Belarus’s main opposition newspaper, Narodnaya volya, did not appear on the streets of Minsk on October 1. On September 20, its assets were seized by the Lenin district court in Minsk, and the printing house and factory responsible for distributing the newspaper annulled their agreements on the grounds that Narodnaya volya had published materials that contradict the laws of the Republic of Belarus, specifically the law “On the Press and other Mass Media.” On September 28, the directors of Belsayuzdruk and Mingorsoyuzpechat (M. Padhainy and I.V. Dudich) issued separate resolutions canceling agreements with the newspaper, and on the same day, the Chyrvonaya Zorka (Red Star) publishing company followed suit, declaring that the newspaper had failed to pay off its outstanding debts (Narodnaya volya, September 29).
According to one of the paper’s writers, the ruling regime became irritated with the newspaper at the time of the 2004 referendum on whether President Alexander Lukashenka could be eligible to run for a third term in office. It used the premise of an alleged attack on one of the political allies of Lukashenka, Liberal-Democratic leader Syarhey Haidukevich, in an article on March 1. The article in question exposed a business contract between Haidukevich and the Iraqi oil minister under the regime of Saddam Hussein, including a faxed message from Iraq requesting that Haidukevich cover a debt of $1 million for oil deliveries (CPJ News Alert, 2005). Haidukevich subsequently sued Narodnaya volya successfully for the sum of BR100 million ($46,500) for defamation of character, although the newspaper stood by its story.
The newspaper also ran into problems after publishing 10,000 signatures supporting a new informal association called “The Will of the People,” when nine people on the list claimed that they had never agreed to their names appearing. This time the fines amounted to around $7,000 (Reporters sans Frontieres, July 26). The newspaper failed in its appeal to the Lenin regional court to have the sum reduced.
Edited by Iosif Syaredzich, Narodnaya volya is the most important socio-political newspaper of the opposition in Belarus. It sells approximately 150,000 copies per week, publishing on five days, and it runs articles in both Belarusian and Russian. Its bright red crest bears the name of People’s Will, a 19th century Russian revolutionary movement that brought about the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Though the fines proved to be a formidable threat, it was able to pay off BR70 million through donations from its readers, and the authorities therefore resorted to pressure on its distributors.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, state officials chose to annul the agreements between the services that printed and distributed the newspaper and Narodnaya volya. It described the actions as lawless and calculated to destroy the only independent newspaper at a time when the Congress of Democratic Forces was assembling at the Palace of Culture in the Minsk Automobile Factory to elect its candidate to oppose Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election (Narodnaya volya, September 30). By preventing distribution of the newspaper at kiosks in Minsk, the authorities thus ensured minimal publicity about the Congress, which elected its single candidate on October 2.
In the past, the authorities have resorted to various means to try to stop the newspaper, which for a time was printed in Vilnius, Lithuania, because of difficulties publishing in Minsk. One of its leading journalists “defected” to the main state daily, Sovetskaya Belorussiya, causing speculation that she may have been a government “mole.” In a bitter editorial in the final issue to be disseminated, Syaredzich focused on the malaise of Belarusian society, observing that in terms of demographic losses, Belarus loses a “rayon” each year, that the lifespan of Belarusian men is 20 years less than their counterparts in Japan, the majority of villages are dying out, drunkenness is rife in the country, many state officials are corrupt, and the country has had no free, open, legal elections since 1994. It is not only Narodnaya volya that is living through dramatic days, he concluded, all Belarusian people are experiencing difficult times (Narodnaya volya, September 30).
Lukashenka has accused Western countries of unleashing an information war against Belarus, and opposition leaders of betraying their own people by uniting under the banner of NATO (Itar-Tass, September 30). The perspective that criticism of the official government is somehow disloyal is one common to dictatorships, and it has led to the dissolution of several national and regional newspapers and radio stations, as well as firm control over the three national TV stations that serve as mouthpieces for the regime. The attack on Narodnaya volya follows the closure of the European Humanities University and information outlets like the Independent Institute for Social-Economic and Political Research (NISEPI). It continues the policy of silencing the opposition to attain a government monopoly of information.
Logically such a campaign can never succeed completely. Enterprising Minsk residents can access the Internet (there are two access points directly opposite the president’s residence, for example) or radio broadcasts critical of their government, though outside the capital such resources are negligible. But without any legal media outlets, the opposition’s fortunes would be bleak indeed.