Bad Times in Belarus

Could protests and a lousy economy topple dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko? Or are his thugs just too efficient?

MINSK, Belarus — This past Sunday, July 3, was Independence Day, as good a time as any to witness the extraordinary levels of both bizarreness and brutality that characterize Belarus, the country that everyone loves to call "Europe's last dictatorship." On the damp, overcast morning, a parade of ballistic missiles on trucks, thousands of troops in lock step, and a man dressed as a giant basketball was overseen by a 6-year-old boy in full military regalia. In the evening, over 200 people were arrested, and many of them beaten up, simply for applauding. Welcome to Minsk.

The parade was standard post-Soviet authoritarian military pornography, with plenty of tanks and phallic hardware paraded through the streets, as well as flyovers by helicopters and military jets. Thousands of costumed schoolchildren performed synchronized dancing routines (that wouldn't have looked out of place in Pyongyang) to patriotic music piped through loudspeakers. Then things really took a turn for the surreal, as the Belarusian national break-dancing team jigged their way past the podium, followed by hockey players and farm tractors festooned with novelty hats (the man tractor) and luscious lips (the lady tractor).

If any further evidence was required of just how out of touch with reality the regime is, it was to be found on the podium itself. There was President Aleksandr Lukashenko, in full military uniform, and alongside him several grizzled army generals, all giving salutes to the passing columns of tanks. But at his hip was his 6-year-old son, Nikolai, probably born to Irina Abelskaya, the dictator's personal doctor. Lukashenko doesn't get invited abroad often, but when he does, Nikolai goes with him -- he sat in on a meeting with the pope in 2009. The child has also taken part in cabinet meetings, and the 56-year-old Lukashenko has hinted he is grooming him for an eventual takeover.

If things keep going the way they have been, though, little Nikolai is unlikely to get his chance. A crippling financial crisis has seen purchasing power halved, prompting increasing waves of protest in the tightly controlled country. The panic buying of months ago has abated, but the country is in desperate need of currency and it's unclear where it will come from.

"Lukashenko is in a difficult position," says Alexander Feduta, an analyst who in the 1990s briefly worked on the president's team, but ever since has been part of the opposition and spent three months in jail this year. "Europe won't give him money without democracy, which he can't do, and Russia won't pay without gaining control of state assets, which he also doesn't want to do." Belarus has also been sniffing around the IMF for a loan, but this will not be forthcoming without major changes to the neo-Soviet structure of the country's economy.

The main factor driving discontent in Belarus at the moment is economic. The active political opposition has always been there, organizing small protests after elections and traveling to EU capitals trying to drum up support -- but Lukashenko has counted on the support of the more than half the population who took his mantra of economic stability and the "Belarusian miracle" at face value. After all, life in Belarus wasn't horrific as long as you didn't want to enter politics, start an innovative business, or earn enough money to travel and see the world. Salaries were stable if low, nobody starved to death, and the cities tended to be better kept and more pleasant than, say, an average Russian provincial town.

There was no miracle, however, just lots of Russian subsidies. Now they have stopped coming, the economy is collapsing, and support is deserting Lukashenko fast. With most of the leading opposition politicians in jail or exile after protests following last December's rigged presidential election, the protests have moved online, via Twitter and ad hoc groups on the Russian social networking site VKontakte.

But some protesters do demonstrate out in the open; every Wednesday people gather in the center of Minsk and other cities, and without any chants or banners, simply smile and clap their hands. On Sunday, because it was Independence Day, an extra protest was organized. A few hundred people gathered outside Minsk's railway station and began clapping. The response was quick.

The thugs came in a three-tier hierarchy. There was the rank and file, most of whom had shaven heads and wore tracksuits or leather jackets. There were several hundred of these men, who roamed around in packs plucking "clappers" at random from the crowd and dragging them off to waiting buses. Anyone who offered resistance was punched or kicked. The midtier thugs comprised a few dozen men wearing ill-fitting shiny suits and earpieces (picture a bouncer outside a provincial Russian nightclub), some ostentatiously filming the faces of everyone taking part. At the top of the pyramid were a few men wearing slick Italian suits and ties, pacing up and down with walkie-talkies and directing their gangs of thugs. The overall effect was sinister in the extreme.

