On July 13 a Minsk court sentenced former presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin to five and one-half years of confinement. The verdict, while unwarranted and harsh, also raises some questions about the outlook of the Lukashenka regime. Why was Kazulin singled out for such treatment at a time when 10- or 15-day sentences for petty hooliganism are much more prevalent? (Anatol Lyabedzka recently received such a sentence, and Vintsuk Vyachorka, Syarhey Kalyakin, and others have served similar detentions.) Why would the government make an example of the former Rector of the State University, the ebullient 50-year old Social Democratic leader?
Earlier this summer, public concern over Kazulin’s impending trial was reflected in the establishment of a public commission to demand his release, as well as those of other political prisoners. Lawyer Aleh Volchak remarked that the commission was not defending Kazulin personally but was concerned about the principle: that a presidential candidate could be put on trial and that future candidates could not be ensured of immunity to persecution (Belapan, July 5). On July 12, during the trial, Kazulin’s wife, Iryna Kazulina, made a personal appeal to President Alexander Lukashenka, in which she pointed out that the president was aware of his rival’s intentions to attend the Third All-Belarusian Assembly, held on March 3, and thus consented to the physical assault on Kazulin by Special Forces. She also asked the president to explain his statement alleging that Kazulin had offered to make him a deal prior to the election, a comment that never received further elaboration (Belapan, July 12).
When the trial began on July 6, hundreds of people arrived to observe, although most were prevented from attending the ostensibly open process, including two heads of EU diplomatic missions. Judge Alyaksei Rybakou banned the use of cameras, and ordered several photographers to leave the courtroom. At one point someone in the audience laughed and the judge asked everyone to leave the room, including the two EU diplomats. Alexander Milinkevich, the united democratic candidate during the elections, was banned from the proceedings. He commented that the trial was closed because the authorities felt nervous and did not wish to conduct a normal public event (Belorusy i Rynok, July 10). Mikola Statkevich, who has been released temporarily from his detention center in Baranovichi for a period of two weeks, stated that despite well known past political differences with Kazulin, he never confused politics with personal matters. He respects Kazulin for his courage and thus opted to express his civic position in the court of the Moscow district of Minsk (Narodnaya Volya, July 11).
On July 13, when Judge Rybakou handed down the sentence, there was widespread shock and consternation. The severity was a result of the judge’s adherence to Article 342 of the Belarusian Criminal Code–the organization of group actions disturbing the public peace. The defendant was also convicted of petty hooliganism in reference to the opposition demonstration of March 25, and its attempt to release political prisoners, which ended in a brutal confrontation with the militia. The prosecutor had demanded the maximum allowable: six years. The opposition condemned the sentence, as did the United States–which promptly added the judge and prosecutor to the list of Belarusian officials banned from entering the United States — and the European Union. A statement by the United Civic Party added that Kazulin’s conviction was a consequence of his courage to speak the truth about the regime in public, a reference to the candidate’s television interviews, that had caused a sensation in Minsk and other cities (Charter 97, July 17).
The conditions in which the trial was held bordered on the inhumane. Kazulin was denied medical attention and at one point was obliged to lie down on the bench. The trial also coincided with a curious rumor campaign, after people posing as KGB officers and Belarusian patriots dispatched an e-mail to several sources that declared the president had suffered two strokes in the immediate aftermath of the election campaign and in mid-June during meetings with Gazprom about gas prices. It suggested that various rivals were now struggling to take over Lukashenka’s power base and forming a special squad to attack the president’s opponents. This same e-mail divulged that Lukashenka regarded Kazulin, rather than Milinkevich, as his main adversary (Belapan, July 11).
Whatever the validity of the e-mail, it offered one explanation for such an outlandish court sentence. Kazulin has long had close links to state structures, he has influential contacts in Russia, and his election tactics were notably confrontational and personal (regarding Lukashenka’s private life in particular). He is articulate and personable, and to the presidential administration there is little doubt that he is more feared than other opposition leaders. Lyabedzka and Vyachorka are familiar foes and can be predicted to act according to democratic norms; the same applies to Milinkevich, who is essentially a political outsider who needs to penetrate the mainstream electorate and is better known outside the country than within.
Thus either the president or his associates fear Kazulin. While such apprehension might seem illogical to an outsider, Kazulin’s influence and popularity in Minsk are only too evident, and they are not reflected in his official election returns. Just as Lukashenka had to finish first, so Kazulin needed to finish last, if only so the Leader and/or his cohorts may sleep more peacefully at night.