukashenko came back from Moscow last month with another $2bn (pounds 1.2bn) credit) and energy subsidies. Eighty per cent of the economy is in state hands. Lukashenko targeted growth in 2013 of nearly 9%. It came in at 0.9%.

Thousands of young people leave to study abroad every year. More Belarusians apply for Schengen visas (allowing free movement between most EU countries) than any other country per capita. Poland has become an almost mythical land of hope and opportunity for the post-Soviet generation.

According to Yauheni Preiherman, eager to make his future as an independent thinktank analyst in Belarus, surveys show as many as two-thirds of young Belarusians would leave tomorrow if they could. "I guess I am among the minority of young Belarusians who do not wish to emigrate," he says.

How much longer will "Europe's last dictator" last? Lukashenko says he will only step down if he loses an election or his faculties. Yakovlevsky says one thing is certain: Lukashenko will not quit. "He knows he can't just leave quietly," he says, pointing to possible legal action that could be taken against the president by whatever administration followed him. "There are still questions about the people who disappeared under his rule."

Elections are due in 2015, but no one expects anything other than the same old ruses. At best, Sannikov hopes they may provide a focus for renewed discontent. "Despite the harassment, people still protest. Since there are no other channels [Lukashenko] leaves for the opposition, there will be mass protests and demonstrations."

It is likely that Lukashenko's fate will be decided by the two big heavyweights he constantly dances between: Moscow and the west. If the west can help Ukraine back to its feet, it may show Belarusians there can be life after Lukashenko. If Moscow tires of the pantomime villain on its borders, it could quickly make life untenable for its client.

In the meantime, Belarus prepares to put out the bunting to celebrate another year under "Batka".


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Lukashenko greets Putin in Minsk last month

Second world war veteran Nikolay Sapanovich and his social worker at his Zhitkovichi home. The war, in which a third of the population of Belarus died, left a profound fear of invasion Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Corbis

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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