Belarusian anarchists: Lukashenka’s political opponents or criminals?
On 12 March 2018, a Minsk court sentenced Sviataslau Baranovich to three years in prison. He admitted that he had hit police officers in civilian clothes during the brutal arrests of anarchists.
In recent years, the anarchists have become the most persecuted group opposing Alexander Lukashenka’s regime. They remain the most extreme organisation with a capacity to organise street protests and radicalise them.
However, it remains difficult to call some of the anarchists’ actions, such as the burning of billboards, politicised or even rational. Therefore anarchists have become a serious dilemma for human rights organisations because they do not know how to view them, although the government clearly sees anarchists as a political problem.
Origins of anarchism in Belarus
Anarchism in Belarus first appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, although it took a very different form to the contemporary movement. At that time Bialystok (then part of the Hrodna region in the Russian Empire) became the centre of the Belarusian anarchist movement; anarchists organised economic strikes, expropriations and the killing of police officers. The anarchists in Belarus had strong links to the movement in Russian (perhaps even belonged to it). For instance, the first Belarusian anarchist, Siarhiej Kavalik, followed the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, one of the principal founders of anarchist theory.
Anarchists often had Jewish origins and their victims were also Jews, since they often represented the capitalist (exploitative) class. But in general the movement proved something of an alloy, including intellectuals, the unemployed and criminals, according to a recent Russian-language book by Jury Hlushakou called Revolution Is Dead! Long Live the Revolution! Anarchism in Belarus 1902—1927.
Despite differences from earlier eras, contemporary anarchists’ choice of a specific ideology faces some restraints since communism remains an origin of Belarusian anarchism. As Mikalai Dziadok, one of the representatives of the movement, explained in an interview to Euroradio in 2017, anarcho-communists comprise the majority in the Belarusian anarchist movement. Where other versions of anarchism, popular in other countries, emphasize individuality, Belarusian anarchism remains primarily collectivist.
Meet the Belarusian anarchists
In all countries anarchists annoy the state authorities, but the Belarusian government has a much stronger feeling.
Undoubtedly, the Belarusian anarchists remain the most radical opponents of Lukashenka. In 2010 they threw smoke grenades and set fire to the Ministry of Defence and a casino; in 2016 they threw paint at the main entrance of the state television company; and in 2017 showed themselves the most organized group of the protesters against the law on parasitism, the most popular protests in the Belarusian regions in history. In Brest, a city in western Belarus, anarchists initiated those protests.
The movement’s structure remains opaque, so no one knows exactly how many people it comprises and their capabilities. The movement has a number of public representatives, including Mikalai Dziadok and Ihar Alinevich, known publicly because the court previously sentenced them to 4 and 8 years respectively in 2011. Their publicity is the result of their criminal record and not their wishes. Both, along with Alexander Frantskevich, formed part of the “anarchist case”, but Alinevich received the longest prison term. The court found him guilty not only for the aforementioned 2010 actions, but also for attacks on a branch of the Moscow-Minsk Bank and the Isolation Centre for Offenders Minsk.
Even without traditional methods of organisation during their actions, anarchists look like they have the most effective organising capacity. Although it remains difficult to assess the size of the anarchists’ regional structures, for sure the figures are not small. For instance, the organisation of “Revolutionary Action” has four-and-a-half thousand subscribers on the social network VKontakte. No opposition group has as many subscribers. Recently, the Belarusian authorities blocked the page, but it still works through a virtual private network (VPN) or outside the country.
However, such repressions do not mean that the government represses all activities of anarchists. The movement still has its own media website, pramen.io, which actually has a modest number of followers in social networks of around three thousand people; a “Free Thought” library operates in Minsk, although it is open just four hours per week; a “Food Not Bombs” initiative feeds poor people each week at three locations in Minsk, but also has some smaller groups in several other towns; and an “Anarchist Black Cross” helps anarchists and others somehow connected to the movement that have been imprisoned. Although Sviataslau Baranovich’s political views remain unknown, he will receive the help of the “Anarchist Black Cross”.
