Stop Being Idle, Speak Up for Belarus

November 4th, 2011 at 1:30 pm | 18 Comments |

| Print

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.

Recent Posts by Kapil Komireddi



18 Comments so far ↓

  • hisgirlfriday

    Thanks to the author for writing this piece and FF for bringing attention to the situation in Belarus.

    I have mixed feelings about the thesis of the article, though.

    As a human being, I have great sympathy for the people of Belarus; based on this article it sounds to me they are being denied God-given rights by an oppressive regime and this is terrible and something should be done to help them.

    As an American though, I am weary of my nation’s never-ending interventions in the foreign affairs of other sovereign nations. I am also very skeptical of my nation’s power at the moment to actually make things better for the people of Belarus with a token statement. I know we have the military power to “liberate” them, but I do not want my tax dollars supporting a war or intelligence effort to topple the dictator in Belarus because I do not think it would be in America’s geopolitical interests to create that sort of instability in Eastern Europe and to go against the policies of our European allies or create waves in our delicate relationship with Russia.

    I know to much is given, much is expected and I agree with this adage. But I also think some of the expectations upon America by the rest of the world are beyond America’s capacity to give, at least as America is currently situated at present.

    • medinnus

      +1

    • dugfromthearth

      Liberating Libya cost the U.S. $2 billion and zero U.S. lives. I’m not saying that Belarus could be solved as easily, but the cost to the U.S. for Libya was trivial. People may talk about $2 billion as being meaningful, but in the federal budget it is not.

      • Southern Populist

        You talk about 2b like it’s chump change.

        How many homeless, poor, unemployed, under-educated or people without health insurance could 2b help? I would imagine a lot.

        Obama just dropped 2b to solve an internal Libyan matter because he believes America should be the policeman of the world. He choose to drop 2b to help Libyans rather than assist America’s homeless and others in our own country who desperately need help.

        If that is not a despicable use of 2b in tax dollars, I do not know what would be.

        • Primrose

          I would hardly call trying to prevent mass murder and getting rid of one of your enemies, despicable.

          You might not have chosen to go that route but it is hardly to be despised.

        • jakester

          Out of the fire, into the frying pan for Libya. Now we have another progressive sharia regime full of legalized discrimination against women, non Muslims and Jews.

          National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said Sunday that Islamic Sharia law would be the main source of legislation, that lawscontradicting its tenets would be nullified, and that polygamy would be legalized.

        • Traveler

          Jakester,

          Chill. That was one guy, who is since out of any position at the moment. There is no doubt that the Libyans will have an islamic government, because that is what they are. But there is still a long way to go before the final constitution is written and accepted. Many of the so called rebels are much more secular, if that is the word. So while there will be an underpinning of Sharia, its just something that they want. I sure can’t figure it out, but if so, so be it.

          But in answer to DSP, we got rid of a tyrant by a population that loves us. All for $2b. Like a couple of weeks cost for our geopolitical cluster shrub got us into? Think about it. So sit back and let it ride. It will be messy, but nothing like Iraq.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    America is their last great hope.

    No it isn’t. The people themselves are their only true hope. The people of Belarus have to do precisely the same thing that the people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and now Syria did, which is to stand up and fight against the repressive power of the state. That means risking their lives for their freedom without any absolute guarantee of success. Expecting America to come riding in on a white horse to save them without their doing anything to secure their own freedom is simply wrong.

    I understand their fear and reluctance to rise up, but the choice is theirs first.

    • Graychin

      Well said, Frump.

    • Fart Carbuncle

      +1

    • pnwguy

      Frump:

      Yes and no. I have great sympathy for those in heinous police states who have limited knowledge of the outside world. For instance, how easy do you think it would be for the population of North Korea to “stand up” and throw off the Dear Leader’s regime?

      I do appreciate the author shining a light on this. It does seem true that the west has a blind spot about at least using diplomatic pressure. I suspect it’s only because we don’t see them as an external threat, so we’re content to turn our gaze away from what happens internally. Certainly we’d treat them differently if they had oil.

      Agreed – that we can’t be always the Last Best Hope ™. But once Europe gets its financial house in order, perhaps we can “lead from behind” with them on some more direct action to oust the b@stard.

    • shinnok

      Hey Jakester, what’s so ‘progressive’ about sharia? Please explain.

  • Oldskool

    “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.”

    Ironically, that’s the same guy who hog-tied us militarily for at least a dozen years, and probably much longer. People in Belarus only have to look at Africa to see that we aren’t able to affect every country ruled by a despot.

  • rbottoms

    You know what, like Ash says in Alien, “You have my sympathy.” May I suggest your people will have to rise up an overthrow whatever asswipe is oppressing the country themselves.

    We’re a little busy at the moment with a barely avoided depression, massive unemployment, legalized corporate theft, stunning income equality.

    Maybe David Frum can get Canada to bail you out.

  • NRA Liberal

    Belarus is weak, my friend.

  • jakester

    Uh, what about all her neighbors helping out?

  • Cyberax

    As someone who actually has lived in Belarus – please, don’t stop being idle. Anti-USA sentiments in Belarus are widespread.

    Lukashenko’s power is based on the fact that he could deliver what he promised, as simple as that. His policies resulted in great economic growth during 2000′s and people liked him for that (and could care less about opposition).

    Right now unsustainable Belarus economy is crumbling and if nothing unexpected happens he would lose his power just in time for the elections.

  • shinnok

    “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.”

    Sounds like any US city, except for the Government censorship part. Censorship comes in the US is done by the BigCorps that own the media companies.