x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

In Stalin's shadow dwells the last of Europe's dictators

Steadily increasing his grip on the levers of power in the former Soviet state of Belarus since being democratically elected in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko continues systematically crushing dissent in typically Cold War-era totalitarian fashion.

Protesters clash with riot police during an opposition rally in Minsk in December last year. Viktor Drachev / AFP
Protesters clash with riot police during an opposition rally in Minsk in December last year. Viktor Drachev / AFP

Every evening, at the entrance to the Red Church in the centre of Minsk, a dozen or so citizens, with bright red and white scarves hanging from their necks, gather around the imposing sculpture of Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Belarus. Cast in bronze, the angel wears an expression of righteous fury as he runs his spear through the mouth of a vanquished dragon. Those assembled at his foot begin with a silent prayer. Then they join hands and sing a hymn. At the end of it, someone reads from a small notebook: a memorial roll call for the friends, sons, daughters, mothers and husbands who have been killed, imprisoned or simply disappeared for opposing president Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus. Flat, forested and landlocked between Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia, it resembles not so much a country as a desolate captive. Absorbed into Bolshevik Russia in 1919, it re-emerged as a sovereign state from the detritus of the Soviet Union seven decades later. But what seemed like the end of history to triumphant spectators in the West was, for many Belarusians, the beginning of an inscrutable future. "The popular view", Brian Bennett writes in his authoritative new book on post-Soviet Belarus, The Last Dictatorship in Europe: Belarus Under Lukashenko, "was that the break-up of the USSR had brought uncertainty."

As Britain's ambassador to Minsk from 2003-2007, Bennett studied Lukashenko closely. His book offers an unsparingly detailed account of his rise from obscurity and his ruthless accretion of power. Appointed in 1993 as chairman of a committee investigating corruption, Lukashenko seized the day. A populist by instinct, he "made a rousing speech vowing to recreate the Soviet Union on a new, higher plane". He was energetic and youthful, not yet 40. Politicians "sensed that Lukashenko was not someone to mess with", although dictatorship seemed a distant prospect, given that the speaker of the Supreme Soviet (the interim parliament of Belarus) was averse to the idea of a presidential system. Then, in January 1994, Bill Clinton, the US president, visited Belarus and members of the Supreme Soviet, seduced by the presence of a young and charismatic leader, sidelined the speaker and opted for a presidential system.

In July, six months after Clinton's visit, Lukashenko won a run-off election. One of his first acts as president was to order the shooting down of two Americans who had strayed into Belarusian airspace in a hot-air balloon; their deaths were described as an accident at the time, but Bennett discloses that those involved in the shooting "were decorated".

Within Belarus, Lukashenko moved rapidly: he issued 350 presidential decrees in not much more than a year after assuming office. By 1996, he had consigned the constitution to the rubbish bin, introduced the death penalty, had his opponents arrested and consolidated his control over the media. Parliamentarians who refused to rubber-stamp his laws had their salaries withheld. Lawyers who opposed him were disbarred. A former speaker of parliament who did just that was refused a licence because he had a criminal record: "He had stepped off the pavement and onto the road during a demonstration in 1997."

By 1999, several prominent figures in the Belarusian opposition had disappeared. Quoting from suppressed official reports, Bennett establishes that the dates on which the official execution pistol was signed out corresponded with the dates of the disappearances. The orders came from the top.

•••

On a recent evening in Minsk, I met Svetlana Gorohovik at prayer outside the Red Church. She was the focus of the small congregation's attention. Women were thrusting gifts into her hands - a rolled-up poster, a picture frame, a bouquet of flowers - as she kissed and embraced them. When I talked to her, Svetlana told me that she had recently got married. Her husband was serving a five-year sentence in a Minsk prison for taking part in the December 19 demonstrations - a date hallowed by thousands of Belarusians who occupied Minsk's Independence Square last year, demanding a second round of voting after Lukashenko pronounced himself re-elected.

The president had hoped that the biting cold of December would deter protesters. It did not. The roads leading up to Independence Square were crowded with Belarusians buoyed by the Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. It seemed like the beginning of an uprising. Lukashenko dispatched the state militia. Their truncheons tore open the flesh of the protesters. Presidential candidates were not spared. By the end of the night, the thick snow on Independence Square had turned crimson. Protesters were loaded onto buses and driven away into a future of oblivion.

