Three recent events in Belarus have apparently returned the country to the repressive atmosphere of the late 1990s and thrown into doubt the prospects for any significant democratic changes under the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The actions suggest a government under intense pressure but bereft of policies other than brutality, bullying, and depriving opponents of their civil rights.
The first event was really a continuation of the diplomatic row between Belarus and the United States. US Ambassador Karen Stewart departed on March 12, and by March 27 the US Embassy had reduced its staff from about thirty to seventeen people at the request of the Belarusian side. Belarus now demands further reductions in line with Article 11 of the Convention of Vienna’s stipulation that embassy staff should be equal in each country on a reciprocal basis (Reuters, March 24; RIA Novosti, March 31). As several observers, including former Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Sannikau have pointed out, however, one can hardly expect a country the size of Belarus, with a population of 9.6 million, to operate on an equal level with the United States. The US Embassy temporarily halted the processing of visas to Belarusian citizens following the staff cutbacks, but evidently they are to resume in April (Kommersant, March 28).
Belarus has stated repeatedly that the United States is violating the 1994 memorandum it signed with Belarus about guarantees of security by imposing sanctions on the Belnafttakhnim oil processing company, and it has called on the Americans to lift the embargo (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, March 27). The United States in turn insists that Belarus release all its political prisoners. Specific references have been made to the continued incarceration of Social Democratic Party leader Alyaksandr Kazulin, but now they could equally well pertain to dozens of newly arrested figures following the militia’s crackdown on the demonstration commemorating the 90th anniversary of the formation of the Belarusian National Republic in 1918.
The government has acknowledged that anniversary since Belarus became an independent state in 1991. Last year the authorities appeared to recognize the import of the occasion, holding concerts in two different locations, though one of the events was a performance of the Russian ballet Swan Lake. This year a crowd estimated at 3,000 gathered near the Academy of Sciences building, which is located on Independence (formerly Skaryna) Avenue, the wide main street that links central Minsk to the National Library and the main highway to Moscow. Speakers from the Belarusian Popular Front, including its chairman Lyavon Barcheuski and deputy chair Vintsuk Vyachorka, addressed the gathering, which chanted for freedom for political prisoners. They were informed that no speeches were permitted at this location.
Rather than move to the approved venue of Banhalor Square in a quiet section of the city, some demonstrators went in the opposite direction toward Yakub Kolas Square. Though police with two MAZ trucks and a bus blocked their route, some evaded the cordons and reached Victory Square, closer to the city center, where they were confronted by police. Others, mainly members of the Youth Front, went east toward the National Library but found the route blocked. The police acted with ruthlessness, attacking the demonstrators with truncheons and throwing them into police vans. Youth activists like Zmitser Dashkevich were badly beaten, and most of them eventually received 15-day prison sentences for “petty hooliganism” (Charter 97, March 25).
Two days later the KGB carried out simultaneous raids on individual apartments in several cities, confiscating computers and looking for incriminating materials of people known to work for non-government media outlets: Radio Racyja, the Polish-based Belsat TV channel, which started operations last December, and European Radio for Belarus, as well as apartments of several freelance journalists (Belapan, March 27). In Hrodna the Internet newspaper Pahonya was searched. The KGB officers carried a warrant that pertained to cartoons ridiculing President Lukashenka. These cartoons were distributed, however, three years ago; and there are no signs that they are still in circulation today. It seems more likely, as was reported by Zhanna Litvina, head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, that the raids were a response to adverse reports about the events of March 25and to reports on the economic situation in Belarus that evidently have displeased the government (Naviny, March 27, Belorusskie novosti, April 1).
The relationship between the March 25 and March 27 events is clear. The new crackdown seems, however, also to be linked to the dispute with the United States, which has brought new attention to the case of Kazulin. Belarus has constantly raised the stakes in this dispute. Though the United States has remained critical of Lukashenka’s human rights violations, it has never attempted to sever relations or curtail dialogue; and it was manifestly reluctant to withdraw Ambassador Stewart. Perhaps ironically, the EU, the apparent object of Belarus’ current quest for a new ally, has strongly criticized the recent crackdown and demanded the immediate release of those arrested.
In Belarus, there is only one source of power, namely, the office of the president. Hence the KGB raids and the violence in the streets of the capital could only have occurred at the behest of the Belarusian leader. His tactics seem misguided if the object is a new dialogue with the EU, because they give the impression that the political situation in Belarus is unlikely to change as the regime reverts to a self-imposed isolation that has little chance of bringing positive results.