What to Make of the Escalating Repressions in Belarus?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 48

Lyudmila Chekina (left) and Marina Zolotova (right) (Source: The Moscow Times)

In Belarus, a hunt for “extremists” has suddenly intensified. Primarily, both the audacious attack on the Russian A-50 aircraft (see EDM, March 8) and the simultaneous finale of two lengthy court proceedings are to blame. The defendants in one of the proceedings were Marina Zolotova and Lyudmila Chekina, the editor-in-chief and director general, respectively, of the Tut.by outlet. Created by the late Yury Zisser, Tut.by was a moderately opposition-minded news and analysis platform whose audience far exceeded those of all state-run media outlets.

Predictably, the tenor of Tut.by’s pronouncements radicalized during the post-election protests of August and September 2020, as did the situation in Belarus itself. The authorities closed Tut.by in May 2021 and arrested its multiple associates. For their part, Zolotova and Chekina spent almost two years in pre-trial custody. They were tried for “dissemination of materials with public calls for the seizure of state power, forcible change of the constitutional order, calls addressed to foreign states and international organizations,” and for tax evasion, the charge that was dropped for Zolotova. Both women received 12-year prison sentences, a shocking outcome in the eyes of many (Zerkalo, March 17).

Just as surprising were the 10-year sentences meted out to Valeria Kostyugova and Tatiana Kouzina, opposition-minded analysts found guilty of the “conspiracy to seize power, inciting hatred and calling for actions against national security” (Zerkalo, March 17). Kostyugova is the most publicly recognizable of all four defendants due to her long publishing record in the opposition-minded media. Those sentences announced earlier for those tried in absentia, such as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition-in-exile, and Pavel Latushko, former Belarusian minister of culture and diplomat, were even harsher—15 and 18 years, respectively (RBC, March 6).

Perhaps the only way to somehow rationalize such a departure from judicial restraint is to acknowledge that, against the backdrop of acute confrontation with Western support rendered to the opposition, the courts in Belarus couched the nature of normally expected opposition activity in terms of a breach in national security and treason. The same holds true for the verdicts affixing the label of “extremist” to some works of contemporary Belarusian fiction and certain Belarusian history journals (Svaboda, March 14).

It is easier to understand why calls for a national dialogue began to emanate from the opposition, as it is stuck in the one of the most difficult situations it has encountered since 1994. In fact, Kostyugova, recently given a 10-year prison sentence, authored her implicit appeal as early as July 2021, only three weeks after her arrest. In her opinion, whereas Belarusian society’s maturity exceeds that of the powers that be, most of society is tired of confrontation and is ready for “inclusive politics.” This is because Belarus’s pool of human resources—about 9.5 million people—is limited. Therefore, it cannot afford to be carried away by antagonistic conservative projects, such as the neo-Soviet approach promoted by the authorities and the nationalist project tailored to 20th-century patterns, as promoted by the radical opposition. Inclusivity, according to Kostyugova, may be the desired choice because the dilemmas presented by the authorities—for example, capitalism versus the social welfare state or Russia versus the West—do not resonate with ordinary Belarusians (Svaboda, July 27, 2021).

Of course, back in July 2021, Kostyugova did not predict that Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine would begin seven months later and would serve to exacerbate political antagonism within Belarus. However, Ales Bialiatski, the Belarusian Nobel laureate, still issued an even more articulate appeal for national reconciliation directly from the courtroom (see EDM, February 23). Eventually, 73-year-old Iosif Seredich, editor-in-chief at Narodnaya Volya, an opposition newspaper, authored an appeal to his fellow countrymen, according to which Belarus’s independence will not be sustained without a negotiated settlement between the government and the opposition (Narodnaya volya, March 16). He even suggested such intermediaries as diplomats from either Switzerland or Finland. Seredich has extensive experience of communicating with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who fired him from his position as an editor of the official Narodnaya Gazeta in 1995. In February 2017, the Belarusian journalist initiated a meeting with Lukashenka and was seemingly satisfied with the president’s responses to his queries (Sputnik.by, February 13, 2017).

The overall situation, however, has changed dramatically since then, in the wake of post-election protests and due to the ongoing war next door. Thus, today, some Belarusians criticize Seredich’s and Kostyugova’s attempts as naïve. Some express the view that appeals to reconciliation issued by victims can only be read as requests for clemency and therefore as expressions of weakness (Facebook.com/YuryDrakakhrust, March 16). But though this is a widespread opinion, it is not shared by everyone, and the intransigence of the Belarusian authorities may not be cast in stone either. Back in 2011–2013, such measures lasted no more than two years following the crackdown on the December 2010 post-election protests. Today, the situation is far worse, but Belarus’s objective interests as a country squeezed between Russia and the European Union remain the same as before, and the threat of losing independence may be perceived in the same way on both sides of the political divide.

In the meantime, Lukashenka continued his series of international visits, this time visiting Iran. Speaking in Tehran, he acknowledged that only now “have we understood to what extent we need each other,” a clear reference to a Western sanctions regime that both countries have learned to live with and partially circumvent (SB, March 13). While no radical growth of mutual trade is expected, the Belarusian historian Sergei Bogdan of the Free University of Berlin, suggested that the visit “should be considered in the context of integration of both Iran and Belarus into the China-centric world.” Bogdan underscored the revolutionary significance of China’s mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the fact that “part of the contacts between Tehran and Minsk take place through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is primarily Beijing’s project” (Svaboda, March 13).

In sum, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for Belarus, at least not yet.