Pavel, Svetlana's boyfriend, was among them. He was put on trial in April, four months after being arrested. Independence Square was only a few metres from where we stood. We could see the towering statue of Lenin at the centre of the square. Svetlana's eyes flickered over it for a moment.

"I went to the prison in this same dress," she said, pointing to the clothes she wore now. "He was in his prison uniform. We got married inside the prison." They were locked up together for three days. It was their honeymoon. "We went for walks on the stairs in the building. We climbed up and down." They were being watched, but she smiled as she talked about her time in the prison. She was 24.

She is allowed two seven-minute phone calls each month with her husband. She will be approaching 30 by the time of his release. And yet she was unbowed, rebuking, by the mere act of assembling in a public space, the only ruler she had known for 17 years of her life.

Lukashenko unleashed a campaign of terror against the candidates who contested the election. Of the nine who stood against him, seven were sent to prison. I met Alla Sannikova, the mother of Lukashenko's nearest rival in the polls, Andrei. One of the brightest young members of the president's first cabinet, her son became increasingly disillusioned and left the government in 1996. He introduced Charter 97 - a declaration for democracy - and pioneered the use of the internet in Belarusian politics. European politicians respected him, but Lukashenko hated Andrei and his wife, Irina Khalip, one of Belarus's most scrupulous investigative journalists.

In September 2010, three months before the elections, Oleg Bebenin, Andrei's campaign press secretary, was found dead outside Minsk. The police called it suicide, but Natalia Koliada, an exiled Belarusian theatre activist who knew Bebenin well, rejected the official version when I met her recently in London. Bebenin, she said, had just returned from a holiday with his wife and their five-year-old son. The announcement of suicide was made before an official autopsy was carried out.

If it was meant as a warning to Andrei, it did not work. His name went on the ballot. On the night of December 19, as he was addressing the crowd, Lukashenko's men pushed him to the ground and struck him repeatedly. Irina tried to take Andrei to a hospital, but they were both detained.

In the weeks following their arrest, Belarus's secret police - which still goes by its Soviet name, KGB - raided their home in an attempt to seize their three-year-old son, Danil. Where both parents of a child had been arrested for demonstrating, it was, Lukashenko announced, in the child's best interest to be sent to an orphanage. In the ensuing international outcry, Irina was released from prison and placed under house arrest. Andrei was sentenced in May to a five-year term. Alla told me that Andrei had recently been moved to a labour camp outside Minsk. She had not seen him in months, but she was optimistic - to the point of being unrealistic - about the future. Uncurling her scarf, she said her son would be the next president. "He will bring change to this country. There will be justice. Bad times will be over soon."

•••

The red-and-white dyed into the scarves and flags that are sewn into the jackets of Lukashenko's opponents is derived from the Pahonia, an emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which once stood over what is now Belarus.

The Tatars rendered Old Belarusian in Arabic, and in the early 16th century Francysk Skaryna, a pioneering publisher from Polotsk, set it to print in Cyrillic. With the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, Belarusians began to be known as tuteishiya, locals who just happened to be there. Then, in 1586, a Calvinist from Vitebsk called Saloman Rysinski described himself as a "Belarusian" in an application to the University of Altdorf - a description that was intended to imply that he was neither Polish nor Lithuanian.

The Belarusian identity was still amorphous when Catherine the Great began expanding the Russian empire. The eastern half of Belarus was annexed in 1772; the central portion was taken in 1793; and, by 1795, all of Belarus was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The Pale of Settlement - which demarcated the territories in which Jews could settle in imperial Russia - brought even greater diversity to Belarus. In his epic Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray, 1834), the Polish poet Adam Mitskevich questioned the cost of partitions and serfdom caused by Russia, and exalted the Polish homeland.

The Pole, although among the nations famed

For love of native land exceeding

Is ready aye to leave it, and depart

Into the world's wide country, and to live

Long years in poverty and in contempt.

Battling with men and destiny, while still

This hope before him glimmers through the storm,

That yet he serves his Fatherland

Mitskevich's aim was not just to ignite a sense of unity among Polish émigrés. He wanted them to imagine a life outside the Russian colonial yoke. His radicalism was infectious. Vincent Dunin-Martinkevich, one of the founders of modern Belarusian literature, was so deeply moved that he risked arrest in translating Pan Tadeusz into Belarusian.

