Belarusian Authorities Step Up Pressure On Anarchists
While European and American officials are visiting Minsk and discussing easing sanctions on Belarusian officials, the KGB is preparing for this year's presidential election.
In recent months the police have stepped up pressure on civic activists and anarchists to avoid protests spilling out onto Minsk's pristine streets during the upcoming election campaign.
Over the first two months of 2015 the police imprisoned around 20 activists for short terms between 5-25 days. Following this, on 26 February the trial in Mahileǔ extended anarchist Mikalai Dzyadok's prison sentence for another year. This happened just a few days before his planned release.
Mikalai Dziadok is on a list of six Belarusian political prisoners that the Minsk-based human rights group “Viasna” have made public. Four of the six political prisoners, including Dziadok, have declared themselves to be anarchists. They were sentenced to prison in 2010 and 2011 after several attacks on the Russian embassy in Minsk and a KGB office in the city of Babruisk.
The Case of the Anarchists
The heavy-handed suppression of peaceful social and political activism in the 2000s pushed the next generation of anarchists to become much more radical in their tactics. This shift can be seen in the a handful of symbolic attacks on state institution buildings and a casino over 2009-2010 by local Minsk activists.
According to the web page of Revolutionary Action – an Belarusian anarchist organisation – these attacks designed to avoid harming anyone, and were rather a part of a strategy to draw society's attention to social issues, such as military conscription, abuse of power by the police and other issues.
The KGB arrested a number of radical youngsters after an attack on the Russian Embassy in Minsk. On 31 August 2010 an unidentified individual threw a Molotov cocktail at the Russian diplomatic mission in the capital. A virtually unknown anarchist group “Friends of Freedom” claimed responsibility for the attack and declared that the attack was an act of solidarity with anarchists detained in Russia.
A fair share of commentators in the media have since expressed their doubts that the Minsk anarchists were really involved in the incident and regarded the attack as a provocation.
In autumn 2010 the police detained and interrogated around 50 activists as part of the so-called "Anarchist Case". Some of the activists fled abroad. Yet, on 28 November 2010, the secret police in Moscow captured and delivered to a KGB prison in Minsk one of the accused activists, Ihar Alinievich.
The court sentenced Ihar Alinievich to 8 years in a high-security prison colony, while another individual, Mikalai Dziadok, got 4.5 years and three more anarchists were sent to prison for 1.5 – 4 years. None of them confessed to the embassy attack.
During the investigation anarchists from all over the world demonstrated their solidarity through local protests. One of the most radical protests took place in Babruisk. On the night of 17 October local anarchists attacked a KGB office by setting fire to the entrance of the building. As a result three young activists were sentenced to 7 years in prison a piece.
On the Way to Magadan
These court rulings have completely dismantled the local anarchist movement. Still, their repression has attracted the attention of the Belarusian public. They have even classified these symbolic attacks on buildings as mere misdemeanours, not felonies.
Many people learned about the state's pressure on the activists from the book “On the Way to Magadan” – that anarchist Ihar Alinievich wrote in a KGB prison. The book portrays everyday life in a KGB prison situated in the very centre of Minsk. It documents the torture of political activists that were detained following the 2010 president election:
The next morning the torture continued. They pulled me aside on the way back from the bathroom. This time the masked faces gathered together, four or five. They blocked my way and ordered me to bow my head. I refused. After a couple of blows, there was still no reaction. They make me spread out against the wall…
Latest Wave of Repression
Anarchist groups have been largely inactive over the past couple of years, limiting their public activism to graffiti and 5-10 minute long pickets of the police for the continued repression of the left. Over the first two month of 2015, the police imprisoned around 20 activists for span of between 5-25 days on various charges.
On 10 January in Minsk, riot police assaulted a local punk-concert. Several dozens youngsters were detained. Two of them were put in jail for 10 days for resisting arrest.
Officially, the riot police were on a narcotics raid. Later on, however, the police arrested and locked up several activists for a few days that came to the prison in order to pick up their peers who had been arrested at the concert.
Finally, on 26 February a Mahileǔ court extended the year prison term of Mikalai Dzyadok by an entire year just several days before his planned release. According to the authorities, Dziadok systematically violated prison rules by wearing sweatpants instead of the official prison robe and for walking around his cell after lights out.
Commentators on social media and anarchist forums link this wave of repression with the upcoming president elections scheduled to take place this year. They assert that the authorities are afraid that the anarchists will organise protests in opposition to the elections. Despite the state's fears, anarchists clearly do not have the numbers or support to mobilise thousands people to take to the streets.
Tatsiana Chyzhova – a research fellow at Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” based in Minsk and Vilnius claims that “despite the fact that the anarchists recently engaged in protest activities, the movement is in ruins. At best, they bring together around a hundred followers of anarchist subculture [at any given time]”.
By intimidating social activists and radical leftists, the secret police are looking to quell any protest during the election campaign. Moreover, by extending Mikalai Dziadok's prison term, the authorities are showing that they do not care how the EU will react, as they are concerned with more important issues than anarchists trapped in Belarusian prisons.
Russia Pushes For Single Visa Space, Belarus Resists
Russia is getting serious about the idea of creating a unified visa space with Belarus.
On 3 March, Moscow brought in big guns when Vladimir Putin announced upcoming talks on an agreement providing for the mutual recognition of each country's visas. Belarus has refused to confirm the existence of such plans so far.
