Belarus Leader's Grip on Power West Puzzled by Lukashenko's Clampdown on Weak Opposition 

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claims regime opponents funded by the West were behind the recent subway bombing in Minsk. His behavior is puzzling, observers say. He is cracking down on the opposition even though it is weak and divided and the population seems in no mood for revolution.

AP

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko no longer leaves the house without Kolya, his favorite son, the product of an extramarital affair with a personal physician he got rid of long ago. The six-year-old boy has been by his side during government talks, corporate visits and an audience with the pope in Rome.

Kolya was with his father once again last Monday, April 11, hardly two hours after the bomb attack in Minsk's Oktyabrskaya metro station. They stood together holding hands -- both dressed in black, both with somber demeanors -- on a train platform that was still covered in blood. There, they laid red carnations in silence to commemorate the 13 people who died.

Lukashenko is a lonely man, which explains his demonstrative displays of affection for his son. But since he's also a consummate actor and demagogue, he has devised a political role for his son. He knows that people are touched when they see a strong man with a young boy on his hand. It makes them think his main priorities are order and stability.

But what kind of order does he represent? Late Wednesday, Lukashenko told his people that the calm situation in Belarus "had lulled us to sleep." But this time, he continued, officials from the KGB, the country's security service, had done a "brilliant" job in tracking down the men who perpetrated the metro station attack and getting them to confess. The alleged culprits are a lathe operator and an electrician from the provinces.

"Holy cow!" wrote one Belarusian blogger. "After being arrested at 9 p.m., they admitted to several attacks in recent years -- down to the really small ones -- by 5 a.m. They must be using some really cutting-edge interrogation techniques! Is Belarus about to face another 1937, when the show trials were held in Moscow against suspected regime opponents?"

That can't be ruled out, although there are indications that the suspected assailants had no political motives. Lukashenko has already announced that he will impose the "strictest order and organization possible" and that the police regiments brought into the city would remain there for the time being. He also said that the all the "gibberish about democracy one wants to impose on us" was absurd and that the people who ordered the bombing -- and who inspired it -- should be sought out in the "fifth column."

Crackdown on Demonstrators

By "fifth column," Lukashenko means the opposition. Indeed, the president has directed all his scorn at the opposition since the presidential elections held on Dec. 19, 2010. After the autocrat supposedly won 79.7 percent of the vote, most of the opposition candidates joined tens of thousands of demonstrators outside the main government building to protest against suspected electoral fraud and to demand that Lukashenko step down.

Security forces brutally suppressed the demonstration, injuring at least 100 people and arresting some 700. Once it was over, the president boasted that his forces had "reinstated order in seven and a half minutes."

Immediately after the demonstration, Lukashenko locked up seven of the nine presidential candidates who had run against him. Two of them are still being held. Although the seven others have been released, they are either being held under house arrest or have been forced to agree to help the KGB. One former candidate, who has since found refuge in the Czech Republic, reports that KGB officers abused and humiliated him.

The mills of justice are now grinding relentlessly. Several of the December 19 demonstrators have already been sentenced to between three-and-a-half and four years in prison, and the former presidential candidates are about to face trial. As one Western diplomat put it, the trials will be part of a "general reckoning with the opposition."

The West has responded by severing ties with Belarus. To protest against the treatment of regime opponents, the EU banned 177 Belarusian politicians, judges, prosecutors and journalists from entering EU territory. In response, Lukashenko made it clear that Western visitors would not be welcomed in Belarus.

Lukashenko has even bad-mouthed German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle as a "fairy" and claimed that Westerwelle had offered him support when he and Poland's foreign minister had visited Minsk before the election. If "people want to try to frighten us with sanctions, no problem" he said, adding that Belarus would become "the Chechnya of the West."

Puzzling Behavior

Since Lukashenko has already ruled over Europe's last bastion of socialism for 17 years, the world has obviously grown somewhat accustomed to the eccentric 56-year-old. But, since December, the behavior of this former collective farm manager has become increasing puzzling -- and the West doesn't know how to deal with him anymore.

To figure that out, it will first have to answer a number of questions, such as: To what extent were the election results falsified? Did Lukashenko, who actually allowed a relatively free election campaign this time, merely lose his nerve on the evening of the election? Or had he been planning to break off relations with the West all along?

And, most importantly, could the most recent attack have anything to do with all that?

To play it safe, ex-presidential candidate Vital Rymascheuski prefers not to answer the latter question. The 36-year-old civil engineer and head of the Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD) party is sitting in a café near the Victory Square, working on his website and checking his e-mail.

On the night of December 19, Rymascheuski was arrested in a hospital emergency room. A police officer from the elite "Omon" unit had whacked him over the head with a rubber truncheon during the demonstration, and he was there having his injury bandaged.

From there, he was taken to "Amerikanka," the notorious prison right behind KGB headquarters. "The place was completely jam-packed," Rymascheuski recounts. "I landed in a cell with a lieutenant colonel and a former plant manager and just a single mattress between us." He was released after 10 days, and his trial is coming soon. Each day, he has to go down to KGB headquarters to study the indictment. He's already made it through 14 volumes.

