Belarusian Opposition Preaching Gloom Amid Growing Distress
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 76
Like Russia, Belarus maintains the Soviet tradition of the so-called subbotniks, days of volunteer unpaid work on weekends. During the subbotnik on April 22, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka planted trees at the Khatyn national memorial. Grigory Azaryonak, a Belarusian television personality, participated as well. Azaryonak is considered by many to be a political hack known for his harsh statements castigating the Belarusian opposition. Symbolically, on that day, Lukashenka gifted Azaryonak a sledgehammer as an encouragement to continue fighting against ideological nemeses (Gazeta.ru, April 22). Curiously, three months prior to that event, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the notorious Wagner Group, presented a sledgehammer to the leader of the “A Just Russia” party, Sergey Mironov, who acknowledged that this was done to encourage the continued thorough “denazifying” of Ukraine (Lenta.ru, January 20).
A sledgehammer may indeed be a suitable symbol for the Belarusian authorities in fighting their opponents. On May 1, the derailing of eight rail cars carrying oil due to sabotage on the railway between Gomel, Belarus, and Bryansk, Russia, will undoubtedly help maintain vigilance and implacability toward “enemies” in both countries. Although the accident occurred in Russia, the entire cargo train consisting of 78 cars belongs to the Belarusian Railway administration (Lenta.ru, May 1).
A couple days prior to that accident, the news broke that Victor Babaryko, currently doing time in a penal colony, was hospitalized with possible evidence of having suffered a beating. Babaryko is a former chair of Belgazprombank. In 2020, he was the most formidable of Lukashenka’s electoral rivals. And he was arrested about two months prior to the presidential election of August 9, 2020, and subsequently received a 14-year sentence for bribes and tax evasion. The United States Department of State and the foreign ministries of France and the Czech Republic expressed concern and called on the Belarusian authorities to investigate the circumstances leading to Babaryko’s hospitalization (Svaboda, April 30). The penal colony’s administration has merely responded that Babaryko is “alive and well,” but no visitation has been allowed to confirm that (Zerkalo, April 29).
Opposition-minded analysts have rarely, if ever, painted a rosy picture of events in Belarus; however, the tenor of their publications has changed from routinely pessimistic and occasionally derisive to outright distressing. Thus, according to Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, two recent developments prop up the repressive zeal of the authorities in Minsk. One was local support for the plausible Ukrainian sabotage at a military airport near Minsk in late February 2023 (see EDM, March 8)—at the time of Drakakhrust’s remarks, the derailment of the cargo train had not yet taken place. The second development was an abject failure of the emigration-reversal campaign. At least 100,000 people left Belarus following the crackdown on post-electoral protestors in 2020, but only about 50 persons have applied for permission to come back. This conveyed the message that those émigrés dug their heels in, which, according to Drakakhrust, implies that those who stayed put did too (Zerkalo, April 28)
According to Valer Karbalevich, also of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, three factors that sustain Minsk’s repressions are the “besieged fortress” mentality that requires constant mobilization in the fight against enemies, revenge for the humiliation of 2020 and attempts to demonstrate to both supporters and opponents that the current regime is destined to linger (Svaboda, April 28).
Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace believes that government “terror” in Belarus will not end soon; but when it does, it will most likely happen in one of four ways. Either the repressive machine will become tired, a popular uprising will break out, international actors will intervene (which Shraibman thinks is the most probable way), or, finally, Lukashenka will die or resign. In this, there is little chance of returning to the situation of 2015–2019, as the powers that be consider the post-election rallies of 2020 to be the outcome of a mistaken policy of liberalization. Moreover, neither Western sanctions nor negotiations with the Lukashenka regime are likely to work (Svaboda, April 29). Shraibman subsequently attributed the apprehension of six attorneys representing the most well-known political prisoners to the regime’s willingness to eliminate all channels of communication between the prisoners and the outside world (Zerkalo, May 3).
Never before has Shraibman expressed such hopelessness. Surely, it is the recent events per se that feed it, but it is hard to shrug off the impression that something else is at work as well, such as the chasm between Belarusians-in-exile and those at home that once inspired Karbalevich to lament that they are parting ways like two different civilizations. Recent surveys also show that popular trust vested in the Belarusian authorities has been growing lately (Russia Post, January 13).
A symptomatic divergence of perceptions between Belarusians at home and abroad has been recently showcased by an article in Zerkalo, the offspring of Tut.by, published by its former associates-in-exile. Discussing nightlife and popular hangout venues in downtown Minsk, the authors encountered a clash of opinions. “Minsk broke down, it is no longer the same, because everyone has left,” say émigrés. “No, it is you, guys, who left,” respond those who stayed. “The city is still there; it continues to exist in today’s conditions. It is obvious that things are worse than three and a half years ago. But the hangout venues remain, the music is playing and the people are dancing” (Zerkalo, April 30).
In the opinion of Viacheslav Bobrovich, a philosophy professor at Minsk State Linguistic University, “the current mood of political emigration is in antiphase with the situation in the country. Basically, the worse one side feels, the better feels the other. I cannot wish harm to those who have left. By the same token, I cannot wish for the worsening of the situation in the country in which I live. It is like we are in different planes of existence” (Author’s interview, May 1).
It is impossible to assess the net contribution of each cause of gloom—that is, the events per se and the realization by members of the opposition of their dismal political prospects—as the light at the end of the tunnel has not showed up after two and a half years; it seems that, currently, both factors are at work.