As despotic regimes across the Middle East crumble under the weight of pro-democracy uprisings, an obscene silence prevails over the savage dictatorship in the centre of Europe. For 17 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet state, 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 eschewing politics.
Virtually every major opposition figure is either under house arrest or has vanished into the vast network of prisons operated by the secret police, which still goes by the old Soviet name: the KGB.
Among them, Lukashenko fears Andrei Sannikov the most. A former diplomat and member of Lukashenko’s cabinet, Sannikov was the runner up in the presidential elections held last winter. When Lukashenko pronounced himself re-elected with an absolute majority for a fourth term, thousands of Belarusians poured into the streets and squares of the capital, Minsk, demanding a second round of voting. Lukashenko dispatched the state militia.
Sannikov and his wife, Iryna Khalip, were beaten severely and then taken into custody. The KGB then raided their home in an attempt to seize their three-year-old son, Danil. In the ensuing international outcry, Irina was released from prison and placed under house arrest. Her husband was sentenced in May to a five-year prison term.
Since then, the KGB has repeatedly moved Sannikov between labour camps. Earlier this year, I met Sannikov’s mother, Alla, in Minsk. She told me that she had not been allowed to see her son since his arrest in December. No one knew where he was being held. Still, she was optimistic.
Last month, Khalip managed to locate Sannikov in Mahilou, a detention centre where he was being held en route to a labour camp in Babrujsk in the country’s south. Khalip announced that her husband was being taken to Babrujsk to be killed: the prison guards had informed him that his cellmate at Babrujsk would eliminate him. Since then, Sannikov has been forced to share his cell with an inmate suffering from tuberculosis. In desperation Khalip has written to the first ladies of France and the United States, urging them, as mothers and wives, to “persuade your husbands to take all possible measures and use all instruments to prevent the physical elimination of my husband”.
The presence of a dictatorship on the frontiers of New Europe is a damning indictment of the European Union. Other than issuing a stream of anaemic statements of condemnation, Brussels has made no meaningful effort to challenge Lukashenko. The idea of a “Russian sphere of influence” has traditionally served as a convenient alibi to justify the EU’s inaction.
But Russia’s influence with Belarus is often exaggerated: for all the power it is alleged to possess, Moscow has not been able to persuade Lukashenko to recognise the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow’s relationship with Lukashenko has been in steep decline since the 2004 oil crisis, when Lukashenko sabotaged Russian oil pipelines, forcing Russia to build expensive alterative routes of supply.
Lukashenko has now forged a partnership with China, offering Beijing a “stronghold in Europe” in return for loans and support. But as Brian Bennett, Britain’s former ambassador to Minsk, explains in his authoritative new book on Belarus, The Last Dictatorship in Europe, the only power Lukashenko truly fears is Washington. A passing criticism by President George W. Bush in 2004 did more to scare Lukashenko than all the bromides thrown at him by the EU.
The Belarusian economy is in ruin. Inflation has spiralled to nearly 70 percent. People’s earnings are losing their value by the day. Shops are running out of food. For the first time in his 17-year reign, Lukashenko fears a popular uprising. The threat to murder Sannikov is designed to frighten the opposition into submission before it is infected with the revolutionary rage that deposed Col. Gaddafi, one of Lukashenko’s closest friends, from power in Libya.
At this crucial stage, Washington’s intervention will not only halt Sannikov’s killing – it will also serve to boost the besieged opposition’s morale. President Obama should warn Lukashenko against harming Sannikov and demand the release of all political prisoners. This can be followed up by an invitation from the US State Department to Khalip and other high-profile members of the opposition. The European Union has failed abysmally in standing up for the citizens of Belarus. America is their last great hope.