Journalists were dragged away and arrested along with protesters. At one point, I was shoved in the chest by one of the thugs; I showed him my Belarusian journalist accreditation, to which he responded "That means nothing to me." He pushed me harder.

Some of those arrested were given fines or 15-day jail terms for "swearing in public," a farcical charge rendered rather ironic by the fact that the only people I heard swearing the whole time I was at the protest on Sunday were the police and the thugs themselves.

On Wednesday, around 400 people were arrested again. For the first time, the protest coordinators told people to mass in nine different locations, hoping the smaller actions would flummox the police. No such luck: Groups of the sinister young men were dispatched to all the locations to make arrests. The brutal response to what are still small protests is presumably designed to ensure that people remain terrified of coming out to protest en masse, and for now it is working. Why risk 15 days in jail and a possible beating simply for smiling and clapping your hands? But as Belarusians take to the Internet and see what is going on, more and more are becoming disgusted.

There are dozens of videos like this one, of sinister thugs detaining people who are quite clearly not behaving provocatively. Or this footage from Wednesday of a policeman shouting through a loudspeaker, "Citizens! Your event has not been sanctioned!" into the faces a few middle-age men and women sitting quietly on a bench, before calling in the thugs to drag the men to the ground, causing one to have a fit and pass out. It sounds like a dystopian vignette from a Harold Pinter play, not something that would really happen in 2011 in a European capital city. Lukashenko's propaganda machine was always reasonably successful at portraying the opposition as traitorous opportunists sucking on the teat of nefarious Western secret services, but footage of normal people being beaten up for no reason at all is turning public opinion more and more against the regime.

The authorities have also taken the battle against the protesters online. During Wednesday's protests, several fake Twitter accounts appeared, spewing nonsense and false information with dozens of tweets carrying the #minsk and #6julby hashtags that those taking part in the protests were using to keep tabs on events. A fake account for the Interfax news agency put out headlines like "Rights activists say that the police have acted impeccably." Having tweeted actively from Minsk for a few days, I found myself on the government's radar as well. My real Twitter account was cloned to make a fake account with a slightly altered username -- which tweeted once a minute in Russian during the protest period, spewing out pithy bits of advice like "Don't provoke the police." Any real information about what was happening at the protests was soon buried in a mountain of spam tweets, meaning that those seeking advice on where to go using the hashtags were at a loss. Here again, the authorities are probably fighting a losing battle, temporarily annoying and inconveniencing the activists, but no more than that. This is not North Korea: In a wired, Net-savvy country, the attempts at online repression are likely to backfire.

The activists here predict that victory will come in autumn, as the economy continues to degenerate and more and more people feel they have more to gain than to lose by taking to the streets. Already there has been something of a return to the Soviet experience where hard currency is impossible to obtain. Belarusians have emptied the foreign exchange kiosks of dollars and euros; now anyone who wants to get their hands on "real money" has to call phone numbers they find online and do transactions at illicit black-market rates. The frantic buying of basic foodstuffs, which briefly occurred a month ago, has stopped, but few believe Lukashenko's repeated promises that within a couple of months everything will be back to normal. Nobody really knows what "victory" would look like or who might replace Lukashenko, but the desire for change of some kind is spreading. Several young people with whom I spoke in Minsk said that whereas a year or two ago they were completely apolitical, now they felt things had to change, and there is a sense of momentum about the weekly protests. It would be a stretch to say that the Arab Spring has prompted the Belarusian protests, but certainly the toppling of regimes that previously seemed untouchable gives the opposition here hope and sustenance.

As everything started going off last Wednesday, one of the Twitter accounts carrying news about the protests tweeted the famous Gandhi quote: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."



Poland's 'Vietnam Syndrome' in Afghanistan

A high-profile war crimes trial points out the dangerous divide between America and its allies on the ground in Afghanistan.

