Belarus Cracks Down on Growing Dissent

by Tatyana Ivanova

In the face of demonstrations throughout the country that raise comparisons to the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests of 2014, Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko has ordered his security forces to “pick out” the organizers of protest actions “like raisins from a roll.” As a result, it’s been open season in Belarus on politicians, activists, and journalists.

During a recent two-week stretch of protests, the government detained, fined, and arrested 300 people. By March 25, the historical Freedom Day annually celebrated by political groups opposed to Lukashenko, the crackdown on a peaceful street rally in Minsk increased the number of detainees to 700 (and more than 900 across Belarus). The detainees on March 25 included pensioners, the disabled, journalists, and bystanders who didn’t take part in the rally. The police even grabbed 50 observers from the Viasna Human Rights Centre, though most of them were subsequently released.

The independent mass media was a special target, with the detention of 25 media representatives, according to the Belarus association of journalists. On March 18, in the Belarusian town of Kobrin, police made headlines by detaining Belsat TV journalists Alexander Levchuk and Milana Kharitonova, seizing their equipment and even threatening to kill them. By the end of March, seven journalists remain in custody.

Before and after a peaceful protest on March 15 that the Minsk authorities officially permitted, plainclothes police officers even snatched people from public transportation. A video of one such detention that aired on the Internet showed the police stopping a trolleybus and using brute force to grab a group of anarchists heading home from a rally. All the detainees were then falsely accused of disturbing the peace and arrested.

On March 25, human-rights defender Aleksey Loiko, British journalist Philip Warwick, and elderly activist Valery Shukin were violently beaten. Loiko and Shukin were beaten so badly that they had to be hospitalized. Warwick was choked and beaten in the police department while in handcuffs, and the police refused to call the British embassy.

Speculation is rife in Belarus about the meaning of the current crackdown. Some on social media believe that the security forces are conspiring against Lukashenko. In neighboring Lithuania, politicians suspect that Russia can profit from the insurgency by intervening in the crisis as it did in Crimea and the Donbass. On the other hand, Belarusian political commentator Alexander Klaskovskiy believes that Belarus has not changed its foreign or domestic policy course. He argues that the secret services are carrying out Lukashenko’s orders as best they can.

The real problems are rooted not in Russia or in the security forces. Belarus is in an economic crisis. Lukashenko, having lost touch with reality, blames the crisis on “social parasites” who are not working. That’s the origin of the government’s social parasite law that has generated the recent wave of protests. Shifting the blame to “social parasites” is the only way for the dictatorship to avoid shouldering the blame for the country’s deplorable situation.

For the West, the present situation in Belarus is reminiscent of mass protests in 2010, 2006, and 2001, when people took to the streets against election fraud. Then, too, government forces beat and arrested protesters. As a result, the West imposed sanctions against the Lukashenko government. Over the years, the sanctions worked. Running out of money, Lukashenko eased the repression and released his political opponents. This time, however, some Western politicians continue to cooperate with Belarus.

On March 15, when dozens of peaceful demonstrators were unreasonably and brutally detained, a summer parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) signed an agreement with Belarus. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Christine Muttonen expressed gratitude to Lukashenko for his promise to act with reserve in response to the mass street protests. At the same time, Michael Georg Link, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, asked Belarusian authorities “to do everything possible to support all peaceful rallies” and meet its human rights obligations.

The day after the detention of the activists, the head of the International Monetary Fund mission, Peter Dolman, arrived in Minsk. According to the Belarus governmental mass-media outlet BELTA, he met Lukashenko to discuss opportunities for future cooperation. Belarus expects an IMF loan of about $3.5 billion, which many Belarusians are demanding that the IMF refuse to grant the country.

Belarusian civil society wants the West and international organizations to suspend cooperation with Lukashenko until, at a minimum, he stops the repression, releases all political prisoners, and initiates a dialogue with civil society. Some of the biggest umbrella non-governmental organizations in Belarus have requested that the European Union make future cooperation with Belarus conditional on progress in human rights and postpone the EU-Belarus Coordination Group meeting scheduled for April 3-4, 2017 in Minsk until detainees are released.

The EU lifted sanctions against Belarus in February 2016. Members of European Parliament have asked the EU to “reconsider its relations with Belarus, following Lukashenko’s crackdown on civilians.” This week, according the office of MEP Rebecca Harms, the EP will consider the Belarusian issue at an extraordinary plenary session.

Also this week, Lukashenko met with Vladimir Putin. At the conclusion of their six-hour-long tete-a-tete, the presidents of the two countries found a solution to their oil and gas dispute, which for a year had overshadowed the “brotherly” relationship that they normally claim. Putin promised to continue supplying oil to Belarus, which had previously been halted due to the dispute. Furthermore, Putin said that the two countries, by 2019, will develop rules to more deeply integrate the energy systems of the two nations.

Whatever role the recent protests and the subsequent government crackdown played in this rapprochement, Belarus has fallen into the arms of its Eastern brother and will remain faithful to the Kremlin for some time.

Tatyana Ivanova is a Belarusian journalist residing in the United States. Photo: Alexander Lukashenko meets with Vladimir Putin.

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