Already the opposition victory in the presidential election in Ukraine has had repercussions in neighboring Belarus. In turn, the Lukashenka regime has taken several repressive measures against real and perceived opponents in Belarus.
Several observers have made the link between the events in Kyiv and the situation in Belarus. The leader of the Social Democratic Party (Naradnaya Hramada), Mikola Statkevich, for example, congratulated Viktor Yushchenko on his victory and asked him “to pay attention” to the plight of democracy in Belarus (RIA-Novosti, December 29). Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, stated, “Putin’s attitude toward Lukashenka will not improve as a result of the events in Ukraine” (Narodnaya volya, December 29). Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the opposition Communists in Belarus, declared, “The president wants to secure control over the situation by ‘tightening the screw’ and that he [Lukashenka] perceives the weakness of the Kuchma regime in allowing an independent mass media and assembly in Ukraine” (Narodnaya volya, December 29).
Evidence of the regime’s response to a potentially difficult situation has come from several quarters. First, on December 12-13, the KGB searched the apartment of the deputy head of the National Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research (NIISEPS), Alyaksander Sasnou. Institute director Oleg Manaev (Aleh Manayeu), reported that the Ministry of Justice had sent several letters threatening to shut down the institute for various violations. Six days prior to the referendum, this warning was repeated and, after the vote, Manaev was asked to report to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor and explain how people had been interviewed during exit polls (conducted by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys) and explain NIISEPS links to these organizations (Belorusskiy rynok, December 20-26).
Subsequently, government sources have begun to cite NIISEPS polls that appear more favorable to the authorities in reporting of the October 17 referendum, including the statement that only 5% of respondents felt they were coerced into supporting the referendum question (Belorusskaya gazeta, December 20). The implication in the report is that the Institute is being obliged to take a more conciliatory approach to the government in its work.
On December 19, the authorities prohibited a meeting of democratic candidates (for a potential presidential election) scheduled to be held at the IBB Hotel in Minsk. They also refused permission for members of the opposition to travel to Ukraine to witness or monitor the rerun of the second round of the presidential election there.
However, perhaps the most blatant example of Minsk’s heavy-handed reaction to the events in Kyiv has been the ludicrous case of Mikhail Marynich, the former minister of foreign economic relations and former ambassador to Latvia, who has been sentenced to five years in a high-security prison and loss of property for the alleged theft of 40 items of office equipment worth BR 21.4 million. The U.S. Embassy had donated this equipment to his NGO, Business Initiatives (Interfax, December 30).
The prosecution had demanded a sentence of six years for Marynich and had added a charge — eventually dropped — of illegal possession of weapons. Marynich, a potential candidate for president in the next election, has been a target of Lukashenka for some time. He has been in prison since April when the charges were first filed. The accusations have been rejected by the U.S. Department of State, which regards the case as part of a campaign to persecute Belarusian citizens for their political beliefs. The State Department added that the equipment was the property of the U.S. government, which was making no claim against Marynich (Interfax, December 31).
On December 30, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher issued a statement condemning the conviction of Marynich as “spurious” and noted that it would hold accountable those officials who took part in abuses of democracy and human rights.
Also in late December, criminal proceedings began against former businessman and political prisoner Andrei Klimau, who had been cited in an NIISEPS poll as the most popular of the current challengers to Lukashenka. He was charged under Article 368, Part 1, of the Criminal Code, for insulting the president in two recently published books, entitled I Made My Choice and Walks with Vampires. Klimau, in response, announced the preparation of a major demonstration against the authorities on March 25, the anniversary of the proclamation of independence in 1918. The regime, he stated, “should await a major and unpleasant surprise” (Narodnaya volya, December 29).
The flurry of events in Belarus is an indicator that the Lukashenka regime perceives a very clear threat to its power as a result of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. As Manaev has noted, the efforts made by Belarus “to isolate itself from the rest of the world clash with the European trend toward integration” (RIA-Novosti, December 29).
Thus far, the Lukashenka government has twice evaded closer world scrutiny of its dubious electoral practices by the proximity of more profound events (9/11 in September 2001 and the Ukrainian election in October 2004). A new crackdown at the outset of the new year is a sign that the regime does not intend to mend its ways.