By Tom Balmforth
The Possibly Agent Provocateur-Led Attack on the Belarusian Government Headquarters Legitimized a Police Response, but Tough EU Sanctions on Minsk Now Look Certain
The European Union is watching closely how Belarusian opposition is being treated since many were jailed for leading the thousands-strong protests on Independence Square over President Alexander Lukashenko's landslide victory. Disquieting scraps of information - otherwise nigh on black-out - are eking out of Belarusian opposition media and human rights organizations, while the European Parliament will soon have no choice but to deem improving ties a lost cause for the time being.
Twenty-six Belarusians are being charged with organizing the "mass unrest" on December 19, and 23 are still being held in KGB secret services' detention facilities. Of these 26, six were Lukashenko's rivals in the presidential elections: Andrei Sannikov, Vladimir Neklyayev, Vital Rymashevsky, Nikolai Statkevich, as well as Dmitry Uss and Grigory Kostusyov, who have both been released "on their own recognizance," the Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Center reports.
Just under 650 protestors were arrested in the early hours of December 20 in rallies when incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, an iron-fisted former Kolkhoz boss, claimed just under 80 percent of the vote to land a fourth, this time five-year, term at the helm, while the rest of Belarus' fragmented opposition fled.
Around 10,000 protestors had been calling for a representative of the Central Election Commission to negotiate over alleged election fraud. While they waited and chanted "new elections without Lukashenko," a cluster of young protestors attempted to storm the government headquarters and shattered the glass on the front doors, which became the queue for Interior Ministry troops to pour onto the square and brutally disperse the rally.
Some oppositionists say the attack was initiated by agents provocateurs, planted to give legitimacy to the fierce police crackdown. Yesterday one Belarusian journalist for the Solidarnost newspaper, Mikalai Charnyauski, drew attention to a photograph of a lone protestor appearing to talk into a hidden microphone in his sleeve with his hand raised to his ear. Only moments later the same youth is photographed leading the attack on the government headquarters and breaking the glass. A Belarusian journalist who was on the square that night, but who requested anonymity, told Russia Profile that he heard a pair of security servicemen say: "They've broken the glass. Now we can start."
Since the protests, information on the jailed opposition has been patchy at best, with opposition lawyers obliged to sign non-disclosure agreements, local opposition media reports. Conjecture had swirled about the health of Vladimir Neklyayev, who was fiercely bludgeoned on the head on the way to the rallies in central Minsk on December 19. The 64-year-old poet-turned-oppositionist was taken directly into custody by the KGB straight from hospital later that night. His relatives and lawyers were denied access to him for a week. On Monday, lawyers were allowed to see him for the first time.
Nothing is known about Andrei Sannikov, reports the opposition Charter 97 Web site, which he cofounded. On December 23 Amnesty International reported that lawyers who have seen Sannikov said his legs look broken and that he may have brain damage, judging by his speech and gait. Charter 97 also reports that the KGB has searched his sons' apartments and also tried to put his three-year-old son, being looked after by a grandmother, in an orphanage, because he and his wife were in detention. Natalya Radina, an editor for Charter 97, is among the 23 detained and is bleeding from her ears without medical attention, according to a lawyer quoted by Viasna Human Rights Center.
How far Lukashenko feels that he has to go to purge the opposition movement is unclear. Analysts say the opposition is genuinely weak, and not just because of Belarus' muzzled media and adverse climate for opposition campaigning.
Lukashenko will surely be feeling international scrutiny. A consummate master at playing the West off against Russia, after the elections Lukashenko finds himself at the helm of a frail managed economy dependent on Russian energy handouts, and unlikely to revive ties with its potential trade partner, the EU.
In the run-up to the elections analysts forecasted a timid easing of authoritarian rule over opposition campaigning that would in turn buttress a phase of warmer ties between Minsk and the EU. Brussels had relaxed sanctions on Lukashenko, hoping to coax him away from Russia, with which he ran into turbulent relations this fall.
But the EU has sternly chided Minsk for the police crackdown and "flawed" vote count found by the OSCE election monitor. "Respect for democracy and human rights remain central to improving Belarus's relations with the United States and the European Union. Without substantial progress in these areas, relations will not improve," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU Foreign Policy Head Catherine Ashton said on December 23.
Whether linked or not, Lukashenko on Tuesday reshuffled his ministerial cabinet. The 56-year-old Belarusian who styles himself as "Batka," or the father of the people, sacked his prime minister of seven years, replacing him with his long-time ally Mikhail Myasnikovich. Four deputy ministers were also replaced in an opaque hint that Lukashenko is ringing the changes to keep his steely grip on power.
This fall's prickly relations with Russia appear to have been smoothed over - for the time being. Powerhouse Russian Premier Vladimir Putin today congratulated Myasnikovich on his appointment, although he did not congratulate Lukashenko, whom he is thought to loathe.
The European Parliament Committee and Delegation is holding an extraordinary meeting on January 12 to discuss how to proceed with Belarus. "The European Parliament will examine the conduct and aftermath of the presidential elections, including the excessive and disproportionate use of force by the Belarusian authorities, the beating and detention of opposition presidential candidates and violence against journalists and civil society activists. We will also discuss the possible further responses from the side of the European Union," said Jerzy Buzek, the president of the EU.
The lifeline for the jailed opposition is that the EU can convince the man dubbed the "last dictator in Europe" to let up on the opposition. Whether that concession is won by stick or by carrot, if Belarus cozies up with Russia, it will be much harder to get.