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Belarus in Focus 2011

15 Nov

Jutta Sommerbauer, Newspaper "Die Presse" (Austria)

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The Republic of Fear Upon Decree

The fact that the five young men who are being held responsible for the attack of last Monday on the Minsk underground, which killed 13 and injured 150, are said to have found the instructions for their homemade bomb on the Internet only reinforced the opinion of the President. The Internet and its users are a danger to national security, he explained. There has been “too much democracy” in the country. Perhaps it is time for a new ukas. And not only that.

The opposition, which was in any case marginalised after the suppression of the protests against the recent election of Lukashenko as head of state last December, is bracing itself for a new ice age. In his speeches, the President, who has been ruling since 1994, as well as leading secret service functionaries, have blamed the attack on opposition politicians. Several, such as the former presidency candidate Alexander Milinkievič, have been interrogated.

Commemoration as national duty.

Even though the underground trains at Oktyabrskaya Station in the centre of Minsk are back in operation, daily routine has not yet returned to the Belarusian capital. And this actually appears intentional. On the outside, Minsk is still the city of the straightest boulevards, the most spotless, late-Stalinist stately buildings, a megacity and small city at the same time, appreciated by stressed-out foreigners due to its controlled tranquillity. Alcohol consumption in public is forbidden, and hardly anyone dares to cross the street where there is no zebra crossing.

But since Monday things haven't quite been the same. The state-controlled media, in particular the television, are full of reports about the “terakt”, the terrorist attack; the people on the street fear for their solemnly pledged security. The commemoration of the events in Oktyabrskaya underground иstation, at first spontaneous, has now become a national duty.

And the President promises with powerful eloquence that the culprits will be punished severely. Here the meaning of his words is clear: Belarus is the only European state in which the death penalty may still be administered. Belarus has become a republic of state-decreed fear. Harry Pahaniaila, Chairman of the Legal Commission of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, is battling against this republic of fear. Pahaniaila, a 68-year-old with a clipped grey goatee, sits in a packed office on the twelfth floor of an apartment block at the edge of the city centre. A distraught woman was just here, who explained that her son is in prison, and although he is an invalid he is not receiving any medical treatment. She wanted to know whether the Helsinki Committee can help.

Pahaniaila knows stories like this one. He knows that in the country that holds up its president as exemplary, everything is in fact far from exemplary.

He criticises vociferously the “omnipresent control of society” and questions the official version of the terrorist attack. Did the young men who are now being accused of the crime even know what  they had done? And how is it possible that the otherwise so well-informed secret service learned nothing about the planned attack in advance?

Did the regime commit the attack?

If, as the authorities claim, the culprits are also to blame for the as yet unresolved attacks of 2005 and 2008, then this means that the investigators have been on completely the wrong track until now. It was said that an unknown group calling themselves the

“Belarusian National Freedom Army” claimed responsibility for the attack in 2005 in the city of Vitebsk. After the bomb at a concert on the country's Independence Day in 2008, representatives of another nationalist faction were held in custody for several days. Now the word was that one of the suspects of the metro attack is mentally ill and that the motive of the alleged culprit was

“bloodlust”. At the time of the first attack, the suspects were only 20 years old. Is an attempt being made here to pass blame on to someone simply because it's convenient? And the fact that the suspects have already confessed? Well, replies Pahaniaila, everyone knows how the confessions are sometimes obtained.

Certain government-critical circles even go so far as to blame the regime itself for the crime. However, there is currently a lack of evidence for this theory, too. One thing is certain though: the attack – not to mention the search for the culprits – offers an almost perfect distraction from the large-scale problems of the country. Lukashenko's budget does not look good. Belarus is facing national bankruptcy. The population is starting to feel the effects of the crisis: petrol has become more expensive, the cost of tickets in the state busses has increased, hardly any foreign currency can be obtained in the banks.

Worthless money.

The trader women who sell basic foodstuffs in the eleventh row of Minsk's neat market can say a thing or two about the price surges of the last few weeks. Oil, milk, pasta, rice: all of it has increased in price by 30 per cent. One kilo of grechka, buckwheat groats, costs almost four euros. "Impossible prices" says a saleswoman in a yellow apron. "The people are nevertheless buying, they have to eat something. Moreover, they want to get rid of their worthless money." Minsk cannot expect any financial help from its large neighbour, Russia. Moscow is urgently demanding necessary reforms from Lukashenko, and demands the privatisation of the most profitable companies.

However, even in proletarian and unsophisticated Minsk, there are areas that seem unaffected by the currency crisis, such as “Golden Coffee” in Independence Prospect, the main promenade of the city. There, young women with perfect make-up sit on dark upholstered seats and pick tiny pieces of sushi from plates with their manicured fingers; Western pop music floats softly from the speakers.

With her simple grey pullover and 18 years of age, Katerina is not yet part of the coffee shop's target group. What the student with the thick, dark brown hair talks about also doesn't fit with the atmosphere, which radiates coffee house tradition and untroubled consumption. In February Katerina was imprisoned for ten days. She was arrested after a demonstration, an illegal one according to the charge brought before the court.

“In the cell it was cold, the bed was hard and the food was awful”, she remembers. Her parents were of course afraid for her. Has this experience discouraged her achieving from her aims? She laughs, her eyes gleam. “No. I'm not afraid. Belarus is simply a dictatorship, in this country anyone can be arrested.” Katerina is an active member of the conservative, pro-Western opposition movement “European Belarus” of the former diplomat and presidency candidate Andrej Sannikau. Currently the group is  without a leader. Sannikau has been in prison since the arrests of December 2010. Like three further opposition leaders, he could be faced with up to 15 years imprisonment. Many activists have relocated abroad due to fear of persecution.

Fight for democracy. Katerina is also often abroad. Voluntarily. She commutes between Minsk and Vilnius, where she studies at the Belarusian university that was forced into exile. There we can write what we think, she says. At a state university in Belarus, she adds, she would have long ago been thrown out of her degree course because of her political activities. The political science student wants to remain in Belarus and continue the fight for democracy. Young people are no longer intimidated by Lukashenko, she says. Then she leaves the café at a fast pace.

"Die Presse"

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