Twenty years ago, Belarus bustled with hope and anxiety. Flat, forested, and landlocked between Poland, Ukraine and Russia, it had never truly known national autonomy. The Soviet Union, which had defined the territory of modern Belarus, was dead. What looked like the end of history to jubilant spectators across the West was for many Belarusians the beginning of an inscrutable future. The election of 1994 was the first free vote in the history of the Belarusian people, and they turned to a man called Aleksandr Lukashenko to carry them forward.
Two decades on, there has not been another unrestricted election in Belarus. Minsk, the capital, is a picture of unbearable desolation. At dusk, workers emerge from gargantuan Soviet-built blocks and disappear into the darkness. There is a chilling silence on buses and in the subway. The fear of being watched chokes conversation. The only public assemblies that aren’t dispersed with force are the long queues outside the exchanges. At the central train station, young people who may be students furtively introduce themselves as currency dealers, offering up to 10,000 roubles for one American dollar. We want to get out of here, they say. But very few do. Why? “Because Belarus is a prison.”
For 20 years, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus in the fashion of his hero Joseph Stalin. Public assembly is banned, the press is censored, the Internet is monitored, telephones are tapped, and people’s livelihoods—and lives—depend on avoiding politics. Far from rejecting it, Lukashenko relishes the title, bestowed on him by Condoleezza Rice, of Europe’s last dictator. “I am the last and only dictator in Europe,” he said in 2012. He has already appointed his nine-year-old son, Kolya, as his successor.
Brussels and Washington may no longer be able to contain Lukashenko as he builds a Stalinist dynasty in the heart of Europe. Originally, it was the idea of a “Russian sphere of influence” that deterred the West from applying significant pressure on Lukashenko. This was always an exaggeration. Belarus has relied on Russia to keep its debt-financed economy afloat—yet for all its apparent power, Moscow has not been able to persuade Lukashenko to recognise the Putin-supervised sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His erratic behaviour in handling Russian oil pipelines prompted Moscow to seek alternative routes of supply. Now, conscious of his diminishing utility for Putin and eager to brandish his independence from Russia, Lukashenko has found a new patron: China.
The friendship with Beijing has yielded considerable benefits for Lukashenko. In 2002 and 2007, he made minor concessions to evade Western sanctions. But when Washington imposed fresh sanctions in 2011, a year after he violently suppressed a mass uprising against his rule, Lukashenko was rattled only momentarily. Within weeks, China had filled the void, offering not just a billion dollars, but also an assurance of “full backing for [Lukashenko’s] stance on domestic and international questions.” Last week, the relationship was deepened further when Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, conferred his country’s prestigious Friendship Award on Lukashenko’s visiting prime minister. Lukashenko, in turn, has promised China a “stronghold in Europe.”
Despite the influx of Chinese cash into Lukashenko’s coffers, life for ordinary Belarusians remains grim. The Red Church in the centre of Minsk, once a symbol of Belarusian nationalism, is now a place of mourning. Every evening, families assemble around the imposing bronze statue of Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Belarus, in the churchyard to memorialize the friends, siblings, parents and children who have been taken from them—killed, imprisoned, or “disappeared” for opposing Lukashenko.
Three years ago I met Svetlana Gorohovik, a young activist, at the prayer meeting outside the Red Church. Her husband was serving a five-year sentence in a Minsk prison for taking part in the demonstrations of December 19—a hallowed date for thousands of Belarusians who occupied Minsk’s Independence Square in 2010, demanding a second round of voting after Lukashenko pronounced himself re-elected with an absolute majority for a fourth term. Lukashenko had hoped that the biting cold of December would forestall protests. It did not. The roads and avenues leading up to Independence Square filled up with thousands of Belarusians buoyed by the Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. It seemed like the beginning of a revolt. Lukashenko dispatched the state militia. Gorohovik and her husband were among the injured protesters carted away by the police to undisclosed detention centres. At a hasty trial four months later, Gorohovik’s husband was sentenced to five years in prison. His wife, permitted two seven-minute phone calls each month with him, will be approaching 30 by the time of his release. Independence Square, the site of the carnage of December 19, was only a few yards from where we stood. A statue of Lenin gleamed in the middle of it. “All of us grew up knowing only one leader,” Gorohovik said, referring to the other protesters arrested that night. “They say I should be happy that I am not in jail. Actually, I am ashamed of this freedom.”
Following the Soviet Union’s demise, the speaker of Belarus’s interim parliament rejected the presidential model for the new state. Then Bill Clinton visited Belarus in 1993—and members of parliament, enticed by the sight of the charismatic foreign leader, dismissed the speaker’s reservations and voted for a presidential system. Lukashenko, who was serving as chairman of a committee investigating corruption, seized the opportunity. He was energetic and youthful, not yet 40. Pensioners watching him on television were moved to tears. And although his official reports made no startling revelations about corruption, senior politicians, worried that he possessed damaging details about them, were afraid to confront him.
