In a recent statement U.S. Department of State spokesman Sean McCormack declared that Belarus has once again increased its intimidation of citizens and called on the government to release political prisoners and respect human rights. Ten days later, Pirkka Tapiola, the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, expressed a similar wish, stating that the EU could only develop normal relations with Belarus if it saw “real steps toward democratization” that would include the release of prisoners, a free press, and free elections. Although there were some positive signs in the spring when several political prisoners were released, the Lukashenka regime appears to have reverted to selective and petty persecution and harassment of opposition activists (U.S. Department of State, September 11; Belapan, September 21).
Indeed, the arrests have been so numerous in recent weeks that they cannot all be cited. Notably, on April 3, Andrei Klimau, a well-known author and businessman formerly imprisoned in 1998-2002, was arrested for posting articles on the Internet that were critical of President Alexander Lukashenka and charged under Article 361, of the Belarusian Criminal Code, which pertains to attempts to subvert or change the constitutional structure of the country or commit crimes against the state; and specifically Section 3, which concerns use of the mass media for such purposes. On August 1 he received a two-year strict-regimen prison sentence. Charter 97 reported that the trial was “practically closed,” the public was not informed of the date of the hearing, and information about the sentence was made known only a month after it was imposed (www.charter97.org, September 17; Belorusy i rynok, September 17-24).
On August 19, Malady Front leader Paval Sevyarynets was detained at a reading of three of his books in Brest on the grounds that the authorities had not approved the meeting. On August 22, Sevyarynets received a 15-day jail sentence and attendee Yury Bakur, who was among 30 people arrested, received a fine of $43 (Belorusskie novosti, September 23). Another activist, Leanid Navitsky, is being detained at the Partisansky regional militia department for taking part in preparations for the European March, which is planned for October 14 in Minsk on the initiative of Alyaskandr Milinkevich’s Movement for Freedom. Reportedly he has not been permitted access to a lawyer. On September 21, Andrei Kudin, a youth leader, was arrested for handing out copies of the newspaper Vibar (Choice), which was publicizing this same event. Kudin was fined 310,000 Belarusian rubles (about $148) (www.charter97.org, September 21).
On September 10-11, the trial took place of 18-year old Yaraslaw Hryshchenya who was charged under Article 193 Section 1 of the Criminal Code: “Unlawful organizational activities of a public association, religious organization or fund or participation in its activities.” The young radical declared that he deserved to be shot “for an independent Belarus, for our future, and the future of our children.” He received a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of 930,000 Belarusian rubles (about $443). During his trial the militia occupied neighboring apartments as dozens of oppositionists shouted, “Long live Belarus!” and “It is not 1937!” (Belorusy i rynok, September 17-24). Human rights campaigners have long sought an end to this section of the code, which has been used regularly to detain members of unregistered organizations and carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment (www.charter97.org, September 12). The focus on youngsters is also common. In mid-September, police raided an apartment in Svetlahorsk and confiscated a computer, printer, scanner, as well as opposition literature from 17-year old Arseny Yahorchanka, whose parents were absent at the time (www.naviny.by, September 17).
In addition to attacks on unregistered organizations, the authorities have stepped up harassment of existing opposition political parties, which were threatened with dissolution in late August if they persisted in breaking the law. The Party of Communists of Belarus has already served six months of suspension, and warnings have been issued to the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (led by Vintsuk Vyachorka) and the Social Democratic Hramada, whose leader, former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, is serving a 5.5 year prison sentence for organizing a popular demonstration in the aftermath of the 2006 presidential election. The authorities have twice refused to register Milinkevich’s Movement for Freedom, founded on May 20, first for an alleged failure to pay the required fee into the national budget and second because of errors in its founding charter (Reuters, www.naviny.by, August 27). The Malady Front and the human rights support group Vesna (Spring) also remain unregistered.
Few analysts believe that any opposition organization poses a serious threat to the Lukashenka regime. Milinkevich’s recent claim that his popularity level has soared to 25% is not taken seriously by sociologists in Belarus. The latest poll undertaken by NISEPI in May indicated that his standing was only 12.2% (Belorusskie novosti, September 20). Yet he remains the most popular figure among opposition leaders who have struggled to make an impact within the country. The decision last May to split the Belarusian Democratic Forces on the basis of rotating chairs has likely condemned that organization to electoral oblivion.
Why has the regime raised the tempo of arrests and harassment? In some respects the maneuver appears almost ritualistic, an innate part of the working of the Belarusian government, and particularly its police forces at the local level. Such behavior is expected, but it dispels any illusions that the Lukashenka administration has changed its bad habits.