Several recent events have brought Belarus close to a dictatorship, a term used rather freely to describe the administration of President Alexander Lukashenka, but hitherto incorrectly. Over the past eleven years, despite the heavy hand of the authorities, there have remained important outlets for the opposition, such as newspapers and informal associations, as well as some basic civil rights. These now appear to be disappearing as part of a well-coordinated government campaign to close various loopholes that have permitted an opposition to survive.
In mid-May, a revised version of the law “On the Organs of State Security” was adopted, modifying the original law of December 1997, following the approval of a new draft law by the House of Representatives and Council of the Republic in April. The new law gives KGB officials the right to enter any house or apartment without prior permission, even if they damage a lock in so doing. They must then report to the State Procurator within 24 hours. The KGB also has the right to tap telephone conversations and infiltrate enterprises as regular workers. The secret police also has authority to use the forces and organs of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and the State Committee of Frontier Troops (Belorusskiy rynok, May 30).
According to Professor Mikhail Pastukhou, a former teacher at the Institute of National Security, “Some amendments to the law on organs of state security seriously encroach on the personal rights and freedoms of the citizens [as] stipulated in the Constitution,” particularly the right of the inviolability of the home, one’s personal life, and one’s personal correspondence (Narodnaya volya, May 21).
A less intrusive, but nonetheless related, event was the signing of Decree 247 on May 31, which regulates the use of the words “national” and “Belarusian” in the names of commercial and nonprofit organizations. Henceforth, political parties, civic societies, trade unions, and banks may use the word “Belarusian” but have no right to use the word “national.” Those organizations and media with names that contravene the law must be registered within three months (Narodnaya volya, June 2).
Over the past decade, most non-government newspapers have been shut down or forced to close as a result of heavy fines. The last major newspaper to survive in Belarus is Narodnaya volya (circulation 30,000), a bilingual Belarusian-Russian newspaper, usually sold in the subterranean passageways that crisscross the central part of Minsk. Last month, however, it received its second warning of the year, which is sufficient for the authorities to instigate measures for closure. The paper stands accused of issuing false information by listing the names of five non-consenting people under the manifesto of the opposition movement Will of the People, which was founded in February. The leader of the group, Alexander Kazulin, maintains that pressure from the authorities may have forced the five people to revoke their signatures (Belorussiya segodnya, May 24-30).
In April, the leader of the pro-Lukashenka Belarusian Liberal-Democratic Party, Syarhey Haidukevich, sued the paper for the sum of $93,000 for moral damage resulting from a report that there were commercial ties between his party and the former regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Such a sum would bring the newspaper close to bankruptcy if the suit were successful. Meanwhile, a reporter for Narodnaya volya, Volga Klasouskaya, was expelled from the School of Journalism at Belarusian State University, ostensibly for her poor progress in her academic studies, but more likely because of her complaint about the brutality of the militia following the March 25 demonstration in Minsk (Charter 97, June 3).
Attacks on opposition leaders have intensified. On May 25, Mikola Statkevich, leader of the unregistered branch of the Social Democratic Party, received a 10-day prison sentence for showing disrespect to the court, following his detention after a protest against the constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections last year (Narodnaya volya, May 26). On May 31, he and Pavel Sevyarynets, leader of the unregistered Youth Front (formerly affiliated with the Belarusian Popular Front) received sentences of three years of hard labor for violating Article 342 of the Criminal Code — the organization of group activities that violate civic order or active participation in them — a sentence criticized sharply by the U.S. Department of State (Narodnaya volya, June 3).
Other leading opposition figures have also been targeted. Journalist Maryna Bahdanovich, an activist of the United Civic Party, was fined 200 basic salaries (about 4.8 million Belarusian rubles or $2,200) for participating in an “unapproved” protest by private traders on March 1. On April 28, court officials visited her apartment and expropriated property worth BR600,000 ($30). However, by then Bahdanovich had taken part in the events of the Chernobyl anniversary and was informed on June 1 that further property would be taken from her (Narodnaya volya, May 31). Syarhey Skryabets, one of the former leaders of the Respublika faction in the pre-2004 parliament, has been accused of trying to bribe officials at the Office of the Procurator in Brest Oblast, a familiar means of persecution of opposition leaders (Narodnaya volya, May 25).
The dictatorship is beginning to take shape, and President Lukashenka emphasizes that there will be no “colored revolutions” in his country.