Belarus - The last dictatorship in Europe

Article published on June 18, 2002
community published
Article published on June 18, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

On the doorstep of Europe, Belarus has earned the reputation of a left-over relic from the Soviet Union. Over the past ten years, the country has become increasingly isolated by its leaders while its people live under the shadow of an unreformed KGB. Jacob Resneck meets the young people involved in the struggle for democratic reform.

Nestled between Russia and Poland, Belarus was once the industrial powerhouse of the Soviet Union. Little more than a decade later it has become an isolated pariah state, 'the last dictatorship in Europe'. While European youth are becoming more united across the continent, the younger generation of Belarus are being left behind, stuck in a dictatorship that belongs to another era.

"The most pro-independent are young people. Those educated in the 1990s, after Belarus gained its independence," explains Alexai Chermayov, vice chairman of 'Young Front', the youth wing of the opposition party Belarusian Popular Front.

Repression and fear are a regular state policy, carried out by the Belarusian KGB. Which hasnt bothered to change its name. Those who speak out against the country's 'President' are harassed, jailed, or in some cases, disappear.

Belarus has always lived under the shadow of Russia. Gaining independence in 1918, it was swallowed by the Soviet Union six months later. Belarus once again gained independence in 1991. Running as a populist, the former director of a collective farm, Alyaksandr Lukashenka was elected president in 1994. He has since managed to become a dictator in all but name. The Belarusian media is either state-controlled or tightly regulated. To openly criticise the President is to invite trouble.

"People support Lukashenka because they don't see any alternatives. They are afraid of disturbing the status quo," says Andrei Klimaw, a former political prisoner and parliamentarian who supported impeachment proceedings against Lukashenka. He was jailed shortly thereafter and became one of the most high-profile political prisoners in Belarus. He was only released on 25 March, 2002 after nearly four years in prison. After the abortive attempt to impeach him, Lukashenka moved swiftly to dismantle the power of the parliament. Through a series of referendums, the parliament was disbanded and replaced with a 'toothless rubber-stamp body' which is in place today. The country is now effectively run by presidential decrees.

As a fervent 'Soviet-phile', Lukashenka is moving Belarus away from Europe and towards re-unification with the Russian Federation. Belarusians themselves are divided on this. While Belarusians have their own language, customs, and culture, the national identity has weakened considerably after 70 years of Soviet rule. Today only a fragile national identity remains. The older generations are especially nostalgic for the days of the USSR and see little reason to oppose re-unification.

Chermayov explains this trend: "Many people are still stuck in the old Soviet mindset of a world polarised between socialism and capitalism. There's still a lot of residual fear from Soviet-era conditioning that holds people back."

A nationwide survey conducted by Belarus' largest independent think-tank, the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research (IISEPS) found that in 1999, only 28.8 per cent polled "did not trust the President." However, the distrust amongst those under 30 years old was much higher: 44.9 per cent did not trust their leader Lukashenka. There is a rift between the generations, which many say has grown worse in the past three years since this study was carried out.

While the younger generations are idealistic about democracy and want to liberalise, older people are more distrustful of change and are willing to tolerate the autocratic leadership of Lukashenka.

As a young leader of a democratic party, Chermayov believes that if Belarus is to have any future, it will be as a member of Europe, not a satellite of Russia. However, this is a difficult road:

"The oppressive nature of the Belarusian government hinders our economic development. For example, because of government paranoia, our access to the internet is limited and complicated. It's easy to see how this kind of repression squashes potential entrepreneurs." Dismayed Belarusians point to Lithuania as a model for how things 'might have been.' As a small Soviet republic, Lithuania was in economic tatters when it achieved its independence. After over a decade of democratic and economic reform, Lithuania will almost certainly join the European Union in 2004.

While economic issues are of great concern, youth movements are also focused on trying to retain Belarusian identity. One of the most visible and flamboyant is 'Zubr' which takes its name from the indigenous bison that lives in the Belovezskaya forest along the Belarusian-Polish frontier. Even as an unregistered, underground organisation, Zubr has managed to become one of the most high-profile and visible youth resistance groups in the country. Modelled after Otpor, the Serbian youth resistance movement which led a successful campaign to oust Slobodan Milosevic, Zubr attempts to draw upon Otpor's success in Yugoslavia and apply it to Belarus.

'Timo' a Minsk-based Zubr activist is adamant about Zubr's purpose: "Our main objective is to see Belarus achieve democracy and be a full part of Europe." Timo is a fugitive from the authorities for his refusal to report for military service. He insists that the police have gone to more trouble than usual to try and find him because of his affiliations. Zubr's aim is far wider than simply toppling the authoritarian regime.

"Our first obstacle is Lukashenka, so we have supported opposition candidates in elections. Last September, the majority of Belarusian youth came to the polls to vote against Lukashenka. But these elections were rigged," says Timo. The OSCE's (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) election monitors which were present at the election agree with Timo; the election was so full or irregularities, the outcome has not been recognised outside of Belarus and Russia. Yet, Lukashenka's rule remains as solid as ever.

Because the government has such low support among young people, repression on university campuses is common. Ales Karniyenka, chairperson of the United Civil Party youth wing explains: "There is an ongoing KGB campaign to intimidate students into giving information about their peers, especially about democratic opposition movements like ours. We recently found that Gomel University set aside a special room on campus for the KGB to interrogate students."

Karniyenka says that he and others are working on creating a 'black list' of university faculty and administrators who have "maliciously and deliberately" assisted the KGB in their intimidation campaign. The list would be distributed internationally so that KGB-informers would be publicly 'named-and-shamed.'

Karniyenka insists that those on the list could find themselves having difficulty getting placements on international academic bodies.

