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Belarus in Focus
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Belarus in Focus 2011

4 Nov

Mathew Charles, E!Sharp (United Kingdom)

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Europe's Sad Exception

Exhausted, and showing clear physical signs of stress, Leanid Navitsky has agreed to meet me in a rainy and sodden park somewhere in the Netherlands. He does not notice – or perhaps just does not care – how hard the rain is falling. His mind is clearly elsewhere.

Navitsky is in hiding and on the run from the Belarusian KGB. On December 19, he was among the 30,000 people that came out on to the streets of Minsk to protest against alleged electoral fraud following the country’s presidential election. He was a member of the campaign team for one of the candidates, Andrei Sannikov. As a former boxer, he was also Sannikov’s bodyguard.

“The mood was positive. People were shouting ‘Free Belarus!’ We made our way to the parliament. It was a peaceful march,” explains Navitsky. Other eyewitnesses say a group of men started to provoke the crowd and encourage violence. They called on the demonstrators to storm the building. They began to smash windows and break down the doors of parliament.

According to Navitsky, the opposition candidates appealed to the crowd not to respond to these calls for violence, but it seems they did not have much time to react. A violent crackdown had already begun. Riot police began pummeling the crowd, including Sannikov. Navitsky, convinced this alleged provocation was a deliberate strategy by the authorities to give them an excuse to use brute force, rushed to his aid. “I tried to cover him with my body, but they pulled me away. They beat him with batons and jumped on him until he was unconscious.”

During the assault, Sannikov’s wife, Iryna Khalip, a journalist and long-time critic of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, was being interviewed live on Russian radio. She managed to shout that they were hitting her in the face before the phone went dead.

Navitsky explains how he and Khalip managed to get Sannikov into a friend’s car before setting off for the hospital. But they never arrived. Navitsky believes they were targeted directly. “We had to stop at a roadblock. They dragged us all from the car and forced us into separate vehicles. That was the last time I saw either Andrei or Iryna.”

Navitsky was taken to a KGB prison where he was held until he managed to escape on New Year’s Eve. An apparent lapse in security over the holiday period allowed him to simply walk free, though he seems reluctant to tell me exactly how. He returned to his home, collected a few personal belongings and said goodbye to his wife and two young daughters before fleeing the country.

“It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But I knew I had to do it. It’s the only way I can draw attention to what is happening in Belarus. I think about them all the time. I don’t know when I’ll see them again, but I’m hoping we can seek asylum somewhere in the EU.”

Navitsky is optimistic and not afraid to speak out, though he has lost his hair, probably as a result of the trauma he has experienced in the past two months. His account of the events of December 19 is central to an international legal case now being brought against Lukashenko and his government. A group of lawyers in London is collating evidence from those who were beaten and detained during the protest. They argue that the actions of Belarus are in clear breach of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR is an international treaty, which came into force in 1976 and commits the signatories to respect the human rights of individuals.

This legal action is just one of a number of moves being planned by the newly formed Free Belarus Now campaign group. A number of high-profile names have signed up to it, including former Soviet and Czech Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel.

One of the co-founders and sister of Andrei Sannikov, Irina Bogdanova, says: “We need to tell the world what is going on inside Belarus. My family has been torn apart by Lukashenko, and we’re not the only ones. I don’t know if the legal action will have any impact, but we have to do something. Sometimes I feel so helpless living in London.”

Andrei Sannikov is one of seven presidential candidates who were arrested on the night of the election. He is also one of two candidates still being held. The others were released on condition they do not leave the country. One of them, Uladzimir Niakllayeu, is under house arrest. All of them face criminal prosecution for allegedly organising mass riots, which could carry a prison term of five to fifteen years. There is now also a fear among Belarusian human rights lawyers that these charges could be upgraded to organising a coup d’état, something that could carry the death penalty.

“We just don’t know what state Andrei is in. He is not allowed any visitors and nobody will tell us anything. It’s more than two months since he was arrested,” says Bogdanova. Overall, 42 opposition activists are facing charges.

Natalia Koliada was one of the 700 reported to have been arrested on the night of the protest. She is now free, but also in hiding. She says she was in detention for fourteen hours and not allowed water, food or sleep. She explains how the guards shouted they wanted to rape and kill her, and how those detained were not held in a cell, but had to stand in freezing prison corridors. They were not allowed to use the toilet; instead they were forced to defecate in front of members of the opposite sex.

Belarusian KGB forces have reportedly continued to search the homes of those facing charges, and those of their families. Computers, documents and other belongings have been confiscated. The apartment of Andrei Sannikov and Iryna Khalip

has been raided several times. They have a three-year-old son, whom the authorities tried to take into foster care before they decided to release Khalip from prison in January. She is now under house arrest.

“It’s good that little Danil is with his mother, but he is effectively under house arrest too. There are two armed guards with them constantly. His grandmother can visit and take him out for the day, but I am not even allowed to talk to them over the telephone,” says Bogdanova.

Irina Bogdanova is an acupuncturist turned campaigner. In her leafy garden in southern England, she comes across as a shy and very private woman who has been reluctantly thrust into the limelight to try to save her brother. She explains how she still has trouble sleeping and eating, and how the image of her brother lying beaten on the floor haunts her everyday. Her eyes well up each time he is mentioned. “I just want to tell him I love him. I am so proud.”

In January, Bogdanova met Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs in Brussels. The pair held talks ahead of the EU Council meeting on Belarus. Ashton made assurances that the European Union was determined to take a tough stance, but when the final details came of the EU’s position (visa bans and the freezing of assets), Bogdanova felt short-changed. “I think they could have done more. They tried sanctions before. They didn’t work then, why will they work now?” she asks.

For the past two months, Bogdanova has been mingling with the political elite of Europe. In February she attended a special conference in Warsaw with the Polish and Swedish foreign ministers, as well as representatives from all EU states and many other countries. It was during this meeting that EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Füle announced that EU aid to Belarus would be quadrupled.

He said the international community “must not lose sight of the desire to strengthen civil society.” The money is aimed not at the government, but at Belarusian NGOs, the independent media and students who face repression. Füle also pledged a further €1.7 million to help the families of those detained and urged all EU states to ease visa facilitation for Belarusian citizens.

Bogdanova welcomed the extra cash but remained cautious. “How will they ensure this gets through to those who really need it? There have always been problems bypassing Lukashenko. I’m sceptical this money will get through at all,” she says.

Instead, Bogdanova favours a much more isolationist approach and thinks the EU should not engage with Belarus at all on any level – at least until all those detained have been released and all charges have been dropped: “We’re going around in circles. Nothing will change until Lukashenko has actually gone.”

This has been a central dilemma of the EU’s policy towards its eastern neighbour for some time: engage in dialogue or leave it out in the cold? Whilst the EU is clearly making demands of Minsk with regards to political prisoners, there is not much appetite for isolating Belarus completely anymore. The EU has tried both strategies over the years and it is clear that neither approach has been successful. Perhaps with a real commitment to pro-democratic grass roots organisations in Belarus, change can be fostered from within.

But for as long as Russia maintains a high level of influence and indeed interest in the country, any attempt to lure Minsk into the European fold is surely bound to fail without the interaction and approval of Moscow. And how likely is that?


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