Alyaksandr Lukashenka was a pro-Russian populist when he won election as president of Belarus in 1994. Since then he has dismissed the parliament, rewritten the constitution, muzzled the press and hijacked the electoral process. His Belarus is a late Soviet shambles of a corrupted command economy that runs from day to day on inflation, increasingly grudging Russian subsidies and the slow impoverishment of ordinary people.
He stays in power by intimidating his opponents with arrests, beatings and the occasional murder. The latest wave is disguised as an anticorruption campaign. It has targeted factory managers and other members of the economic elite, some of whom had joined the opposition, others of whom might have done so.
At least eight arrests and indictments have taken place in the past six weeks. Among the accused are the head of the country’s railways and several plant directors, most notably Mikhail Lyavonau, head of the Minsk Tractor Plant, a Soviet-era white elephant that is the symbol of industry in Belarus.
Lyavonau’s indictment could have been written by Ilf and Petrov, or maybe Donald Westlake. He is accused (among other things) of producing tractors off the books, dismantling them, smuggling the pieces out of the plant, reassembling them and selling them on a black market for private profit. But it’s not funny for Lyavonau, who was a potential challenger to Lukashenka in last September’s election and now faces the consequences of his flirtation with opposition.
Another potential challenger, Leanid Kaluhin, was also picked up in the December sweep. Kaluhin, who failed to secure enough nominating signatures to win a place on the ballot, was director of the Atlant refrigerator factory.
The upcoming trials of Lyavonau, Kaluhin and the others will encourage other frustrated managers to swallow their frustration and keep their thoughts to themselves. And more than a few citizens will blame crooks in high places–of which there is no lack–for the country’s economic mess. Both outcomes will help Lukashenka tighten his grip on power. And that’s the point.