Rymascheuski says that the alleged "storming" of the government building was meant as "a provocation." In fact, he says, "we hadn't even planned on marching there at all. We actually wanted to go to Lukashenko's residence." But the presidential candidates "had no solidarity with each other," he says, and someone turned the procession of protesters around.

His BCD party is also angry at rival opposition groups. He claims that they advocate the breakup of Belarus, a course that only drives potential opposition supporters away. As he sees it, being radical doesn't help when it comes to countering someone like Lukashenko.

Oleg Manaev also never tires of preaching the same thing. He says: "I always tell people in the opposition: 'You don't want to weigh Lukashenko down with a fieldstone and string him up on a bridge, do you? Well then you need to come to power through elections, and then you have to speak with people, with the nation.' But that's exactly what the opposition has failed to do, and that's why nobody knows who they are." That, he adds, is why Lukashenko can get away with beating people up and throwing them in jail.

Professor Manaev, 59, is one of Belarus's best-known social researchers. He led the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) in Minsk for many years before it was shut down by the country's highest court and forced to move to Lithuania. Manaev continues to teach at the Belarusian State University in Minsk, but he has been sidelined there since the rector asked him to quit. Such harassment has led 130 academics from around the world to protest on his behalf.

"The regime remains unacceptable to me," Manaev says, "but I'm disappointed by the opposition. It called on the people to take to the streets on December 19, but it didn't know what to do with them once they were there. And it refuses to believe that most of them care more about having food on the table than freedom."

Manaev is sitting at a table in a small Minsk cafe. He pulls a four-page report out of his bag. The report contains the results of an opinion poll conducted by his former institute 10 days after the election. He says you have to look at the situation "without emotion." The poll found that roughly 87 percent of the population cast their votes, which is almost four percent lower than the turnout officially announced, but still considerably higher than the figure claimed by some opposition leaders.

The sociologist found that 58 percent of those who cast a vote did so for Lukashenko, or 20 percent fewer than claimed by the regime. "But that still means that Lukashenko would have won this election," Manaev says, "without having to 'redirect' 1.3 million votes -- and without wide-scale repression."

With a shrug, Manaev interprets the findings as meaning that the Belarusians aren't ready for a revolution and that they have come to terms with having a leader like Lukashenko because they're afraid of change. At the moment, he adds, things are going relatively well for them, and they give their president the credit. Though they might be bothered by the regime's intellectual crudeness and brutality, that doesn't make them have any more faith in the opposition.

But that begs the question why Lukashenko has been pursuing his opponents so doggedly since December 19. Manaev answers the question analytically, listing three reasons: First, Lukashenko, who controls everything in the country, has had enough of the opposition's endless accusations, and all of his hatred for them has come bursting out.

Second, he has been forced to take into account the interests of the judiciary, the intelligence service and the police -- in other words, the very people who already thought allowing regime opponents to publically voice their opinions in the run-up to the elections was going too far.

And, third, Lukashenko's main problem had already been solved exactly 10 days before the election: As Manaev sees it, Lukashenko's almost conspiratorial trip to Moscow on December 9 to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pulled Belarus back from the economic brink, at least temporarily.

For four months, Lukashenko had been haggling with the Kremlin to try to keep on getting Russian oil and gas at reduced prices. But Moscow was annoyed that Lukashenko was having the cheap oil processed in his refineries and then reselling it on the world market for a profit. Indeed, the two were trading insults as recently as last spring: Russian TV aired films critical of Lukashenko, and he avenged himself in turn with similar programs on the leadership in Moscow.

But on December 9, the war was abruptly over: Medvedev renewed the duty-free oil shipments, bringing Belarus roughly €4 billion ($5.8 billion) in savings, and Prime Minister Putin promised Lukashenko €6 billion for a nuclear power plant. Belarus' hard currency reserves have been shrinking dramatically, and the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's had recently re-lowered its credit rating. But, all of a sudden, it looked like it was no longer dependent on Western money.

That would also explain why Lukashenko, in an apparent attempt to justify his change of course, has been accusing the West of backing a coup against him. He claims that the coup was provided with €87 million ($124 million) "through certain 'fifth column' foundations in Belarus." In the state-run newspaper Soviet Belarus, he had intelligence agency dossiers and eavesdropping transcripts printed that were meant to prove how the Germans and Poles had built up a network of regime opponents.

Still, the fact that Warsaw and Berlin provided financial backing to some of the opposition candidates was never a secret. Since the 1990s, the Germans have been trying to foster the establishment of a civil society in Belarus. They have backed various opposition heads, though they have also never given up hope that they could somehow tempt Lukashenko with fresh offers. But they have never succeeded. What's more, even the EU sanctions Berlin backed were half-hearted, and they never hit Lukashenko in his Achilles' heel, the economy.

Is it possible that Lukashenko himself is behind the metro attack? Though it's highly unlikely, the explosions certainly did come at a curious moment, when all the country's problems seem to be piling up. Lukashenko has always known how to turn such situations to his own advantage. He is the most agile of all post-Soviet politicians. And as one biography of him published in Moscow puts it, Lukashenko has succeeded with impunity in "creating a closed society right in the middle of Europe."

But now he has become a hostage of his own system, and one that cannot survive without constantly searching for new enemies.

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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