By Jeremy Druker
As TOL readers have probably noticed, we've placed a premium on keeping Belarus in the spotlight even after the international attention that came with the brutal 19 December crackdown faded. Earlier in the week, we ran a slideshow that showed many of those still in prison. And just so we also don't forget about some of the brave independent media that continue to do their jobs today, I asked an editor at Nasha Niva, to tell me about the current situation in Belarus and what's happened to his newspaper (Nasha Niva's editor did a great piece for our December special report and the multimedia team some excellent videos, including a very popular one that featured interviews with Lukashenka supporters). Here are the editor's comments:
"Before the presidential elections of December 19, 2010 it seemed that Belarus was on its way of becoming a kind of a liberal authoritarianism, allowing some liberties and eager to give hugs to both West and East. Today the definition "the last European dictatorship" doesn't seem to be too far-fetched anymore. The crackdown on everybody who thinks outside the official box has been tremendous. The most problematic thing is that the crackdown is not a one-time event, but a process, and its end is not in sight. Searches and arrests happen on a daily basis, and - remember - we have three dozen political prisoners already, and more than 600 people have been through jails during the last month for political reasons.
Nasha Niva, the newspaper I work at, is now more or less able to function normally, although it has never been "normal" in this country. But the after-election KGB crackdown was simply unprecedented. Our office was searched and all computers were confiscated. Fortunately, our readers donated enough of their old hardware to keep the newspaper running. Our camerawoman Tanya Haurylchyk was hurt while filming the protests on December 19 including the brutal assault on Uladzimir Niakliaeu. Some days later her house was searched, computer and camcorder confiscated, and she was questioned by KGB two times and received anonymous phone threats ("You'll have pale face and missing teeth") - two hours after she refused to talk to KGB without her lawyer present. Homes of our editor-in-chief and photo reporter were searched as well.
I am not sure whether KGB managed to instill fear massively, but they definitely are successful at keeping politically active people occupied enough to prevent massive protest actions. Political parties and civil sector are now simply trying to survive, I hope there will be no more new blows to free press as well - but I would not rule out this possibility.
Nobody knows how Lukashenka will react to the EU sanctions which are likely to be imposed by the end of the month. He may freak out and shut down all the free press, for example. Or, alternatively, he might back up and slowly restore the situation to the relative status quo we have seen before the elections."
Speaking of the EU sanctions, EU foreign ministers are due to meet next Monday, and there appears to be a general feeling that they will do something, and we'll just have to wait and see how harsh the penalties really are. On the eve of that meeting, the European Council on Foreign Relations and FRIDE today published The EU and Belarus after the election, which "argues that while Europe must send a strong message to Belarus and the world that it will not tolerate repression and electoral fraud, blanket punishments should be avoided." I haven't read the document yet, but given the authors (Balazs Jarabik, Jana Kobzova and Andrew Wilson) and the institutions involved, I bet it makes for an informative and provocative read.
And one last point on Belarus. I went last week to an excellent panel discussion presented by the U.S. Embassy's American Center and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Among many interesting points, I heard that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had been among the first to congratulate Lukashenka on his victory (along with other good guys like the presidents of Venezuela and Kazakhstan). What, I thought, the great, self-styled democrat, the man with so much hope invested in him to turn Georgia into an island of democracy in the FSU, he's supporting Lukashenka? Then I did a little research and found out that the warming of relations had been taking place for some time, and it finally dawned on me that Misha thought he was getting back at the Russians by supporting their (sometimes) arch enemy. Too bad for him that Lukashenka made peace with Medvedev and signed some important economic deals with Russia shortly before the elections. As one senior, long-term donor for Belarus told me, "But the Russians in the end changed their position and Misha found himself in the same camp. Shame on him.