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Learning Democratic Skills Behind Bars

This week the Belarusian leader vowed to release all political prisoners by the beginning of October. The situation in the country is unlikely to change this time around. However, one day Alyaksandr Lukashenka may realize that by putting people...


This week the Belarusian leader vowed to release all political prisoners by the beginning of October. The situation in the country is unlikely to change this time around. However, one day Alyaksandr Lukashenka may realize that by putting people in jail he is strengthening the country’s democratic potential and educating his potential successors.  Even if they fail to repeat Nelson Mandela’s epic transition “from prisoner to President”, Belarus’ political prisoners are gaining useful political skills behind bars.

Lukashenka has made similar promises on political prisoners before. In fact, Minsk’s behavior toward its political prisoners and its experiments with releasing them serve as a barometer of changes within the authoritarian regime.

At some point Lukashenka felt confident enough to deny the existence of political prisoners in Belarus and claimed there were no political articles in the Belarusian Criminal Code. At another stage he called regular criminals as honest and respectable people in contrast to those who were jailed for political crimes. He even once suggested to send off all of the political prisoners to the European Union. That scenario would probably suit him best as he would be left with a docile population and a decreased amount of Western criticism. 
His approach to the problem varies with Belarus’ economic health and with the width of the presidential wallet. In 2007, two months after the US froze the assets of Belneftekhim (the state-run enterprise in which Lukashenka himself owns a stake), the Belarusian government approached the U.S. Embassy in Minsk and offered to release all political prisoners in return for the lifting of sanctions and then hurried to fulfill its promise. Now Lukashenka needs Western support because his country is undergoing a deep economic crisis. The situation is so dire, that the leader promised to even invite the released opposition activists to a negotiating table.
The number of political prisoners boomed after December 2010 presidential election.  Then around 700 people were arrested, including seven of the nine presidential candidates. Many of these people were not affiliated with any political movement and had no strong political beliefs. Now they certainly do. 
Since then, the political violence in Belarus has acquired a character of lawlessness. Anyone can be accused of breaking one of the growing number of laws designed to stifle dissent and control the people. One need not shout or carry slogans; the arrest need not be conducted by the police. When the plain-clothed thugs are attacking someone in the street, there is a high chance they are not after the money. 
As the regime breaks its own rules, the Belarusians who had not the slightest idea about politics are becoming political prisoners alongside their politically active countrymen. The former are unwittingly learning to appreciate democratic values. The latter are gaining additional political credibility and becoming known to a greater number of people in Belarus and abroad. All will remain to some extent "political", and some may lead the democratic transition or the democratic country in the future.
A record of political persecution will serve to strengthen democratic credentials of the future political leadersThese people need not come from the ranks of the Belarusian National Rada (BNR) in exile, an institution increasingly distant from the actual concerns of Belarusians, or from the ranks of the bickering Belarusian opposition (who, to be fair, have also suffered their share of jail time).
One also hopes that the furure political leaders will not emigrate like the political elite in the 1990s or rush to secure their fortunes in the West like many the students of the European Humanities University have done.  The shared prison experiences will make the people arrested after December 2010 stick together. 
Those who have visited a Belarusian jail have learned to survive. Unlike the people around them, who are still clinging to their jobs and are avoiding political conversations, they are no longer afraid and know all that can happen. The spotlight on their names by the Western news sources will ensure that many of them will apply their new skills to promoting democracy outside prison. 
Four Belarusian activists were freed on Thursday. The regime’s spokesman said they had “recognized their guilt and the unlawful character of their actions” in December 2010. In reality, these people vowed to continue their work. 
Volha Charnysh
Volha Charnysh
Volha Charnysh is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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