Political radicals or criminals?
The authorities see them at the same time as the most extremist enemies, able to radicalise protests and criminals, says the respected human rights defender Nasta Lojka in a comment to Belarus Digest. Accordingly, the prosecution of anarchists stems from mixed motives; it remains difficult to know whether Belarus’s authorities are defending public safety or Lukashenka’s regime. In fact, the government shows that it sees anarchists as political activists. For instance, before the presidential election in 2015, when Lukashenka pardoned a group of high-profile critics of the regime, the group included politicians such as Mikalai Statkevich and anarchists such as Dziadok and Alinevich.
In some ways anarchists supply a convenient enemy for the authorities since they often break the law, giving the government an excuse to move against them. In 2017 members of the movement burned a billboard of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Ivacevichy. Afterwards, three anarchists (17, 19 and 21 years old) received three years of probation. Independent journalists and human rights activists devoted little attention to this trial because it held no political significance. But, as Nasta Lojka says, police used the burned billboard as a pretext for searches in other cities, which looked quite far-fetched.
In 2017 Belarus held a long trial against an anti-fascist group of football fans, who received from 4 to 12 years for fighting, drug distribution and leading an unregistered organisation. However, authorities stretched some evidence in the case against anti-fascists so as to intimidate the entire community of informal youth groups.
The politicization of other cases looks more obvious still. During the protests against parasitism police arrested dozens of anarchists or others close to the movement. As a result of the protests, one activist, Zmicier Paliyenka, went to jail. Belarusian human rights activists have recognized him as a political prisoner.
However, the example of Paliyenka remains one of several. In practice, human rights activists try to avoid such criminal cases, especially involving violence. If anarchists consciously use violence, the human rights activists are forced to close their eyes to violations of rights against them.
Lukashenka’s recent appointments: in search of efficacy
On 5 March 2018, Siarhei Kavalchuk, a little known employee of the Presidential Security Service, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. This and other appointments have virtually transformed key elements of the Belarusian state apparatus over recent months.
The personnel rotated include heads of major TV channels, a major publishing house, a government-controlled public association, two ministries and two special services. Although the reasons for each appointment were multiple and often unique, one can see well-recognisable patterns in play.
Expansion of the “president’s bodyguards”
First, the expansion of the president’s “bodyguards” – the Presidential Security Service – fits into a pattern.
In late 2017, the head of the service Andrei Paŭliučenka became head of the Operation-Analytical Centre (OAC). A special service set up in 2008, the OAC performs protection measures with regard to the state secrets and other classified information. Moreover, this agency bears responsibility for monitoring internet communications and has become an active player in the government’s policy for regulating the internet. Direct evidence indicates that OAC coordinates the work of all special services and possibly monitors the activities of higher level officials.
Until the end of 2017, Siarhei Shpiahun, a person close to Viktar Lukashenka, the president’s elder son working as his aide for national security, headed the OAC. However, the president severely criticised the agency’s leadership in the middle of November 2017 for poor performance and collusion in corruption. After this, a team from the Presidential Security Service replaced the incumbent managers. The Presidential Security Service came under the control of Paŭliučenka’s former deputy, Dzmitry Shakhrayeu.
Alexander Lukashenka appointed another veteran of the service, Mikalai Latyshonak, as his aide for general issues in February 2018. This seemingly unimpressive position actually makes Latyshonak the head of the president’s secretariat. He will perform as a major “filter” of information flows destined for Lukashenka and “the gatekeeper” for high-level officials seeking a personal meeting with the president.
Yet another of the “president’s bodyguards”, Siarhei Kavalchuk, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. His predecessor, Aliaksandr Shamko, was fired after “failing to take effective measures to counter corruption” in the area of his competence.