GHAZNI, Afghanistan – Europe's first war crimes trial involving the Afghanistan war concluded last month when a jury acquitted seven Polish soldiers of attacking civilians in eastern Paktika province in 2007. Ever since the soldiers were arrested on Nov. 13, 2007, "Nangar Khel Syndrome," named after the town where the incident occurred, has reportedly become the scourge of Poland's soldiers in the Afghan arena. But the problem may be less a brothers-in-arms response to a single, unfortunate event and more a broad cultural difference between U.S. and European troops that threatens to undermine their ability to support the United States in Afghanistan and in future wars as well.

The travails of the Polish military may seem like a sideshow to the central action of the Afghanistan war, but Poland's fighting ability still matters to its American allies. After President Barack Obama's announcement that 10,000 U.S. soldiers will be withdrawn by the end of the year and the remainder of the "surge" troops will exit Afghanistan by next summer, Poland's contingent of more than 2,000 troops will need to assume greater responsibility in the southeastern province of Ghazni. (After Obama's announcement, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he would also ask his defense secretary to prepare a plan to reduce Polish troops in line with the U.S. drawdown, but he did not give specifics.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also asked Poland to contribute to the war in Libya, has griped about NATO's "dim, if not dismal future" unless Europe increases its military capabilities. As a result, Europe's political battles over the proper application of force promise to resonate as far afield as Washington and Kabul.

The Nangar Khel trial was, of course, an important look into a sad moment in the Afghanistan war. In August 2007, a Polish patrol is reported to have come under attack from a local village and returned fire with mortar rounds, one of which exploded inside a compound, killing six civilians, including a pregnant woman and some children. The defense claimed the casualties were an accident, but the prosecution painted the soldiers as killers looking for retribution after the death of the first Polish soldier in Afghanistan just a few days before. A national uproar ensued after the accused appeared in handcuffs on the covers of newspapers, alongside headlines that read: "Blood on the uniform."

Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich has defended the soldiers' innocence since late 2007, and his ministry has poured several hundred thousand dollars into their defense. This year, Klich also issued a directive clarifying the law that guides the use of force by Polish troops.

"The worst thing before was that we never knew if we were right or not, according to the law, in using force," said Polish Brig. Gen. Slawomir Wojciechowski, commanding general of the Polish contingent in Afghanistan. "In the past, soldiers sometimes decided it was easier to be hurt or dead than to act and be potentially jailed because you reacted to something. It wasn't fair to send people here without the proper rules of engagement. Now they have it."

But the whole process left Polish soldiers with a sour aftertaste. Many believed that they could no longer count on their leaders to protect them, and some critics said the accused low-ranking soldiers were being used as political pawns. As one Polish intelligence officer told me, "There's a sense that American soldiers have lawyers for the purpose of defending them, while Polish soldiers have lawyers for the purpose of prosecuting them."

The result, at least anecdotally, has been a challenge to Polish resolve in the field. "When they are out in the open and being shot at, there were no issues: They will shoot back. It was when they were in the towns that they wouldn't return fire," says Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicolae Bunea, who was part of a team of U.S. soldiers tasked with assisting Poland as it assumed control of Ghazni in 2008. "If there was even a chance of killing a civilian, they wouldn't shoot."

Bunea, sometimes the lone American accompanying a Polish patrol, says there were engagements in which he was the only one who returned fire -- and that the Nangar Khel prosecutions were the reason why. "I would try to explain to them, 'You're with me -- if I shoot, you need to shoot too,'" says Bunea. "They were afraid of going to jail. They were always thinking about [Nangar Khel]. They would say, 'You don't understand -- I go to jail if I kill people.'"

Clearly, Polish soldiers in Afghanistan were thinking about the trial and its repercussions when I visited in April and May. On a mission in late April in Ghazni, I overheard a Polish soldier cautioning his buddy to double-check the safety on his weapon: "Or it might be straight to Poznan for you."

The nervous chuckle in response belied what all soldiers fear: the military prison in the town of Poznan, Poland, where their comrades were held.

