Inside Belarusian Prisons
The Lukashenka regime often uses politically motivated administrative detentions for up to 15 days to fight against civil society and the opposition in Belarus.
In 2011 the author of this article organised the action of solidarity with two activists – Zmitser Dashkevich and Edward Lobau – during their trial near the courthouse. Unsurprisingly, Belarusian police officers arrested the author.
The next day under judge Matyl in the same courthouse punishment followed – 10 days of administrative arrest. This article lifts the veil on what hides behind the bars and shows the conditions which Belarusian activists undergo in detention. This article describes one particular detention centre located in Akrestsina Street in Minsk for three reasons.
First, most Belarusian civil activists are usually kept there. Second, the conditions in the centre can be regarded as average for Belarus. Conditions vary in every city and within each city. Some can even provide detainees with relatively clean linen, in others detainees will be sleeping on wooden shelves and use a bucket as a toilet. Finally, the author served his administrative arrest.
Akrestsina Dentention Centre Welcomes You
Standard cells in the Akrestsina facility are approximately 15 square metres, usually for five to six people. There also have a toilet and a sink in the cell (political activists often joke that the whole cell is actually a large closet). So each person has about two square metres of space.
Such high density is possible due to the fact that prisoners sleep together on a "stage" – the so-called improvised wooden bed that takes up most of the camera. Naturally, there is not enough space on the stage for everyone, so the residents have to sleep very tight. Quite often, people sleep so tightly that if one person on the "stage" wants to turn over, all the others have to turn over all together.
Heating and ventilation is such that it is cold in the cells in winter and hot in summer. In some cells, it is impossible to open the window, so in summer the temperature exceeds the limit. It is difficult to provide exact numbers as there are no thermometers in the cells, and the police do not give accurate information. People arrested for the first time always remember the toilet, which is just a hole in the floor.
Prisoners do not have watches, although “experienced” people can tell approximate time by the daily routine (wake up, breakfast, lunch, dinner) and by planes flying over Minsk. Generally, direct communication with the outside world is impossible – all electronic devices are taken away.
Prisoners can write letters using ordinary envelopes but police officers read letters and often do not send them to the addressees. Further, every seven days, a prisoner has a right to take a shower.
Apart from civil activists, most people who are detained there are petty thieves, drug addicts or homeless. From time to time, the police "throw" political activists into the cells with sick people on purpose.
Administrative detentions are especially hard to bear for women who are afraid of rats. Rats feel as calm as humans in the Akrestsina cells, they even move quite slowly.
Struggle For Human Conditions
Naturally, everything described above violates international standards, as well as Belarusian legislation. Political activists have long been struggling for better confinement conditions in the centre for isolation of law-breakers. Ivan Shyla, the Vice-Chairman of the Young Front youth political group, who served administrative detention in Akrestsina several times, says:
The struggle between the activists and the centre for isolation of offenders started long ago. I joined it only in 2010, when I got there for the first time. Frankly speaking, I could not imagine that the confinement conditions could be so poor before – low temperature, absence of any beds, let alone bed linen. On the whole, the cells are specially designed to humiliate a person’s dignity. In fact, there is nothing to do in Akrestsina. For example, there are a lot of people who are keen on reading, but it is impossible to read because there’s not enough light. Also, it is a shame that there’s no proper medical care. During the arrest, my allergy got worse and my skin literally started rotting.
After his release, Ivan Shyla filed numerous complaints and they gave the following result – the Republican Sanitary Epidemiological Station of the Interior Ministry conducted an inspection in the Akrestsina Street detention centre, and considered it inappropriate for serving administrative detentions.
Political activists were surprised by the inspection’s results, as usually it is not accepted in our country to admit that there are human rights violations. In the end, the detention centre administration promised to repair the building. But many are quite sceptical about it. Not only because administrative detentions in Belarus are aimed at humiliation and loss of dignity of democratic activists, but also because there’s not enough money in the state budget.
Families, colleagues and ordinary people always come to meet freshly released civil activists under the prison walls. However, sometimes it is impossible. For the last several years there is a very popular practise in Akrestsina – to drive the newly released prisoners to the industrial areas of the city and throw them out of the car there. Usually, activists call a taxi and go back to the detention centre to meet with the people who came to express their solidarity.
In neighbouring Lithuania the former KGB building houses a museum, where anyone can come and see how cells looked in the days of the Soviet Union. People who have personally visited this museum said that conditions in Belarus since then have improved, but not significantly. For the time being, Belarusian prison is a place to humiliate people. This is particularly noticeable when people are detained for their democratic views.
Lukashenka’s New Right-Hand Man: Andrei Kabyakou
The presidential administration is the centre of the Belarusian regime. It controls all state bodies including the government and parliament. The head of the presidential administration is the right hand of the president.
On 27 August, Alexandr Lukashenka appointed Andrei Kabyakou (age 52) to that very office.
Moscow-born Russian Kabyakou has been one of the closest people to the Belarusian ruler since 1990s. Some analysts predict that his appointment means that privatisation will soon come as well as increased Russian clout. Others believe that his loyalty to Moscow is exaggerated and he will faithfully work in the interests of Belarusian authorities.
Rocket False Start
Lukashenka considers his Russian origin as no problem. Appointing Kabyakou to the position of ambassador in Moscow last December he emphasised, “Half of our officials are Russians”. Among them defence minister and head of president's security service. Foreign-born candidates are preferable also for other reason – according to the constitution they may not run for presidency. The Belarusian state has been an inclusive one in terms of ethnic diversity – it had among its ministers even a Volga Tatar and an Azerbaijani.
