Dispatch

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."

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

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