The idea of a Belarusian nation, still nebulous, was further consecrated by a group of educated Belarusians in St Petersburg who published a journal, Gomon, urging autonomy for Belarus within Russia. The arrival of licensed newspapers Nasha Niva and Nasha Dolya in 1906 threw open the doors to a stream of nationalist poetry, drama and criticism. Belarusian nationalism would assume its most definite shape in this rich literary ferment. With the Pahonia as the national emblem, the new state was founded in March 1918.

But it was also precisely because of these underpinnings - which had crystallised in a discourse centred primarily on class, not ethnic, struggle - that its dismantling and absorption into Bolshevik Russia in less than 10 months occurred with nary a squeak. Under the Soviet ideology, Belarusian identity froze. Those who could contribute to its development were killed in Stalin's Great Purge. Hundreds of thousands of bodies were piled up in mass graves in the Kuropaty woods outside Minsk. Reduced to rubble by the Nazis in the Second World War, Minsk itself was rebuilt as a grand Stalinist city, oppressively open, designed to deny its citizens any sense of privacy.

Belarusians were so thoroughly assimilated by the USSR that, when they got Belarus, they were no longer certain of what it meant to be independent. "A person who does not understand who he is", the political scientist Ales Ancipienka once explained, "is actually a Belarusian." Those who were politically conscious grasped that in order to retain their independence they had to revive a sense of identity. Inevitably, Lukashenko choked their project in its infancy.

The central paradox of present-day Belarus is that the first truly independent Belarusian state in history thrives by obliterating the pluralistic lineaments of nationhood. Belarusian, spoken by about 37 per cent of the population, is actively discouraged; Russian is privileged. Official historiography places the origins of Belarus in Soviet ideology. Even Independence Day has been moved from the anniversary of Belarus's declaration of sovereignty, July 27 (which repudiates the Soviet Union), to the anniversary of Minsk's liberation by the Red Army, July 3 (which memorialises the Soviet Union).

Lukashenko's critics accuse him of seeking to Russianise Belarus. According to Bennett, Lukashenko dreamt of reuniting Belarus with Russia and ruling the union for life. But after Vladimir Putin took over Moscow, it's probable that Lukashenko simply wanted to shape the tabula rasa he inherited into a model of his own ideas; and his template for Belarus could not but borrow from the familiar Soviet system of his youth. He cast himself as the Batka - paterfamilias - of Belarusians in the drama he decided to enact. Seventeen years later, the production is a festering failure, but Lukashenko, now in absolute control, persists, banishing those who deviate from his script.

•••

"We need to strive for a global federation," Vladimir Neklyayev told me on the afternoon I visited him in his flat on Karl Marx Street. In recent years, Neklyayev, the dissident poet laureate of Belarus, who is under house arrest, has emerged as the conscience of the nation. A candidate in the presidential elections of 2010, he was beaten severely by a group of KGB officials on December 19. The offices of his organisation, Speak the Truth, were raided.

"They are downstairs," he said, pointing to the balcony. Even so, he displayed none of the stress of a man who was one mistake away from the labour camp. I was listening to his animated talk about China's growing influence in Belarus when he stopped and asked me about India. I told him it was going through a very violent phase. "India will survive", he said, waving his hand. "It will lead the world. It is an ancient civilisation and a modern nation."

I had not known that Neklyayev had spent several years in India in the 1980s, nor that one of his best-known poems was a tribute to India. The mention of India seemed poignant too, because the only public space where Lukashenko had until recently allowed limited political protest was called Bangalore Square, so named in the spirit of Indo-Soviet friendship. India has pumped millions of dollars into Lukashenko's coffers by purchasing his night-vision equipment and reassuring his regime by hosting him as an honoured state guest. Crippling sanctions against the regime are the only way to force Lukashenko to reform, Neklyayev said. After I left Minsk, there were reports in the press that the conditions of his house arrest had been tightened.

Individual tales of repression can produce mass action only if they are able to form a collective narrative. In order to challenge Lukashenko, Belarusians must be able to do something as simple as talk among themselves. Since December 19, the political space of the opposition has shrunk to the point of extinction. The press is censored, the internet is monitored, phones are tapped, and people's lives depend on eschewing politics. But conformity does not insulate people from the state's interference, because to conform is to acquiesce to being interfered with, to accept an existence hollowed of all sense of individuality. The Belarusian opposition is trapped in a zugzwang: their progress is possible only through loss. Some Belarusians have chosen to take the risk. Using a network of firewalls, they organise over the internet. Schedules are posted for protests every Wednesday in a different part of Minsk. The KGB, embarrassed, detains them for two weeks.

