By Nicholas Dima l May 10, 2011
President Alexander LukashenkaMinsk Independence SquareRiot police beat back demonstrators
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her January 2005 Senate confirmation hearing labeled Belarus as one of several remaining “outposts of tyranny” saying that America stood with the oppressed people on every continent. Speaking in Lithuania the following April, Rice thought it a good idea for ex-Soviet Republics to “throw off the yoke of tyranny.
This was no less evident on the evening of December 20, 2010, the day after polling results gave Alexander Lukashenka nearly 80 percent of the vote among nine presidential candidates, when tens of thousands amassed to demonstrate their opposition in Minsk’s Independence Square. But they were met with brute force and violence by Belarusian riot police. Demonstrators gathered to denounce the elections with shouts of “Freedom! “Down with Lukashenka!” and “Down with Gulag!” a reference to the Soviet-era labor camps.
Often referred to as the “Last Dictator of Europe,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, at 59, poses as a populist leader, considers himself the father of the nation, enjoys songs about himself, and has no intention of quitting. While suppressing any dissent at home, he toys with ideas of approaching the West and occasionally irritates Russia with his attitude and statements. (In a way, it is what Ceausescu of Romania did for many years before alienating himself completely from the people followed by a show trial and execution). Some journalists compare Lukashenka’s leadership style to both Stalin and Hitler. According to Newsin and as reported by Romania Libera of April 14, last year even Moscow criticized him. In a series of TV broadcasts, Moscow described Lukashenka as “psychologically unstable and as a man at the limits of his rationality who cannot stand to be contradicted in any form.”
During his 16 years as president, Lukashenka has maintained himself in power with the help of the security apparatus, which in Belarus is still called KGB, as during the old Soviet era. His regime has rigged elections, suppressed the media, expelled several foreign ambassadors and caused the disappearance of opposition leaders. Many people are convinced that those opposition leaders were victims of secret death squads.
Domestic and foreign analysts point out that Alexander Lukashenka was little known before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he manipulated the new system cleverly to attain power. For example, after being elected president, a constitutional amendment was passed that lifted the two-term limit placed on the presidency outmaneuvering the opposition at every subsequent election, when in December 2010 he was reelected to a 4th term. The 2010 election was described by Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor as violent and fraudulent. He reported that immediately after the election the state-dominated media declared Lukashenka the winner with an unprecedented 79.7 percent of the votes. The newspaper added that in spite of a strong opposition and mass democracy demonstrations, allegedly none of his opponents won more than 3 percent of the votes.
Believed to be connected to the December 2010 disputed presidential election results that rocked Minsk with mass demonstrations, the April 11, 2011 explosion that shook Minsk’s Oktyabrskaya subway station reportedly killed 13 people and wounded more than 200. The explosion attracted worldwide attention to this small post-Soviet republic which had declared its independence in August 1991, after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.
Belarus is a rather small country surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It has almost 10 million inhabitants and a surface area of about 80,000 square miles or roughly the size of the state of Kansas. Historically, the country was dominated by its neighbors, and in more recent times it was annexed by Russia and then by the USSR. The Belorussian people are of Slavic origin and are closely related ethnically, culturally and linguistically to the Russians.
Post-Soviet Belarus is confronted with a number of severe problems.
First and foremost, geopolitically, Moscow cannot accept a fully independent Belarus, or for that matter even a fully independent Ukraine, as recent events have proven. In one way or another, Moscow considers and treats the two East Slavic countries as extensions of Russia. As a result, any attempt by Belarus to act contrary to Russian interests, such as joining NATO or the EU, would be blocked by Moscow.
Second, Belarus does not have a tradition of sovereignty or political democracy, and its geographic location adjacent to Russia and far from Western Europe makes it even more difficult to act independently or to develop a democratic political system.
Third, the Belorussian economy was developed mostly under the Soviet regime and is highly integrated with the Russian economy. Among others, Belarus depends on Russia for energy and raw materials, as well as a market for its goods. Despite objections from Western governments, Belarus has largely continued its Soviet-era policies, such as state ownership of the economy. Furthermore, in 2000, Minsk and Moscow signed a treaty for greater economic and political cooperation calling for a monetary union, single citizenship and a common foreign and defense policy. However, the implementation of the treaty was marred by various disputes. Yet, by comparison to Russia, Belarus is a poor country. Its per capita GDP, for example, is about half of Russia’s. Consequently, while politically many Belorussians would like to adopt Western values and principles, the aforementioned factors continue to link the country to Moscow. In addition, the post-Soviet regime, which has been led for over 16 years by Alexander Lukashenka, has contributed a great deal to keeping the country in limbo. Lukashenka has kept Belarus in an uneasy state between a past that cannot be easily escaped and a future that so far has remained beyond reach.