The Schengen-like visa arrangement would deprive Minsk of independence in its visa policy and Belarus would become hostage to Russia's confrontational foreign policy. In particular, the single visa space could jeopardise Belarus' relations with other post-Soviet countries, such as Georgia and potentially Ukraine and Moldova.
Thus far, Minsk has confidently withstood this diplomatic attack. However, Belarus' deep entrenchment in the Russian-led integration projects could undermine the country's long-term capacity to resist.
Transparent Border, Independent Visa Regimes
Moscow has actively promoted the idea of a single visa space in late 1990s, during the boom years of integration between Belarus and Russia. Passing this authority to a supranational body would have effectively led to Russian control over visa policy.
However, the two parties failed to find common ground on this issue. The Treaty establishing the Union State, signed by Boris Yeltsin and Alexander Lukashenka in 1999, makes no mention of a common immigration policy.
Belarus and Russia have their own independent visa policies Read more
Like the Schengen countries, Belarus and Russia have no control on their joint border. The citizens of two countries can freely move between them without being subject to document checks. In practice, many foreigners can do the same, risking deportation if they get caught.
Unlike the Schengen countries, Belarus and Russia have their own independent visa policies. A foreigner who has entered either country with a visa cannot go to another country without obtaining the latter's visa first. A holder of a Belarusian or Russian visa cannot claim any privilege when applying for the other visa. Visa-free transit between Belarus and Russia through their international airports remains impossible.
Differences Getting Public
The issue of a single visa space resurfaced in September 2014. Grigory Rapota, the State Secretary of the Union State, called independent visa policies a nuisance for business and tourism. "We should try and create some look-alike of the Schengen visa", he said, claiming that the matter was already under consideration.
Belarus MFA: No talks on a single visa regime Read more
Indeed, businessmen and tourists from third countries would certainly welcome the introduction of a single visa space. For those travelling to the region, it would mean less paperwork as well as time and expenses. However, the Belarusian authorities have their reservations about the matter.
The next day after Rapota's statement, Dzmitry Mironchyk, the Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman, denied the existence of any talks on a unified visa regime. He implied that the existing arrangements were largely sufficient: "Belarus and Russia have been successfully carrying out a coordinated visa policy, and we are working on improving our joint action".
As an example of such policy, Dzmitry Mironchyk referred to high-profile incidents when Belarus or Russia have denied entry to foreign "politicians and other characters behaving in an unfriendly manner towards our countries".
Russian MFA: No need to hasten the issue Read more
The Russian foreign ministry commented on the single visa issue on 22 September 2014. They called the introduction of a single visa regime "quite a logical step in the absence of the border control". However, the ministry recognised that "neither Russia nor Belarus had a disposition to hasten artificially the preparation of a pertinent bilateral document". This all sounded very much like an admission of their failure to agree on its need.
Visa Regimes: Hard to Reconcile
The Russian foreign ministry mentioned two obstacles to a single visa regime: potential problems to bona fide travellers and additional costs.
In fact, Belarus and Russia would have to agree on a common list of visa-free countries. As the matter requires the agreement of the third countries involved, this would be a very ambitious undertaking.
Incongruous visa regimes with third countries are the main obstacle Read more
Thus far, the national visa-free lists differ quite a lot, the Russian one being longer. There is also the sensitive issue of Georgia. Belarus, unlike Russia, has a visa-free regime with Georgia. As a result, flights from Tbilisi to Minsk are fully booked as many Georgians use this loophole to get to Russia without a visa.
The introduction of a single visa may lead to a drop in visa fees revenue for Belarus, as many visitors may prefer the more developed network of Russian consulates. Nevertheless, the increased revenue from tourism may well offset these losses.
An unilateral visa-free regime for EU citizens, modelled after Ukraine's, would bring even more money in tourism. However, the Belarusian authorities would never agree on it as it would weaken significantly their negotiating position with the current visa facilitation process and eventual visa liberalisation talks with Europe.
Withstanding Russia's Pressure
Despite earlier statements from Russian officials, Putin's announcement that the two countries intended "to prepare an agreement on the mutual recognition of visas issued to citizens of foreign countries" came as a surprise. It certainly was not on the agenda of the two presidents' recent meeting in Moscow.
Dzmitry Mironchyk had the most delicate task of disavowing the Russian president's words. He managed to do it tactfully, but clearly. Mironchyk described the issue as a "complex and difficult" one and stressed that two countries were pursuing an ever more coordinated visa policy. However, the essence of his comments laid in the following statement: in the time since his previous remarks on this subject, "the situation and [Belarus'] approaches [to it] have not undergone any fundamental changes".
Russia wants to have more leverage in Belarus' policy Read more
Putin's involvement in the matter means that Russia's pressure on Belarus on the visa issue will continue to grow. A single visa regime takes the phantom Union State one (very symbolic) step closer towards a truly unified country, pleasing Soviet-minded voters. Also, the visa regime is an important tool in building political, economic and human relations with other countries, and Russia would love to control it.
A source in the Belarusian foreign ministry confirmed to Belarus Digest that Russia was obstinately probing the firmness of Belarus' position on a single visa regime despite the tepid response Moscow was receiving as of late. Thus far, the ministry has instructions to agree on nothing more than a coordinated visa policy.
Nevertheless, they do not exclude a "change of heart" in the presidential office under Moscow's pressure. Even if the talks eventually start, the Russian initiative has good chances of succumbing to lengthy discussions and never materialise. Belarusian diplomats have earned a reputation as tough negotiators.