I went along to Yakub Kolas Square one Wednesday to witness a planned protest. Except for an assortment of KGB thugs, menacingly poised at every corner, the square was empty. The internet empowers, but it does not discriminate. Its utility for the opposition will fade away once the KGB has mastered it - and it seemed to be making progress.

I met Sergey, an economics student at the Belarusian State University, later that afternoon. Over a lunch of vegetables and rice, he told me that a number of people he knew, including his parents and some members of the university faculty, had received threats from the KGB. They were being told that they would soon be exposed as foreign agents and paraded on live television. His parents, both academics, had started looking for work in Ukraine and Poland. WikiLeaks, he said, was the reason.

In December 2010, just before the presidential elections, Israel Shamir, an "accredited journalist" for WikiLeaks, travelled to Minsk from London with a huge cache of unredacted US diplomatic cables. He held meetings with Lukashenko's chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, and handed over the documents. He stayed behind as an "international observer" of the elections and published a piece of pro-Lukashenko propaganda in Counterpunch, the US political journal.

"There is no sign of a police state here," he wrote. "The President of Belarus, the man the US State Department calls the last dictator of Europe, walks freely among his people ... The people were happy, fully employed, and satisfied with their government." Then he turned on the opposition. "The people know [Lukashenko], and know what to expect from him. Hardly anybody knew the opposition candidates by name."

Citing a US diplomatic cable that discusses US aid to Belarus, he wrote: "WikiLeaks has now revealed how ... undeclared cash flows from the US coffers to the Belarus 'opposition'." He concluded with the claim that Belarus "is a socialist country, but the socialism is soft, with plenty of room for private enterprise and personal freedoms".

Shamir's article collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. The reason people don't know the opposition very well is because they are censored, and censorship cannot be challenged in Belarus because it is a dictatorship. The long queues outside exchanges and the hundreds of young men who lurk in the dark corners of Minsk trading currency on the black market - paying up to 10,000 roubles for a US dollar - offer their own version of the "soft" socialism of Belarus.

According to an exhaustive investigation carried out by the Norwegian anti-racist magazine Monitor, Shamir has a long history of association with European fascist parties. He changed his name several times, published anti-Semitic articles, claimed to be a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and was in the habit of offering himself as a speaker at white supremacist conventions in return for a small fee, daily expenses, plane tickets and hotel accommodation for him and his wife.

It's not known if Shamir billed Lukashenko for his services, nor is it is clear what the cables contain. In a press conference held after the December 19 demonstrations, Lukashenko promised to set up a "Belarusian WikiLeaks" to publish the documents given by Shamir. A few weeks later, a state-run newspaper, Soviet Belarus, began publishing what it claimed were declassified documents: Neklyayev, Bebenin and Sannikov were named as recipients of foreign money. Now, Sergey told me, intellectuals were being targeted. As with the anti-corruption report that sprung Lukashenko into power in 1994, the fear that he may know something about them that they don't know about themselves is what now breeds paranoia.

Change in Belarus is unlikely to occur without a concerted international effort. But Europe and Washington may no longer be able to influence the outcome. The initial deterrent to any meaningful western pressure against Belarus was the idea of a "Russian sphere of influence".

But this was an exaggeration: for all its power over Belarus, Moscow could not force Lukashenko to recognise the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenko's usefulness has progressively diminished for Russia. But now the West will have to contend with another, more implacable force: China.

Lukashenko was once responsive to western pressure: in 2002 and 2007, he offered concessions in order to evade sanctions. But last month, when the US imposed fresh sanctions, he was rattled only momentarily: within weeks, China had filled the void, offering not just a billion dollars, but also an assurance of "full backing for [Lukashenko's] stance on domestic and international questions".

And who in the West has the courage to oppose China? A decade into the 21st century, at a time when traditional autocracies are witnessing pro-democracy uprisings, a dictatorship prevails on the frontiers of New Europe.

Kapil Komireddi is an Indian freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Foreign Policy and the Los Angeles Times.