While Belarus ostensibly provides Russia with a protective buffer from the West, deep within its borders lies the notorious site of the Katyn Forest where, in 1940, the Soviet KGB under Stalin’s direct orders massacred Poland’s elite officer corps. More recently, the 2010 flight commemorating the 70th anniversary of Katyn that was destined for Minsk crashed in Smolensk, just across the Russian border, carrying Poland’s political establishment headed by President Lech Kaczynski. The Polish delegation consisting of 94 high-ranking civilian and military officials, including a dozen members of parliament, the president of the national bank, all the heads of Poland’s armed services and the head of the national security bureau, all of whom were to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, for a special memorial ceremony.
Before the Minsk subway station explosion on March 29, Amnesty International demanded the release of a Belarusian student who had just been sentenced after his 2010 arrest. It was the third such conviction in a week. “It’s chillingly clear that the three activists have been sentenced on the basis of trumped up charges just because they dared to criticize elections that were plagued by irregularities,” wrote Nicola Duckworth. He added, “These men are prisoners of conscience jailed for the peaceful expression of their views and they must be immediately and unconditionally released.”
Some of those arrested were still detained in April 2011 and many local and international organizations demanded that they be freed. It was in this tense atmosphere that the April bomb explosion occurred.
Apparently, the European Union and NATO are open to further eastern expansion if the countries under consideration qualify for membership. Nevertheless, due to its undemocratic behavior, in 1997 the Council of Europe barred Belarus from membership. Any negotiations about joining the EU or NATO are currently out of the question; of course, Lukashenka serves Moscow’s purposes.
Vice President Biden, who recently visited Moldova, described the situation saying: “The people of Belarus have demanded and they deserve basic rights. We have condemned the government of Belarus for the repression of its own citizens. We’ve joined the European Union in imposing sanctions against that government, and we call for the immediate release of all political prisoners.”
The current American stand is also well reflected in the most recent Human Rights Report released by the State Department in April 2011. The report indicts both the country’s leadership as well as Belarus’ form of government:
“Since his election as president in 1994 Lukashenka has consolidated his power over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. Subsequent presidential elections were neither free nor fair, and fell well short of meeting international standards…. During the year authorities continued to commit frequent, serious abuses in a system bereft of checks and balances, and dominated by the president… The government failed to account for past politically motivated disappearances. Security forces beat detainees and protesters, used excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrators, and reportedly used torture during investigations… Authorities arbitrarily arrested, detained, and imprisoned citizens for criticizing officials, participating in demonstrations, and other political reasons…” And the report continues on a similar note.
Despite intense foreign and domestic criticism, Alexander Lukashenka and his regime are digging in and continue to maintain total control of the country. At the same time, they accuse the West and the local opposition of trying to sabotage Belarus. Various articles posted by Google in April this year show that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made a request to send a special international mission to Belarus to investigate the violations of human rights. Minsk rejected such a mission, accusing the West of double standards, and resorted to even more repression.
Immediately after the tragic incident of April 11, Lukashenka ordered an investigation of the opposition leaders whom he labeled “enemy of the people” and who in his words represent a “fifth column” of foreign interests. Also, according to recent BBC News broadcasts, Lukashenka congratulated the police on their “brilliant” operations and called for a thorough “cleansing” of the Belorussian society. As recently as April 15 Agence France Press (AFP) announced that the authorities had just reprimanded two leading Minsk newspapers for their coverage of the subway bombing. A few days later, on April 21, the same agency reported that President Lukashenka stated the deadly Minsk attack was caused by the “disgraceful and excessive democratic measures installed by Belarus after the last presidential elections in order to please the West.”
The Jamestown Foundation’s, Eurasia Daily Monitor (April 19, 2011—Volume 8, Issue 76) stressed, “On virtually every opposition website reporting on the tragedy, the comments section is replete with suggestions that Lukashenka himself was responsible for the attack, seeking a diversion from his current economic problems.”
The reality is that after 20 years of political repression, mismanagement and state control of the economy, Belarus is in dire straits. STRATFOR Global Intelligence of April 4, for example, wrote: “Moody’s financial ratings agency downgraded several Belarusian banks and downgraded the local currency deposit ratings of three state-owned Belarusian banks.” It was the latest in a series of financial and economic setbacks for Belarus. As a result, people rushed to the banks to exchange their rubles and began to form again long lines in front of food stores as during the old Soviet years. Moreover, STRATFOR underlined that the current situation could give Russia a new opportunity to strengthen its control over Belarus.
What can be expected in this situation? Politically, Belarus may embrace a certain degree of democracy at some future date, but economically it will remain tethered to Russia for a long time to come and likely remain in Moscow’s sphere of influence. Geopolitically, it is hardly imaginable that Moscow would relinquish its control over Minsk.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to