On February 23, Iryna Kazulina, the 48-year-old wife of imprisoned Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin, died of breast cancer, an illness she had suffered for the past decade. Following a mass gathering in the center of Minsk and appeals from various countries for clemency, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka permitted Kazulin to attend the funeral, as allowed by the Belarusian Criminal Code. A press release issued by the U.S. Department of State welcomed the release of Kazulin and requested that it be made “permanent and unconditional.” It also pointed out that a dialogue between the United States and Belarus would then be possible, since Kazulin is the last remaining high-profile political prisoner.
Kazulin was sentenced to five and a half years of imprisonment in July 2006 after protesting the one-sided March 2006 presidential election. His permanent release would indeed be a remarkable event. The death of his wife has caused an outpouring of grief in Belarus. More than 3,000 people gathered at a rally in central Minsk, organized at a time when the prisoner threatened to go on a hunger strike if he was not permitted to attend the funeral. At the funeral itself on February 27, hundreds of mourners attended the service at the Church of St. Simon and St. Helena in Independence Square (Red Cathedral), in sympathy with Kazulin and his two daughters, Volha and Yuliya. Some analysts have argued that anxiety over Kazulin’s harsh treatment at the hands of the authorities expedited his wife’s illness. Neither the president nor Belarusian State University offered official condolences to the family of the deceased, although Kazulin served as rector of the university from 1996 to 2003.
Nevertheless, such an unforeseen event may have altered the political climate in Belarus. Lukashenka is now under intense international pressure to cancel Kazulin’s remaining sentence rather than return him to prison. Under the circumstances, sending him back to the penal colony in Vitsebsk region would be widely perceived as unwarranted and cruel. The official presidential daily newspaper, as well as other mass circulation government dailies, ignored the latest developments, but public interest has been high. Unlike any other opposition figure, Kazulin is able to reach a wide audience as a well-known former establishment personality.
On the other hand, freeing Kazulin would constitute a serious setback for Lukashenka. For Kazulin has maintained for some time that the president’s legal term in office ended in September 2006, and that he is therefore an illegitimate ruler. He has also demanded that the president should face an international tribunal “for crimes against the people and humanity.” His chief statement on these issues was released from his pretrial detention center in Minsk on September 20, 2006. It represents perhaps the most damning indictment of Lukashenka issued to date from within the country.
The statement outlined the violations of the original 1994 Constitution by Lukashenka from 1995 onward. It also pointed out that the majority of political figures who offered competition to the president, or nurtured presidential ambitions themselves, have suffered tragic fates, including Henadz Karpenka, former leader of the United Civic Party, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1999; Mikhail Marynich, former ambassador to Latvia and minister of foreign economic affairs; and Syarhey Skryabets, a former leader of the Respublika faction in the Belarusian parliament. He cited a report by a special commissioner of the OSCE on the disappearance of well-known political and civic leaders who were formerly close associates of the president, Yuri Zakharenka, and Viktar Hanchar, as well as Anatol Krasouski, and Dzmitry Zavadsky, and their elimination by a so-called “death squadron” supervised by high-level law-enforcement officers, including Viktar Sheiman and Dzmitry Paulichenka.
Thus to release Kazulin – aside from his usefulness as a bargaining chip in future dealings with the EU – would represent a considerable risk to the president. Kazulin has close ties with political leaders in Russia as well as Europe; he is articulate, outspoken and fearless. Whereas the United Democratic Forces or European Belarus might opt for dialogue and for closer ties ultimately with Europe (including the EU Neighborhood Policy), Kazulin hitherto has been confrontational and unequivocal in his message: Lukashenka has no legal right to be president. Therefore he must step down and be put on trial.
Recent events have suggested that the monolithic state being created by the Lukashenka regime is beginning to show cracks. It can be posited (see EDM, February 25) that the nature of the current administration will not change fundamentally without the departure of Belarus’s only president to date. However, the country’s economic and political situation could augur such a change, particularly if the release of Kazulin is made permanent. Increasing debts to Russia, uncertainty over future prices for resources, and the evident failure of the concept of the Russia-Belarus Union all raise doubts about the viability of the present regime.
As for Kazulin, there is inevitably a humanitarian dimension to his situation, and deep sympathy for a family that has endured many tragedies in recent years. Writer Svitlana Alekseevich observes that Kazulin had a loving family and that the question today should not be about “political games with the West.” It is necessary, in her view, “simply to release this man from prison.” Over the next few days, Lukashenka has a major decision to make; one that could radically change the direction of the country.
(Belorusy i rynok, February 25-March 3; Belapan, February 26; Belorusskie novosti, October 11, 2006; February 25, 27; European Radio for Belarus, February 27; US Department of State Press Statement of Tom Casey, February 26)