A few hundred Belarusians came out to the streets of the capital, Minsk, last Sunday with banners mocking Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They showed the former KGB agent riding a jet with a rocket in his hand. The protest, the biggest in nearly five years, was against a proposed Russian military base in Belarus. “Russians, go home!” people chanted. “We need a peaceful sky.”
The leader of the protest was a stout middle-aged man with a bullhorn in his hand named Nikolai Statkevich.
And of the protesters gave him unbridled admiration, he earned it.
Statkevich has had 30 administrative arrests and four criminal cases leveled against him. He spent seven years in KGB prisons, suffering torture and humiliations unbelievable in Europe in the 21st century. Statkevich’s unbreakable courage have inspired his admirers to believe that Belarusians are strong enough to have political power, independence and responsibility in their state.
This Sunday President Alexander Lukashenko is set to win himself a fifth presidential term, and after 20 years watching the strongman do this sort of thing, nobody in the crowd much hope for the opposition’s chances in the election. But Statkevich is different from majority of his countrymen.
Statkevich seized on the military base issue and called people to revolt against the Russian outpost, another step in Putin’s gradual takeover of power as he eases Lukashenko out.
“The deal behind the military deal is almost a decided thing; as soon as Putin threatens Lukashenko to increase gas prices, Lukashenko would build the base in his own bedroom,” Statkevich told The Daily Beast in an interview. “We realize that Putin needs the base to target his rockets at Ukraine; but Belarus is friends with Ukraine.”
After the Sunday protest, demonstrators lined up to shake hands with Statkevich, thanking him for his courage.
In 2010, Lukashenko’s police arrested seven democratic presidential candidates, including Statkevich, who was 54 at the time. He already had a reputation as Lukashenko’s worst enemy, and was singled out for especially rough treatment. Authorities arrested him among the first opposition leaders, gave him the longest sentence—six years—and he was the last of the seven presidential candidates to be released.
Refusing to give any “evidence” to the investigation, Statkevich went on a hunger strike for 23 days. “They used their best KGB methods to make me eat: put a bag on my head, drove me around for an hour, then dragged me into some room with IVs at a KGB hospital,” Statkevich told The Daily Beast.
When the bag was off Statkevich’s head, and he realized he was in some intensive-care unit, the well-known scenario of what would come next ran through his mind. Thirty years ago a Soviet academic, Andrei Sakharov, said “No” to his Belarus KGB interrogators in the city of Gorky. The dissident refused to end his hunger strike, so the interrogators clamped his nose and fed the scientist forcefully for 207 days. Statkevich he agreed to eat, but refused to submit in any other way. “In the court I declared that Lukashenko was a real criminal, that he should go to jail; I told the court that investigators had fabricated my case.”
The years of punishment to come were severe. To keep from going crazy at KGB prison, where prisoners have only one hour a day of fresh air outside a tiny cell, Statkevich made himself a detailed schedule of work for muscles and mind: he exercised every few hours and learned English.
The Belarus KGB, in hopes he would eventually emigrate from Belarus, gave Satkevich with English text and audio books. In labor camp Statkevich had to work in a forest logging in rubber slippers. One day he slipped and broke his arm, but his wardens made him work wearing a cast. The certificate Statkevich still keeps in his apartment said: “Avoid work with right hand. Able to work.”
Statkevich failed KGB expectations, he did not leave Belarus upon his release. He had a short break in Greece with his devoted wife Marina and traveled to see some old friends among the opposition in Baltic countries. Then he was back in action.
This week the European Union decided to lift its sanctions on Belarus for four months. Some have been in place for more than a decade, but these days Lukashenko is trying hard to look civilized. He released Statkevich and six other political prisoners. He also hosted the Ukraine peace talks in Minsk last February. Much depends on the credibility the upcoming presidential elections, and the way dissidents like Statkevich are treated. "We were not beaten up last Sunday and most probably we will not be beaten or arrested this week,” said Statkevich. “Lukashenko wants his money.”
Pavel Marinich, a Belorussian opposition activist in exile, told The Daily Beast when he heard Statkevich’s prison stories, “I was thinking: Belarus must be Putin’s platform for KGB experiments. The West did not get rid of of Lukashenko even after he murdered and tortured his opponents, so Putin’s regime, learning from this, tried the same and it seems to work. The West cooperates with dictators.”
The Sunday protest was not in vain, as it turned out. On Tuesday, Lukashenko said that Belarus did not need a Russian military base and does not want to host one. A rift opens between Minsk and Moscow. The next move is up to Putin.