"This is an extreme measure, but we feel it is necessary in order to prevent informers from infiltrating other organisations in the future. This would be especially serious for KGB-complicit academics," he says. "We must be careful not to target KGB victims, those coerced into giving information. Instead, we want to target those who are in positions of power, such as government officials, university administrators, and faculty. We want them to know that if they spy for the KGB they can and will be publicly humiliated."

Because the Belarusian government has such weak support from the younger generations, student organisations such as the Belarusian Students Association (BSA) have been the victim of systematic intimidation and harassment from the authorities. Last December, BSA lost their 'registration' revoking their right to organise. There is now no legal independent student body in Belarus.

Undeterred, BSA continues to operate. This has carried serious consequences. Last February, BSA members fell victim to a vicious attack when two knife-wielding men stormed their head office in Minsk. The students were told to lie down as one began removing their computer equipment. When the men began beating two students who had walked in on the robbery, BSA member Andrei Sakhoverkhi tried to intervene but was overpowered by the two men.

"They held me down on to a table and began stabbing the table all around my head. One was yelling, 'Do you want to live? Or do you want to die?'" recalls Sakhoverkhi.

Before they left, one of the men reportedly told the frightened students that the attack was not personal.

"One said that he even had some sympathy for our cause, but he had no choice. He said, 'that's the kind of country we live in, and the kind of president we live with,'" recalls Sakhoverkhi.

"He then said not to call the police, because they already knew we would be here."

When the police arrived, the students had to persuade them to open an investigation. The police agreed and duly confiscated their fax machine for 'fingerprints.' The fax machine has yet to be returned.

"We had a long discussion whether or not to publicise the attack because we thought it would intimidate other students from getting involved, which is understandable. In the end, we realised we had had to get the story out," says BSA member Alina Stefanovic.

"Fortunately, it hasn't negatively affected us. If anything, we're more popular than before," adds Sakhoverkhi.

BSA members have become used to intimidation. When they decided to canvas the Minsk Polytechnic last spring, the university authorities spotted Kasia Bochan, the only member who was also a student at the Polytechnic. A few days later, Bochan was summoned by the university authorities and interrogated:

"I was questioned by two men, one from the security services and one from the KGB. They wanted to know about the BSA, Zubr, and other organisations. They kept asking how many persons were involved. I just gave them stupid answers like, 'I never counted, but there's a lot.' They wanted names, they wanted addresses. But I wouldn't tell them anything. Eventually they had to let me go."

She was re-summoned a month later.

Even after threatened with 'academic problems' if she did not cooperate, Bochan says she sat through the series of interviews in silence. So far, she says she hasn't heard from them since. Even though her political affiliations got her in trouble, she the work of the student resistance as vital.

"Of course it doesn't mean that they forgot me. I know exactly that they did not. But 'with a little help from my friends' we can overcome everything," says Bochan.

Meanwhile, in the city of Grodno a 23 year old journalist has become a cause celebre throughout Belarus. Since May, Paval Mazheika has been on trial for libel under Article 367 (2) 'slander of the President of the Republic of Belarus.' If convicted, he and his editor could face five years in prison. His newspaper article appeared in the Belarusian-language weekly Pagonia whose entire print-run was seized on the eve of last September's presidential election. The newspaper was subsequently closed down by authorities. Mazheika argues that his case proves that there is no right to freedom of expression in Belarus.

"My article was written more as an informal citizen than as a journalist," says Mazheika. "I weighed up the different candidates in the presidential campaign. I concluded with the rhetorical question, 'who can support a candidate who kills his opponents?' which was a clear allusion to opposition figures who've gone missing in past years."

Belarus is the only country in Europe that criminally prosecutes libel and even has a specific statute for those accused of slandering the president personally. Despite the fact that public expression of a private individual is protected under Belarusian law, the authorities are intent on prosecuting him.

"Following the crackdown on Pagonia, other independent newspapers have been much more wary in their coverage of Belarusian politics. When we asked a regional Grodno paper why they hadn't reported on our closure, they replied, 'Reporting politics is bad for business,'" says Mazheika ruefully.

"This case represents a new precedent on the lack of press freedoms in our country. If we're convicted, it is a terrible symptom of a bad situation in Belarus today," concludes Mazheika.

President Lukashenka's efforts in re-unifying with Russia is one of the most puzzling contradictions about Belarus. A dictator seemingly seeks to maximise his own power, yet Lukashenka is determined to unify with Russia, a country over ten times its size in terms of population. Yet, some observers say that by undermining Belarus' sovereignty and linking up with the Russian Federation, he could rule Belarus indefinitely as the local governor. Under the umbrella of Russian protection he would be immune to outside criticism.

For the people of Belarus, they are at a severe crossroads. The younger generation see themselves as European, while older people still think in terms of the Soviet Union. Regardless of one's political ideology, Belarus is a European country of ten million people, soon to be on the doorstep of an enlarged European Union. These ten million Belarusians live under an authoritarian dictatorship where human rights violations are widespread. The West, and Europe especially, will not be able to ignore this situation forever.

The case continues.


The 'I have never' drinking game is popular in Belarus. Friends sit in a circle and someone will say, for example: 'I have never pissed in the shower' as a bottle of beer is passed around. Those in the group guilty of shower-pissing must take a drink in full view of the group.

We are in Gorky which is not a large town in Belarus, but it does have an agricultural academy. We are there to meet some students who are trying to organise a local student union, despite problems with the authorities.

It is my turn with the bottle. "I have never had to run from the police," I say and watch their faces as it is translated. There is a ripple of laughter as each and every one of the students takes a drink.


Special thanks to Leeds University Union whose £300 grant made this article possible.