Happy 2011 to Everybody! Happy 1937 to Belarus?
While most people in Europe and America were busy preparing for Christmas, Belarus authorities were busy beating, arresting and torturing its political opponents. Alyaksandr Lukashenka who had been in power for more than sixteen years, declared that he had won the elections again. Christmas torture rather than Christmas trees were expecting hundreds of Belarusians who dared to protest against the election fraud. The EU reaction to Belarus events will be a test of whether Europe is learning from its mistakes.
The elections day brutality
Even before the voting ended, a group of men in black had attacked and severely beaten Uladzimir Niakliayeu, one of the main alternative presidential candidates. He was taken to hospital by his supporters. Just a few hours later, barely conscious he was dragged away from his hospital bed by the security services in an unknown direction. The authorities released his whereabouts more than a week after his kidnapping.
But it was just the beginning. When around fifty thousand people came to protest in freezing weather, they had been badly beaten. Belarus police had never been as brutal before – broken arms, legs, and limbs, blood and broken teeth on the snow. Apparently, the authorities also staged a provocation with smashing the windows in a governmental building to use it as an excuse for brutal suppression of protesters. Mr Lukashenka admitted that he was personally directing police actions from his operation headquarters.
Video footage shows that Vital Rymasheuski, one of presidential candidates, was trying to stop the provocateurs who were getting instructions over walkie-talkies. The government building had apparently been prepared for this provocation: the entrance has been well barricaded with furniture and the building was packed with police in full ammunition but barely any policeman was in front of the building.
The Russian gazeta.ru described the empty Independence Square, turned by riot police into a battlefield as follows:
The Independence Square is covered with people's hats, gloves, torn pieces of clothing, scarves; there are many traces of blood… The riot police has acted with maximum brutality, especially against women.
Around 700 people were detained. That number includes most of presidential candidates, which would be unheard of in any other European country. They were transported in large police trucks made in Belarus just for this purpose. More than 70 people were cramped into each police truck police trucks which exceeded more than three times their normal capacity.
People were often beaten and humiliated inside those trucks for any attempt to move or speak inside. Because all prisons were already full, many had to spend hours in overcrowded trucks before being offloaded into the corridors of Belarus detention centers.
Those detained had to spend many hours in freezingly cold corridors of Belarus detention centers without food or sleep. Nearly everyone was banned from notifying relatives, let alone lawyers, about their whereabouts. Many people with broken arms, legs and teeth were not given even basic medical help. Those who were able to notify their relatives could not get deliveries such as medications and warm clothes without payment for "prison services".
Radio Liberty reports of people being brutally beaten for replying to police in Belarusian, the language often used by Belarus opposition, instead of Russian. The radio quoted a former prisoner released after 10 days of arrest:
once [my cellmate] replied [to the policeman] in Belarusian, a policeman kicked him in the chest with his foot. The young man flew two meters and hit the wall and the bed. The policemen started trampling him with their feet. When they saw us observing it they ordered us to be taken away. We were taken outside the cell in the corridor, and they continued kicking him…
The Belarus courts were fast but merciless sentencing people to fines and giving prison sentences to hundreds of protesters, journalists and human rights activists. More than twenty people are facing criminal charges which may lead to up to 15 years prison sentences.
The only fault of those people tortured by Belarus security services was that they wanted their votes to be counted. Many of those who did not even show up during the protests were beaten and jailed. The security serviced were coming late at night, smashing the doors and arresting people in front of their family members and neighbours. For instance, this happened to Anatol Liabedzka, head of the United Civic Party, and to Dr Aliaksandr Fiaduta, member of the team of the presidential candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu.
Belarus had not seen this scale of massive night arrests since the worst times of Stalin’s NKVD and Hitler’s Gestapo. Symbolically, Lukashenka’s KGB is still using the Amerikanka, NKVD’s infamous prison building in the centre of Minsk. Opposition leaders are kept in the very same cells where hundreds of victims of communist repressions were waiting to be executed in 1937.
Mr Lukashenka’s internal affair?
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Belarus elections and what happened afterwards is the country's internal affair. Many in Europe think that this is an internal matter of a small country in Russia’s zone of influence.
However, if the Belarus authorities will be able to get away with what they have done other countries such as Ukraine and Russia will think that it acceptable to beat, detain and torture hundreds of those with a different opinion. If Europe as Russia will say that it is just an “internal affair” of Belarus, the continent will be on the brink of sliding back into its dark past. Hitler was also Germany’s internal affair until it was too late.
When the sanctions follow, many political prisoners will be kept as hostages. As many times before, Mr Lukashenka will keep those people in prisons until he receives promises of financial aid and normalizing relations from the West.
