Belarus: a prison state in Europe


  • Opinion by Andrew Firmin (London)
  • Inter Press Service

But Bialiatski was unable to travel to Oslo to collect his prize. He had been detained in July 2021 and has been in prison ever since. This month, he was found guilty of trumped-up charges of financing political protests and smuggling and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His three co-defendants also received long prison terms. In addition to them, many others have been thrown into prison, including other associates and associates of Viasna, the head of Bialiatski’s human rights center.

Crackdown follows stolen election

The origins of the current crackdown date back to the 2020 presidential election. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, but in 2020, for once, a credible challenger slipped through the net to oppose him. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took on Lukashenko after her husband, democracy activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested and prevented from doing so. Her independent, women-led campaign captured the public’s imagination, offered the promise of change and united many voters.

Lukashenko’s response to this rare threat was to arrest several members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign staff, along with multiple opposition candidates and journalists, introduce additional protest restrictions and restrict the internet. When none of that stopped many from voting against him, he blatantly manipulated the results.

This blatant act of fraud sparked a wave of protest on a scale never seen before under Lukashenko. At its peak in August 2020, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. It took a long time for systematic state violence and detentions to subside the protests.

All Lukashenko has done since then is to suppress the democratic movement. Hundreds of civil society organizations have been forcibly liquidated or closed due to intimidation and threats. Independent media outlets have been labeled extremist, subject to raids and effectively banned.

Prisons are full of detainees: Belarus currently has an estimated 1,445 political prisoners, many of whom are serving long sentences after trials before biased courts.

Lukashenko’s only ally

Lukashenko’s repression is made possible by an alliance with an even bigger pariah: Vladimir Putin. When the European Union and democratic states imposed sanctions in response to Lukashenko’s repression, Putin provided a loan that was crucial in helping him weather the storm.

This marked a break in Lukashenko’s long strategy that carefully balanced between Russia and the West. The effect was to bind the two rogue leaders together. This continued during Russia’s war against Ukraine. When the invasion began, some Russian troops entered Ukraine from Belarus, where they had held so-called military exercises the days before. Russian missile launchers have also been deployed in Belarus.

Just days after the start of the Russian invasion, Lukashenko pushed through constitutional amendments, ratified by a rubber-stamped referendum. One of the changes was the ban on hosting nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Last December, Putin traveled to Belarus for military cooperation talks. The two armies participated in extensive military training exercises in January. After the constitutional amendments, Putin pledged to supply Belarus with nuclear-powered missiles; Belarus announced last December that these were fully operational.

However, Belarusian soldiers have so far not been directly involved in the battle. Putin would like to, if only because his forces have suffered much higher-than-expected losses and measures to fill gaps, such as the partial mobilization of reservists last September, are unpopular domestically. Lukashenko has struck a balance between warmongering talks and moderate action, insisting Belarus will only join the war if Ukraine attacks it.

That may be because the fact that Belarus enabled Russian aggression has only made people more dissatisfied with Lukashenko. Many Belarusians do not want to be involved in someone else’s war. Several protests took place in Belarus at the beginning of the invasion, leading to predictable repression similar to that experienced in Russia, with numerous arrests.

Crucially, Belarusian security forces stood by Lukashenko at the height of the protests; if they had defected, the story could have been different. Full involvement in the war would likely turn even Lukashenko’s loyalists against him, including in the military. Soldiers can refuse to fight. It would be a dangerous step. As the war in Russia continues, Lukashenko could walk on an increasingly difficult tightrope.

Two countries, one battle

It is perhaps with this in mind that Lukashenko’s latest repressive move has been the extension of the death penalty. State officials and military personnel can now be executed for high treason. This gives Lukashenko a gruesome new tool for punishing and deterring defectors.

The Belarusian activists – in exile or in prison – are not only concerned about their safety, but also face the challenge of ensuring that Belarusian democracy is not lost in the fog of war. They need continued solidarity and support to make the world understand that their fight against oppression is part of the same campaign for freedom that the Ukrainians are waging, and that any path to peace in the region must also mean democracy in Belarus.

Andrew Firmin is editor-in-chief of CIVICUS, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens, and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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