Klich said U.S. Army Col. Martin Schweitzer, who was then the Brigade Combat Team commander for seven battalions in the region, including the Polish battle group, told him at the time that American soldiers make similar mistakes far more frequently.

"Although they used different techniques and procedures than we would have used, from everything I've looked at and all the feedback I've gotten since this action occurred, I thought their actions were certainly within the realm of acceptable. It was not out of the norm," Schweitzer said on June 20. "It was proportional. They were taking lethal fire."

Schweitzer, now the deputy commander for operations of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, also expressed concern about the effects of the prosecution on Polish military morale.

"I absolutely appreciate government making sure that their soldiers perform in a way that represents their nation," he said. But "I was concerned that the reaction from the rest of the troops would be ‘Well then, we can't go ahead and continue to separate the enemy from the people.'"

This sentiment was echoed by U.S. political officers who worked with the Polish contingent in Afghanistan. "They were being micromanaged by Warsaw," said Michael Keays, a U.S. State Department representative in Ghazni for most of 2008, who worked extensively with the joint U.S.-Polish provincial reconstruction team, which facilitated Polish-American cooperation in the region.

One U.S. Army captain who spent the past six months as a liaison officer with the Polish battle group in Ghazni said the Polish soldiers are now less inclined to report the use of lethal force. "They don't always report their sig-acts," he explains, referring to "significant actions" involving loss of life. This has inevitably resulted in a string of Polish dispatches with "nothing to report."

While Poles and Americans both work and fight just as hard, the Nangar Khel affair and its legacy have highlighted a deep cultural divide when it comes to the lethal use of force.

When I joined a planned mission to seize a weapons cache in a restive nearby village in the Deh Yak district of Ghazni province, one U.S. platoon sergeant briefed his soldiers with: "If you see a fucking dude holding a weapon, you fucking hose him down!"

Meanwhile, on a mission to search a village in Waghez district, also near the Ghazni city center, the Polish platoon sergeant's brief was far more circumspect: "If we receive fire, we return fire, but always remember these two things: positive identification of the target and proportional use of force."

"When I go home and tell people that I killed bad guys they look at me as though I am mentally ill. Like I need to be locked up," one Polish Army captain told me. "That's why I like talking to the Americans. With them you can be honest about what you did and they will think you're a great hero. They thank you for your service. The Polish people don't understand this is what we're sent here to do. They don't want to hear it."

Dispelling "Nangar Khel Syndrome" will become increasingly vital as Obama proceeds with his plans for a troop drawdown. In fall 2010, a U.S. infantry battalion from Fort Knox deployed as part of the surge to the eastern districts of Ghazni province. These troops have seen constant fighting since their arrival, and it's unclear whether they will be replaced after their deployment is up in October. If they aren't, the Poles will be expected to pick up the slack.

A solid majority of Poles are opposed to the war in Afghanistan, which has soured them on the United States. But Poland resides both literally and figuratively between Russia and the West, and Brig. Gen. Wojciechowski voiced his hopes that Polish participation in the Afghanistan campaign would tie Warsaw closer to Washington and Brussels.

"I remember my colleagues at the U.S. Army War College.… I was always really surprised that they still saw me as a Warsaw Pact guy," he said, referring to the Soviet-era defense pact of communist states. "The Warsaw Pact has not existed for years, we are all NATO now and yet they still saw me as someone from behind the Iron Curtain. It just comes from lack of knowledge. The greatest achievement of our generation will be the day when they no longer refer to me as 'former Warsaw Pact.'"

Poland has been the one mainland European country out front in the war on terrorism -- but the split between U.S. and Polish forces on the ground indicates how far the alliance may still have to go. As Washington pushes other countries to help it complete a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should pay heed to the domestic consequences its allies are paying for their service.

U.S. military leaders speak effusively about Polish capability and motivation, but politicians on both sides often overlook what should otherwise be the next notable "special relationship" between the United States and Europe. Washington must not only win hearts and minds in Ghazni -- it must win them in Warsaw too.