Belarus as a signal to others
Public opinion in the West, human rights organizations and Belarusian opposition urge the European Union and the United States to respond firmly to the post-election brutality and repressions. Because of the holiday season, the reaction of Europe and the United States had been so far muted. Mr Lukashenka scheduled his re-election for the Christmas period, hoping that two weeks later the international community will forget his atrocities. As the Washington Post noted, this tactics is often used by dictators to avoid coordinated response of the international community. Time will show whether this trick will work this time.
Stalislau Shuskevich, who was the head of Belarus in early 1990-s compared Europe’s turning a blind eye on Belarus with the way it treated Adolf Hitler, whose methods Mr Lukashenka openly supported. It is important for the international community not only to deal with “Europe’s Mugabe” but also send a signal to other countries in the region. Everybody should understand that those who beat, arrest and torture political opponents will inevitably face very serious consequences.
Europe has already adopted tens if not hundreds naive declarations condemning the Belarus regime and requesting it to behave. It is now time to act before it is too late.
German Press on Election Fraud and Repressions in Belarus
Unknown to most Germans, Belarus only pops up in their consciousness during the elections in the country. This is also due to the fact that German reporters cover events in Minsk from Moscow or Warsaw, which is why articles appear rarely and show a lack of understanding for what is going on in Belarus.
Despite the fact that a visit of the journalists of the leading German mass media to Belarus upon the invitation by president Lukashenka took place in November, the real media coverage on the elections started immediately before December 19th.
Major national newspapers such as the centre-leftist daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) published articles in the run-up to the elections which focused on the role of Russia and the recent conclusion of the oil supply agreement. On December 18th, the FAZ Russia-correspondent Michael Ludwig wrote:
Next Sunday, the Belarusians are going to elect their president – who will be the incumbent, of course. As his opponents are divided, he could even allow a slight degree of liberalization. What counts in the end, however, are the Russian oil and the proven methods of manipulation.
On December 20th, all big German newspapers (regional and national) reported on the crackdown of the demonstration that took place in Minsk on Sunday evening with follow up articles continuing to appear until one week later.
The overall opinion of German media was that the violence against protesters was disproportionate. Most newspapers reported that those storming the building where likely to be government-paid agitators, while the leftist daily Die Tageszeitung wrote: “Furious opponents of Lukashenka tried to storm the government building on Sunday”.
The regional newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung and Der Spiegel, the most important German weekly, published interviews with the OSCE election observer and German Member of Parliament Georg Schirmbeck (CDU), which were much discussed. In particular, Schirmbeck was quoted saying: „I am very sorry to say that I cannot confirm the reproaches of the opposition that the elections were manipulated by Lukashenko.”
On December 22th, Die Zeit wrote in an article titled “Europe has failed”:
The strategy of the EU has failed with this election at the latest. Lately, the EU had tried to lure Europe’s last despot to democratize his country by making him several offers. (…) Three billion Euros would have been offered to Belarus if the elections had not been manipulated as the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Sikorski assured the authoritarian head of state during his visit together with Westerwelle. The reaction of the young Belarusian civic movement to this absurd offer of the Europeans to the despot was alienation. Instead of seeking the direct conversation with Lukashenko, the EU should rather strive to give more support to the civil society in the country. The election evening also showed the tragedy of a generation that feels as a part of Europe but at the same time abandoned by it.
Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the German weekly Die Zeit put the emphasis of their reporting on the election fraud and the mass arrests of opposition activists and protesters. The German minister of foreign affairs reacted wish harsh critique to the crackdown of the opposition. Die Zeit and Der Spiegel reported that the Belarusian Ambassador to Germany had been ordered to appear in the German MFA where he was told that the German government expected Belarus to immediately release all political prisoners and to start a dialogue with the opposition. Westerwelle made it clear that the authoritarian conduct of the regime would lead to an isolation of the country and that it could not be a partner of values for the EU.
One week after the elections, the German press is still following closely what is happening in Minsk and is considering how to deal with the authoritarian state at the doorstep of the European Union.
Der Spiegel, in its print edition on December 27th, wrote: "The Minsk dictator appears to be the president of the silent majority, which will continue tolerating him as long as it feels economic growth". Sueddeutsche Zeitung published an article by the German writer Ingo Petz who paints a dark picture of the intellectual and cultural scene in Belarus:
Blogs and websites which were working for a different, open Belarus with wit, hope, brain and verve till last Sunday, are now standing still as if their flow of life has been cut.
During the visit of the Green Member of Parliament, Marie-Luise Beck to Minsk on December 28th, she planned to meet Belarusian officials but the meeting was cancelled by the Belarusian side. She stressed that a maintained dialogue of the EU and Belarus will be better for Belarusian people than sanctions towards the country. Marie-Louise Beck notes that the EU will "give a powerful response to the events of the last 10 days in Belarus," but did not call the possible sanctions against the official Minsk. After this statement it remains unclear which strategy the German government will adopt with regard to sanctions against the Belarus authorities.