Kabyakou was born in 1960 in Moscow. His father was a political officer in the Soviet air force and served in Belarus. Therefore Andrei has lived in the country since he was three years old. He emphasised: «And what shall I do in Moscow? Right, I was born there, but since 1963 I lived here. I am not going to leave our country [Belarus]»
In 1983, Andrei graduated from prestigious Moscow Aviation Ordzhonikidze Institute with an engineering diploma in rocket and missile design. His dream was to build rockets yet he had to work at Diaproektor factory in the Eastern Belarusian city of Rahachou. The enterprise produced optical mechanical equipment, including those used for military purposes.
In 1988, as other people became disappointed with the Communist party and some even publicly burned their Party cards, Kabyakou went to work full-time for the party. First, he worked in the organisational department, then studied simultaneously at the High Party School and the Belarus State Economy Institute. That was false start in his carrier.
After Communist rule crumbled, he returned to the same Rahachou factory. There he became friends with the factory deputy director Vasil Dauhalyou, who would bring Kabyakou to the top of Belarus rulling elite. Dauhalyou decided to work in 1994 on presidential candidate Lukashenka.
After Lukashenka's victory, he did not forget how Dauhalyou and his people helped him. In 1995, the president made Dauhalyou chairman of the Control Service of the President (later State Control Service), dubbed the “economic security service.” Kabyakou followed him as his deputy, then switched for a while to a post in Light Industry only to become in 1998 the Chairman of State Control Service himself.
Union State as a Trap for the Russian Bear
That was the right path to the top. In 2000, Kabyakou was appointed deputy prime minister, in 2002 the minister of the Economy, and in 2003 the vice prime minister. Among his tasks were financial issues and Customs Union, which Belarus joined under Russian pressure. Yet it does not mean that his goal was to bring Belarus into Russia's orbit. Many integration initiatives pursued by Minsk were smart tricks to get badly needed Russian support for unreformed and unmodernised Belarusian economy.
In December 2011 he became ambassador to Russia. Immediately after the appointment he declared on Belarusian TV that his main priority would be establishment of the Single Economic Space. The Customs Union has created some serious problems for the Belarusian government as Russia has increasingly gained control over Belarusian reexports of reprocessed Russian oil – one of the vital sources of income for Belarus. The single Economic Space could restore Belarusian government this lucrative oil business.
In this context Kabyakou's words about the Single Economic Space sound ambiguous:
That is a higher stage of integration within the Customs Union. That is a stage where our fundamental problematic issues shall be solved, the issues which existed in our trade and economic relations. It concerns equal prices for gas, equal conditions in oil and oil products trade, etc.
Even more ambiguous were Kabyakou's statements in a December 2011 interview for Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He pathetically elaborated on advantages and achievements of “Union State of Belarus and Russia,” yet the double-dip character of this dubious political project is common knowledge.
The Union was launched in 1997 and allowed Russian elites to satisfy their emotional sentiments for the lost Soviet empire. Belarusian leadership used it pragmatically to extract from Kremlin exorbitant subsidies. Minsk managed to give nothing essential in return to Russia. Belarus spoke with brash slogans and resorted to unrealistic demands anytime Moscow tried to commit it to something. Thus, Lukashenka agreed to introduce a single currency if he was given opportunity to print money as well.
As ambassador, Kabyakou not only proclaimed himself an “apologist of the Union State” playing on sentiments of Russian nationalists. He directly participated in very important negotiations for the Belarusian economy, among them those tied to oil export duties. Lukashenka was satisfied with his performance there.
Not only the Belarusian leader has noticed Kabyakou's defence of Belarusian interests. When Russian President Putin was visiting Belarus in May and saw Kabyakou at negotiations he made the following remark: "He has sucked so much blood out of me this past year – and now they sent him to us to Moscow to suck the rest out of me…"
Kabyakou is definitely not a grey official simply executing orders. In November 2007, as vice prime minister for economic issues, he made it to the headlines after shouting at Lukashenka. After the Belarusian ruler once again put forth a very questionable economic agenda, Kabyakou openly and very emotionally explained him that although Lukashenka could set “crazy tasks”, it would end in catastrophe. In a Belarusian context, this requires a lot of courage.
Is He Working for Moscow?
What motivates the Moscow-born and educated Kabyakou to work for the Belarusian state? Shortly after being appointed ambassador in Moscow he said that he “returned home.” But Kabyakou's Russian identity and loyalty is probably not particularly strong. There are Russians who underwent even more radical transformation and undersigned the Belarusian national project. Among them – one of the leaders of national democrats in early 1990s and today's chairman of the Belarusian Language Society Aleh Trusau.
Personal ambition to get to the top might be also a crucial factor. Kabyakou has managed to do that in Lukashenka's Belarus and he is going to continue serving it. Furthermore, he might defend Belarus's interests even more relentlessly, just to prove that his loyalty lies with the government in Minsk rather than his native Moscow.
To dismiss Kabyakou as Moscow's man is to disregard evidence that proves the opposite. Of course, the murky waters of Belarusian establishment politics make it difficult to analyse. The opposition, however, shall look for possible allies in the future transformation of the country everywhere. This also means among the ruling elite without prejudices to someone's origin or rhetoric.