Mistreating a Journalist, and a Russian Attempt to Court the Belarusian Opposition

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 20

Belarusian opposition leader Tatyana Korotkevich in Moscow (Source: euroradio.fm)

Since January 25, politically active Belarusians have been debating a violent incident involving Pavel Dobrovolsky, a correspondent of Tut.by, Belarus’s leading private news portal, who was allegedly beaten up by riot police on the premises of a district court in the city of Minsk. With his media ID in hand, Dobrovolski was dispatched to cover the ongoing trial of the so-called “graffitists”—three young men accused of defacing a “social” billboard in August 2015. The defendants had allegedly spray painted their own slogans over the billboard, like “Belarus should be Belarusian” and “The revolution of consciousness is underway” (Belorusskii Partizan, January 27). Government sources also focused on the youths’ extremist drawings, such as of a figure holding a Molotov cocktail (Belteleradio, January 27).

During the trial, two spectators—referred to in the news as “activists”—were led out of the courtroom by riot policemen. Dobrovolsky followed them, while video recording the event on his cellphone. According to Tut.by, because of his continual recording, all three men, including Dobrovolski, were forced on the floor and kicked and humiliated for 20 minutes by the riot policemen. Multiple bruises on Dobrovolsky’s body were subsequently certified by a medical doctor. According to the same source, following the episode, all three people were delivered to a district court and hastily sentenced for swearing in a public place and disobeying the police. Dobrovolsky was ordered to pay a fine worth 9,450,000 Belarusian rubles (almost $454). Tut.by protested such handling of its associate in a letter to the capital city police chief and the chief prosecutor (Tut.by, January 26; Tut.by, January 26). It remains to be seen how the authorities will react to the complaint by a highly visible news organization whose owner, YuryZisser, was at one point awkwardly chastised by the head of state for supposedly being an “indecently behaving” Jew (see EDM, May 5, 2015).

While most ordinary Belarusians gave short shrift to the episode, the nature of intense discussions among the politically active Minsk-based minority testifies to a lingering schism within this latter group. While the opposition side seems to relish the episode, hoping that it may reactivate the West’s much weakened attention to human rights abuses in Belarus, the pro-government side disputes the veracity of the reporting of the incident. Specifically, they argue that 20 minutes of serious kicking by riot police would have most probably left the alleged victim dead, whereas the certified bruises suggest rather more humane treatment; while the true reasons for Dobrovolsky’s apprehension are still unknown (see, for example, Facebook.com/alaksiej.dziermant, January 27).

Undoubtedly, the aforementioned incident does not benefit the ongoing rapprochement between Belarus and the West, even if the alleged behavior of the riot policemen was not sanctioned by the government. Therefore, any reaction, if it comes, by the authorities to Tut.by’s complaint will be all the more intriguing. In an atmosphere awash in conspiracy theories, all sorts of ominous ideas come to mind, including that the entire episode was perhaps actually concocted by Belarus’s eastern neighbor.

Incidentally, on January 26, a conference conspicuously titled “BeloRusskyi Dialog” (the adjective being a neologism implying that the dialogue is between Belarus and Russia) took place at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow (Hse.ru, January 26). This is the first overt attempt, on Russia’s part, to establish a working contact with the Belarusian opposition, more specifically with the part of it whose electability is not entirely out of the question. A notable guest at the conference was October 2015 presidential candidate Tatyana Korotkevich. Indeed, according to last December’s national survey by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, Korotkevich received 22.3 percent of the vote in the election on October 11, not 4.4 percent as per official results. According to the same source, Alyaksandr Lukashenka won only 50.8 percent of the vote, not 83.5 percent as per official numbers (Naviny.by, December 29). Whether true or not, the “phenomenon of Korotkevich” has already been described as instrumental in discovering “the third Belarus”—that is, a combination of splinter voters from a classic “democratic” opposition and from some usual Lukashenka loyalists alike (Iiseps.org, January 2016). Along with Korotkevich, the Belarusian side was represented, at the Moscow conference, by several other prominent individuals: Yaroslav Romanchuk, a philologist-turned-neoliberal-economist and a 2010 presidential hopeful; Lev Krishtopovich, who until recently chaired the “analytical center” at the presidential administration of Belarus; Sergei Kalyakin, the leader of the left-wing opposition party A Just World; and a few other less-well-known figures. The notable participants on the Russian side included Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak and Andrei Souzdaltsev, vice dean of the HSE. Souzdaltsev was expelled from Belarus in 2006 for his strong anti-Lukashenka stance. Since then he has repeatedly made predictions about the imminent collapse of Belarus.

Korotkevich and the entire Belarusian team at the conference have been criticized by both the country’s more traditional opposition and pro-government pundits alike. Thus, Nasha Niva, the major anti-regime newspaper published in Belarus, condemned Korotkevich for her statement in Moscow that “Belarus is a military and political partner of Russia” (Nasha Niva, January 26). In turn, Alexander Shpakovsky—one of the leaders of Citadel, an informal pro-government think tank, and the principal columnist at Sputnik News’ Belarusian service—suggested that the Russian conference organizers pursued two goals: a) To outbid or buy up the Belarusian opposition either just in case or because some Muscovites once again “realized” that Lukashenka is about fall, and b) To ultimately discourage the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from lending money to Belarus thanks to information allegedly provided to Moscow by Yaroslav Romanchuk. Shpakovsky specifically dismissed the idea of the Russian government buying up the Belarusian opposition as entirely useless, while arguing that the scuttling of Minsk’s deal with the IMF would force Lukashenka to hand over Belarus’s most lucrative assets to Russian oligarchs (Facebook.com, January 26).

Whether true or not, the first month of the New Year has not altered Belarus’s usual fence-sitting position between the West and the East.