Renovation of media management
Media management rotation stands out as another prominent features of the recent reshuffle. This included the retirement of Paviel Jakubovič, the iconic editor-in-chief of the major state newspaper SB-Belarus Segodnia and the head of the media holding comprising a number of other state outlets (including newspapers and magazines) and a radio station. Jakubovič bore the unofficial title of the most influential intellectual in the establishment, often performing as the president’s personal advisor and speech-writer.
Dzmitry Zhuk, the long-time head of the state information agency BelTA replaced Jakubovič as head of SB-Belarus Segodnia. His appointment clearly shows the priorities of the authorities. They want to use the potential of the state printed media in order to balance information flows on the web where the state still remains on the defensive.
Another ex-BelTA manager and specialist in internet communications, Ihar Lutski, left the Ministry of Information where he had been working as the deputy minister, to take up the leadership of the STV TV channel. The latter has underperformed recently. The new director, who replaces an old-style and Russia-leaning Jury Kazijatka, will struggle to deliver results both as a TV and internet communications manager.
A further important recent appointment included the promotion of the former deputy head of the National TV and Radio Company (NTVRC, the state’s biggest media holding), Ivan Eismant, to that organisation’s leadership position. He replaced Hienadź Davydźka, who moved to head the public association Belaja Ruś, the largest Belarusian GONGO.
Eismant’s appointment marks an important trend in the Belarusian media-sphere: the expanding influence of the president’s spokesperson, Natallia Eismant (Kirsanava), a former employee of the NTVRC and wife of Ivan Eismant, the new head of NTVRC. Rumours suggest other recent appointees are close to her: namely, the head of the National Press Centre Volha Shpileuskaya, the head of the president’s Protocol Service Darja Šmanaj, and the new leadership of the ONT TV channel.
It is also worth noting that in the framework of the reform of the Presidential Administration in early 2017, the spokesperson received considerable new powers including oversight over all state media.
Lukashenka’s own checks and balances
An obvious dimension to the named appointments stands out: the rise in influence of the Presidential Security Service and the president’s spokesperson (see the charts).
Another, no less obvious dimension, can be discerned: the newcomers are often younger and always more technocratic and performance oriented. They have been appointed on merit, and not because of historical contexts or personal relationships (even in the case of Ivan Ejsmant). Accordingly, they will be at a greater distance from Lukashenka personally than their predecessors, who might have tended to perceive him as “an equal” of sorts.
A less obvious dimension of the recent rotation is the shift of identities. At least some of the retired officials (Jury Kazijatka, Hienadź Davydźka, Aliaksandr Radźkoŭ who used to be the head of Belaja Ruś before Davydźka, former ONT head Ryhor Kisiel, and the former Minister of Information Lilija Ananič) seemed to be somewhat Russia-leaning in one or the other way. The newcomers, in contrast, attach themselves much more to Lukashenka’s Belarus than to the international context.
However, the most important dimension of the reshuffling proves less ostensible. Lukashenka tries to install a new system of checks and balances. While the Presidential Security Service expanded its influence, the country’s most powerful special agency – the State Security Committee (KGB) – underwent a substantial optimisation process. The agency downsized and its capacities somewhat reduced. Meanwhile, the budget spending for the OAC in 2018 increased by 42%.
Thus, the independent positions of the Presidential Security Service and OAC now balance the previously unrivalled domination of the KGB. On the other hand, the management rotation and introduction of an independent oversight function performed by the president’s spokesperson both curb the overarching influence that the KGB exerted over the state media was also curbed both by
As the Kremlin becomes increasingly aggressive and Belarus-Russia relations find themselves at a new low, Lukashenka seems eager to have a more balanced and professional state apparatus in the wake of 2019–2020 political campaigns. Will this strategy entail higher efficacy and help him to avoid a new political crisis? The answer will probably be clear by the end of 2018.
Yury Tsaryk is a Head of Russian studies at Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Belarus), Chevening Scholar 2017/2018 at UCL SSEES