Democracy under assault in Belarus

What's behind Lukashenko's crackdown? Maybe fear

By David Marples, Edmonton Journa

A little over a month ago, Belarusians went to the polls to elect a president. Longtime incumbent Alexander Lukashenko faced 10 opponents. Two days later -- the Dec. 19 vote -- he was announced the winner with an improbable 79.67 per cent support. Seven of his opponents were in police custody, including one with a concussion after a beating and another with two broken legs, having been stamped on by riot police.

Today four candidates and 32 others face prison sentences of up to 15 years for inciting riots.

Subsequently, the Committee for State Security -- still called the KGB in Belarus -- has targeted political parties, informal groups, human rights associations, youth groups and anyone known to have been an activist. The key prisoners are under house arrest or in KGB isolation cells -- underground prisons that were used actively in the 1930s under Stalin. Former candidates were forced to confess their "sins" on television and to denounce their more militant counterparts, just as in the Moscow show trials of the 1930s.

The president maintains that Poland and Germany plotted to overthrow him by backing opposition candidates and that he was obliged to resort to harsh measures to avoid the sort of fate that befell Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, last April.

However, the European Union has imposed a travel ban on the president and 158 officials of Belarus, despite the belated release of some of the detainees. Canada has denounced the Lukashenko regime in the strongest possible terms.

How did such a situation arise?

The 2010 presidential election paid lip service to a democratic process. The nine opposition candidates were permitted to hold rallies in the streets of major cities, to appear on state television and radio for two 30-minute slots, and to publish their platforms in the media.

They included several well-known figures: Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister; Yaroslav Romanchuk, the deputy chairman of the centre-right United Civic Party; Vladimir Neklyaev, a poet and former head of the Belarusian Writers' Union; and Nikolai Statkevich, leader of the Social Democratic Party. Another candidate, Vital Rymasheuski, is co-chair of the Christian Democratic Party, which has never been registered in Belarus; Two candidates had links with the oldest opposition party, the Popular Front -- former deputy chair Ales Mikhalevich and its official candidate, Ryhor Kastyusov.

Several candidates agreed to meet in October Square on the evening of election day. On the website of Charter-97, which supported Sannikov's campaign, a slogan declared that there would be a general strike in such an instance.

Lukashenko virtually ignored the other candidates throughout the campaign, refusing to debate them on television. Instead, in early December, he held his own "All-Belarusian Congress" to which he invited more than 5,000 delegates, paid their expenses, and deluged them with gifts. The president declared that "no one" would be in "the square" after the election.

However, thousands of people showed up, emboldened by the moderate atmosphere during the campaign. Once there, Sannikov spoke of forming a new Government of National Salvation.

However, there was no concerted plan and October Square had been turned into a skating rink with speakers blaring music.

A large group therefore decided to move down the street to Independence Square, the site of the parliament and government buildings, and the location of the Central Election Commission.

Neklyaev never got to the original destination, having been set upon by masked men who knocked him to the ground. The assault occurred at 7:30 p.m., i.e. before the election officially ended. He was taken to hospital but later abducted by the KGB and taken to an isolation cell.

Thereafter, the course of events is difficult to follow precisely, but evolved as follows: Sannikov, Rymasheuski and Statkevich moved to Independence Square, evidently intent on high-level meetings with officials.

However, there were numerous security forces there, too, some of which led an attempt to break the windows of Government House.

Almost immediately, hundreds of riot police emerged from the side of the building and set upon the largely unsuspecting demonstrators. The beatings were so savage that they are difficult to watch on YouTube and cellphone videos. Over 700 people were arrested and bundled into vans. Some were just passersby.

The subsequent crackdown has continued for over a month. It corroborates the view that the Dec. 19 assault was a well-planned operation.

The key question is: why? There are three possible answers. First, Lukashenko was uncertain whether he could win outright in the first round. The most reliable poll suggests he may have won about 51 per cent of the vote, but it was a close-run thing, and a second round would have been a public embarrassment.

Second, he had recently concluded a new agreement ending a feud with Russia, which had not hitherto supported his campaign. This freed him from former reliance on the EU and allowed him to take revenge on his opponents.

Third, he was afraid of suffering the fate of his friend Bakiyev (who currently resides in Belarus): a popular uprising that could end his rule. Like Stalin he has begun to see enemies everywhere and his isolation in office has only exacerbated his paranoia.

That is the most charitable explanation of events that have created the biggest crisis in Europe since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1980s.

David Marples, a professor of history at the University of Alberta, is president of the North American Association for Belarusian Studies.


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