The gray asphalt streets of Minsk, Belarus, looked too clean and almost totally deserted on the eve of a major opposition rally against the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko. The words “arrest” and repression” traveled from mouth to mouth. Officials in uniforms and plain clothes grabbed people at their homes, offices and on the streets. By Friday up to 300 people were behind bars. The atmosphere felt as if the capital of Belarus was not in Europe but in North Korea.
Activists went underground before joining the protest on Saturday, where police detained 25 journalists. On Thursday, police had detained 17 activists, supporters of the opposition, and random bystanders. The KGB, the initials still used by the Belarusian security service, blocked cellphones and hacked the social media accounts of concrete opposition activists.
The key leader of the opposition and a veteran dissident, Mikola Statkevich, spoke with The Daily Beast on Friday from his secret underground flat about the chemistry of dictatorship and courage needed by people today not only in Belarus but in the West. The moment has come to stand up for democratic values and against atrocities.
“One dictatorship gives birth to another dictatorship,” said Statkevich, arguing that a seemingly out of the way and often forgotten country like Belarus sets precedents that spread, especially in the era of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“All of Moscow’s acts of political repression were first practiced in Belarus,” said Statkevich. “The European Union should realize that without the dictator Lukashenko, the world would not have seen the latest actions by authoritarian leader Putin.”
Since 1996, Lukashenko has won presidential elections five times and every time the leader threw his opponents in jail. But these are ++nervous times for Putin’s neighbors++[[ http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/16/trump-in-the-white-house-and-russia-s-neighbors-back-in-the-ussr.html ]], who have every reason to believe he wants to reconstitute the Russian empire, even if that means moving in on his erstwhile friends.
Statkevich has been through bad times, and worse times.
In 2010, Statkevich took part in presidential elections and called Lukashenko “a coward” for not facing other candidates at public debates, even once.
“Lukashenko kept me locked in prison for five years and when I came out in 2015 and led the opposition movement again, I told people that Lukashenko is a criminal and deserved to be in prison,” Statkevich told The Daily Beast. “Over 5,000 protesters joined us in Minsk last month, even those who had voted for Lukashenko in the past, as the true words we spoke on the square stirred the courage of the people: deeply disillusioned Belarusians are ready to take risks, so we ask the world to help us this time.”
That same day last month, Statkevich’s wife and aide, Marina, discovered that her cell phone and the internet at her home mysteriously stopped working; and that somebody else was writing posts on her social media accounts.
Anti-Putin activists sympathize with the anti-Lukashenko movement.
“Putin is Lukashenko’s long-time student, gradually copying Belarusian laws against dissidents and the entire system of repressions from the Belarusian KGB,” says Ilya Yashin, who has been leading Russians to anti-Putin rallies for more than a decade.
A whole generation of Belarusians have lived their lives fighting against President Lukashenko’s rule— and President Lukashenko has lived his life putting pressure on them. The fight broke thousands of lives, children grew up missing imprisoned parents, exiled activists could not return to Belarus, missing their families and sacrificing their careers.
In the meantime the population grew poorer and poorer. Two years ago, when Lukashenko won the election for the fifth time, the official average salary in Belarus was $435 a month. This year the figure dropped by at best $100.
“For the first time we see Lukashenko’s electorate, middle-aged and older people, joining the rallies,” says Nata Radina, editor-in-chief of Charter’97, an online publication. “They’re openly addressing Lukashenko: ‘Just go away, you failed as our leader.’”
Radina, who was based in Warsaw attended meetings with Polish legislators earlier this week. EU officials discussed new economic sanctions against several sectors of the Belarusian economy, she said. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch called on Lukashenko to put an end to repression and allow people to exercise their constitutional rights.
Aleksei Sozonov, a Belarusian businessman, has had to work in Russia to support his mother. “We have seen it all,” he said: “Political murders, the torture of dissidents, the fatal sicknesses of opposition members in prisons, and hunger strikes,” says Sozonov. “Belarus is a failed state. The only time we saw Lukashenko turn slightly pro-Western was when he was under a heavy burden of economic sanctions.”
For many years, Moscow acted as Lukashenko’s main donor and ally, propping up the regime of a country with fewer than 10 million people. The Kremlin tolerated hundreds of millions of dollars in debts until this year, when Russia estimated Belarus owed around $550 million for natural gas. Lukashenko had no money to pay back such a huge bill.
“Russia needs to spend money in Syria and Ukraine, so Lukashenko feels that his chance to receive more money from Moscow is fading,” says Radina.
On Friday police detained 13 people, including French, Ukrainian, and Belarusian journalists at the office of the Green Party, where volunteers collected clothes, food and other items of aid for detained activists.
One of those arrested, Gulliver Cragg of the international news network France 24, said that journalists asked police the reason for their arrest, but in vain. The only answer they heard was, “We had information that there was a crime here and we need to verify everyone’s identity.” Cragg told The Daily Beast that because police took away all volunteers, other detained people did not receive any aid that day.
Politicians in Moscow and Minsk share a similar habit of blaming foreigners for staging political coups, as it if is inconceivable the people would rise up on their own.
On Friday, Lukashenko admitted that he was concerned there might be the kind of uprising in Belarus that took place in Ukraine, in Kiev’s Maidan Square, in the winter of 2013-2014. Those events led to overt and covert Russian retaliation and the continuing war there.
“Somebody wants to blow up the situation here and use our freaks, but I am not going to allow this,” Lukashenko declared.
A long-time observer of the anti-Lukashenko struggle, Irina Khalip predicted mass arrests of protesters at Saturday’s demonstration, and so there were.
The official Belarus News agency declared the “unauthorized street rally” on Saturday “failed to gain popular support.” But ++the picture that emerged on Charter ‘97++[[ https://charter97.org/en/news/2017/3/25/244848/ ]] was very different.
According to this report, accompanied by extensive video and still photographs, mass arrests took place in the city center around the Academy of Sciences and elsewhere, with the police collaring “everyone who had a poster or a flag.”
A large crowd did manage to gather in one area, around Yakub Kolas Square, according to Charter ’97, but “the riot police cornered the people there and grabbed them.” Altogether, hundreds of people were detained.
Irina Khalip said she and others have “serious concerns” that any incident, any provocation, may be used to “to imprison the key opposition figure, Statkevich, for many years—again.