Lukashenko won the presidency in a run-off vote the next year. It took him two years to consign the constitution to the trashcan, expand his powers, re-introduce the death penalty, incarcerate his opponents, and consolidate his control over the media. He withheld the salaries of parliamentarians who refused to rubberstamp his laws, and lawyers who challenged him were disbarred. By 1999, several prominent figures in the Belarusian opposition had vanished. Yuri Sivakov, a member of the cabinet, gained notoriety as the superintendent of Lukashenko’s alleged “death squads.” Lukashenko retained the outward rituals of democracy—elections, trials, parliamentary debates. But the presidential ukase became the ultimate land of the law. As a Belarusian legislator phrased it at the time: “Why are we sitting here? Why are we passing laws?”
As the opposition to Lukashenko grew, he unleashed a campaign of terror against credible candidates who participated in the presidential elections. Of the nine who stood against him in 2010, seven saw the inside of a prison. One afternoon in Minsk, I met Alla, the mother of Lukashenko’s nearest rival in the 2010 vote, Andrei Sannikov. One of the brightest young members of Lukashenko’s first cabinet, Sannikov became increasingly disillusioned and quit the government in 1996. He started Charter 97—a pro-democracy movement modelled on Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77—and pioneered the use of the Internet in Belarusian politics. He built a young team of computer mavens and creative artists. European politicians respected him. Lukashenko openly despised Sannikov and his wife, Irina Khalip, an investigative reporter of international renown. In September 2010, three months before the elections, Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov’s press secretary and a cofounder of Charter 97, was found dead outside Minsk. The police called it a suicide. But Natalia Koliada, an exiled Belarusian theatre activist who knew Bebenin well, rejected the official version when I interviewed her in London a year later. Bebenin, she told me, had recently returned from a holiday with his wife and their five-year-old son, and was working on innovative campaign models for the election ahead. His death, she said, was announced as a suicide even before an official autopsy was carried out.
If Bebenin’s “suicide” was meant as a warning to Sannikov, it did not work. His name went on the ballot. On the night of December 19, as he was addressing the crowd at Independence Square, Lukashenko’s men pushed him to the ground and struck him repeatedly on the head and legs. Sannikov began to bleed profusely. Khalip, Sannikov’s wife, tried to drive him to a hospital; both were detained en route. No medical treatment was given. In the weeks following their arrest, Belarus’s secret police—which still goes by the Soviet name of KGB—tried to seize their three-year-old son, Danil. Because Danil’s parents were going to be incarcerated for years, Lukashenko reasoned, it was in the child’s interest to be raised in an orphanage. In the ensuing global outcry, Khalip was released, placed under house arrest, and given custody of her son. Sannikov, however, was sentenced to a five-year term. Alla, his mother, did not know where he was. Sannikov—isolated, and reportedly tortured, starved and nearly murdered inside his cell—was released in 2012. After spending some time in Britain as a political refugee, he moved to Warsaw to be closer to Belarus. His wife and son remain in Belarus, captives of the Lukashenko regime.
Absorbed into Bolshevik Russia by the Red Army in 1919 Belarus was so thoroughly assimilated by its neighbour that, when it emerged as a sovereign state from the detritus of the Soviet Union, its inhabitants were no longer certain what it meant to be “Belarusian.” “A person who does not understand who he is,” the political scientist Ales Ancipienka once explained, “is actually a Belarusian.” Politically conscious Belarusians felt that in order to honor their independence they had to revive Belarusian identity. Lukashenko, shaped by the colonial experience, stifled their project in infancy.
The central paradox of present-day Belarus is that the first truly independent Belarusian state in history thrives by obliterating the lineaments of Belarusian nationhood. The Pahonia, emblem of the Belarusian nation drawn from the insignia of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, is banned under Lukashenko. Belarusian, spoken by about 37 percent of the population, is discouraged; Russian is privileged. Official historiography places the origins of Belarus in Soviet ideology. Even Independence Day has been moved from the anniversary of Belarus’s declaration of sovereignty—July 27, which repudiates the Soviet past—to the anniversary of Minsk’s liberation by the Red Army on July 3, a date that glorifies Russia.
Lukashenko’s critics, particularly in the West, accuse him of seeking to Russianize Belarus. He did once seek to reunite Belarus with Russia in the hope of ruling the union for life. But after the ascent of Vladimir Putin—a man whose style of governance was prefigured by Lukashenko—Lukashenko dedicated himself to shaping Belarus into a lodestar of his ides. His template for government was the peasant fantasy he dreamed up during his years of service on a Soviet pig farm. He cast himself as the Batka—father —of Belarusians in the drama he decided to enact. Two decades later, the production is a flop. Yet Lukashenko’s power only grows.
Individual tales of loss can generate mass action only if they are able to coalesce into a collective narrative. In order to resist Lukashenko, Belarusians must be able to do something as trivial as talk among themselves. After the events of December 19, the political space of the opposition has shrunk to the point of extinction. The Belarusian opposition is trapped in a zugzwang: personal casualties are the cost of their political progress.
The opposition in Belarus has always depended on international support for its cause. Vladimir Neklyayev, the dissident poet widely regarded as the conscience of Belarus, told me some years ago that only crippling sanctions could bring down Lukashenko. That possibility, thanks to autocratic China’s decision to underwrite Lukashenko’s tyranny, is now sealed. On the twentieth anniversary of the first free affirmation of their democratic will, Belarusians are once again a people lost to history.