The regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been put under serious pressure in recent days. On September 29-30, a European Union summit in Warsaw condemned Belarus’ human rights record and demanded the immediate release and full pardon of all political prisoners, most of which are holdovers from the aftermath of the December 2010 presidential elections. As most of the Belarusian leadership is banned from traveling to EU countries, Poland had invited Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau to lead the delegation, but after the rebuke, the Belarusians walked out of the meeting, complaining of discrimination and not being included in several events (Deutsche Welles, The New York Times, September 30).
The September survey by the Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research (IISEPI), a reputable organization created in 1992 that is registered in Vilnius but operates in Minsk and was founded by sociologist Aleh Manayeu, illustrated not only a sharp drop in popularity of the government, but also a deep and growing distrust of the president himself. Thus the number of those who believe that in light of the economic crisis Belarus is moving in the wrong direction increased from 61.8 percent to 68.5 percent, and those with faith in government policies fell from 26.1 percent to 17 percent, the lowest figure recorded since IISEPI has been in operation. The number of respondents that considers the president bears the main responsibility for the crisis rose from 44.5 percent to 61.2 percent, and the percentage of those who blame the government is up from 36.7 percent to 41.3 percent. Over three months, the figure for those lacking faith in the president has increased from 53.8 percent to 62 percent, and only 24.5 percent trust him –down from 35.7 percent in the previous survey. Perhaps most significant, the president’s personal rating is at an all-time low of 20.5 percent, whereas immediately after the December 2010 election, according to the same pollsters, the figure was 53 percent, and it stood at 42.9 percent last March (cited in Politika, September 30).
On October 6, Spetsnaz forces arrested Manayeu outside the Victory Square metro station in central Minsk. He was on his way to deliver a presentation on the results of his survey to the diplomatic corps (Belorusskiy Partizan, October 6). He was released several hours later.
One week earlier, the London law firm McCue and Partners issued a 70-page dossier accusing Lukashenka, KGB chairman Vadim Zaitseu, and Interior Minister Anatol Kulashou of the crimes of hostage taking and torture after the presidential elections. Their goal, it is alleged, was to prevent opposition figures from protesting against violations of the elections and ensure the president a fourth term in office. The document outlines in detail the various forms of torture used on the presidential candidates Andrey Sannikau, Ales Michalevich, and Uladzimir Nyaklayau, as well as the leader of the Belarusian Free Theater, Natalya Kolyada. The law firm, which in the past has targeted Hamas, Muammar Qaddafi, and the Free IRA, published the dossier so that Lukashenka or the other officials could theoretically be prosecuted by human rights lawyers, should they travel to different countries (McCue & Partners, Case Summary of the Prosecution, September 26).
The dossier is very effective in terms of the harrowing description of tortures and interrogations that have taken place in Belarus since the elections. It contains, however, a number of errors and misstatements that may weaken its case. On torture, it accuses Belarus of reneging on its agreement when signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (McCue, p.7). But this occurred in 1973 and the document was signed by Soviet Belorussia, which was not an independent state.
In the section entitled “Hostage Taking” the document states that “opposition candidates such as Mr. Sannikov” were abducted because they sought to carry out their democratic rights and “dispute the election result” (McCue, p.10). However, the protest was organized before any results were known, and announced on the website of Charter 97 on the morning of the election (www.charter97.org, December 19, 2010).
The “Evidence” section states that Belarus gained independence in 1990 (it was attained in August 1991), and that the government “completely controls religious, political, and media activity” (McCue, pp. 13-14). In fact, there are several opposition newspapers (Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva being the most prominent central ones) and a variety of opposition political parties are legally registered.
The most contentious statement in the document is that “at around 20.30 [on December 19] protesters in October Square were corralled by Belarus security forces into Independence Square where Government House is situated” (McCue, p.18). Yet this would have been physically impossible, given that Independence Square is a mile away. As presidential candidate Yaraslau Ramanchuk indicated at the time, Sannikau and fellow candidate Mikalay Statkevich initiated the move to Independence Square despite the opposition of many of the large crowd present, as it was feared that this might lead to bloodshed (www.udf.by, December 20, 2010).
There are other fairly basic mistakes and omissions in the document. Sannikau’s wife, Irina Khalip is cited as being a journalist for the “Belarusian publication Novaya Gazeta” (McCue, p.26). However the newspaper is Russian and published in Moscow. On Nyaklayeu, the document says he was arrested on his way to Independence Square (p.43); in fact he was trying to reach October Square. There is no mention that the chairman of the Young Front, Dzmitry Dashkevich, as well as Front members Dzianis Lazar and Eduard Lobau, were arrested the night before the election, which provides much better evidence of the planning and forethought of the authorities (Vyasna, December 18, 2010).
Despite such deficiencies, the dossier focuses attention on the sad state of human rights in Belarus, based on the testimony of new refugees like Mikhalevich and Kolyada. The EU statement also demonstrated a relatively rare unity of purpose on the question of Belarus, one that appears to be in harmony with the sentiments of the population, which after many years, is turning against the longtime president.