No Mercy For The Regime's Loyalists
Published: 22 December 2011
In the regime of Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, even absolute loyalty fails to guarantee security and comfort. Last week, a military court sentenced General Ihar Azaronak to nine years in prison. The former commander of the Belarusian air force and air defense was arrested immediately after the fraudulent presidential election a year ago.
The fact that the arrest coincided with the elections provoked much speculation. But in issuing its verdict, the Military Prosecution Office quite expectedly did not cite political details, instead charging Azaronak with corruption. Because the trial was closed to the public, and the Belarusian media was unable to investigate, the details of the case remain obscure, as do the details of another recent high profile case.
One week earlier, the Belarusian Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Colonel Yauhen Poludzien, was also arrested in Minsk. He has been charged with abuse of power. As in the case of Azaronak, the public has been kept in the dark about the fate of one of the highest officials in the Internal Ministry. Poludzen played an active role in persecuting protesters in Belarus - but his arrest is likely unrelated to this. Rather, it follows the pattern of repressions against nomenclature established years ago.
The Environment of Secrecy and Nontransparency
Lack of transparency is an important feature of the Belarusian regime. In October, a high official from the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry was ousted for an unexplained "misdeed unacceptable while in public service." The director of the main propaganda outlet of the Belarusian regime – Belarusian state TV – was dismissed on the same charges.
By the late 1990s, Lukashenka closed most free media outlets that emerged after the Soviet collapse and criticized the more liberal policies of his predecessor, Prime Minister Viachaslau Kebich. In the 2000s, state officials were been banned from speaking to the media without the permission of their superiors. Independent media gained even less access to official comments from government agencies.
Such a closed system is particularly damaging to victims of injustice in he absence of a functional and transparent justice system. The courts apparently follow the government's orders, and there are no media channels for appealing to public opinion. Even so, Lukashenka claims to take public opinion into account. He has recently admitted to considering public opinion in his evaluation of capital punishment. Regime insiders have also acknowledged off the record that the decision to ban the gay parade in Minsk last year was taken after conducting public opinion research.
Who Has to Fear in Belarus Today?
Even among the country's nomenclature, the arbitrary nature of justice causes fear and uncertainty. Absolute loyalty to Lukashenka provides no guarantees. Colonel Poludzen was certainly loyal - he oversaw the police beatings and kidnappings of participants in the silent protests this year, and has earned a travel ban from the EU. Nonetheless, he was arrested and charged. Poludzen was not the first and certainly not the last "insider victim". In another remarkable case in 2008, the public prosecutor of the Minsk Province Mikhail Sniahir was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption.
However, the regime insiders jailed on corruption charges have a chance to be pardoned and may even return to high-ranking positions. In 2008, for instance, the Supreme Court sentenced Alyaksandr Barouski, the Former Director of the largest state-owned oil company Belnaftakhim, to five years for "abusing his official position". But already in 2009, Barouski was appointed General Director of MAZ, a major Belarusian truck-building enterprise. A similar case of a corrupt high-level official in police department of Hrodna Province being pardoned happened last year.
Lukashenka really has many reasons to fear the nomenclature, as he cannot satisfy their growing material demands. Notably, recent amendments to Belarusian legislation which extend the powers of the security services seem to be an attempt to increase control over regime insiders, rather than a move to persecute a democratic opposition already demoralized by past crackdowns. It is possible that parts of the nomenclature, with the support of influential groups in the Russian leadership, will remove the Belarusian leader. For now, it is the foremost threat to Lukashenka's survival.
The Marionette Regime?
Belarusian officials do not have the guts to effectively resist the regime on their own. Their dissent could be exploited by an external force - most likely from Russia - to make Lukashenka understand his vulnerability and dependence on Moscow's goodwill. This is one of the most popular theories which explains the crackdown which followed the December 19 presidential elections last year. Its only geopolitical beneficiary was Moscow.
Under these circumstances, it would be crucial for the West to view the situation in Belarus not only through democracy and human rights lenses. The most important task at the moment is to maintain the independent existence of Belarus as a European nation. Europe should articulate other, non-Russian prospects to the regime incumbents to make them understand that they can lead comfortable lives without Lukashenka and without resorting to the illegal practices of the current regime.
After all, the uncertainty of life in Belarus and the vulnerability of Belarus' national independence is already evident even to the regime's loyalists, who also want to have guarantees against arbitrary detentions and prison terms if they play by the rules. Not a single serious political group - either within the regime or in the opposition - wants to live in a marionette state controlled by corrupt officials in Moscow. But their opinion may no longer matter because the external factors could prove much stronger.