Just last month, the authorities confiscated all of Viasna's property and boarded up its office. Activists say that there are just 12 political prisoners left in the country (including Bialiatski). But that attests less to the lack of critical voices than to the benumbing effectiveness of Lukashenko's police state. Seven people who tried running against Lukashenko in the last presidential election in 2010 ended up under arrest; one of them, Mikolau Statkevich, is still in jail.
Lukashenko, it appears, actually likes having a few political prisoners around. They make great bargaining chips whenever he needs to negotiate with the European Union, which is perpetually pestering him about his miserable human rights record. "It's like a sort of trade in people," says Tatsiana Reviaka, a member of Viasna. "He tells them, ‘You give us a loan, we'll free a political prisoner.'" Not surprisingly, the European Union has little to show for its efforts. Brussels has been nudging Lukashenko to allow greater freedom for his people now for the past 18 years.
But, aside from these minor concessions from the dictator, the situation remains virtually unchanged. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that there are still plenty of E.U. countries (notably the Netherlands and Latvia) that are eager to buy cheap oil products from Belarusian refineries. In the first six months of this year alone Lukashenko earned $8 billion from the trade. Those hard currency earnings constitute a crucial lifeline for the dictator. If the European Union really wanted to hit Belarus where it hurts, this would be the perfect place to crack down. So it's no wonder that the high-minded lectures from Brussels aren't having much effect.
The reason has a great deal to do with the peculiar geopolitical position of Belarus, sandwiched between the European Union and Putin's Russia -- a country that, needless to say, tends to share Lukashenko's views on human rights. But their ideological similarities don't necessarily mean that Moscow and Minsk see eye to eye on everything.
Lukashenko is too slippery a customer for that. His dependence on Moscow, which supplies virtually all of Belarus's energy needs, is great. (Moscow has been known to shut off the flow of natural gas when Lukashenko gets too feisty.) But he has proven a master at playing East and West against each other. The Belarusian dictator knows perfectly well that the Europeans don't want to see him slip farther into Moscow's orbit, while Putin is reluctant to relinquish any of his influence over Minsk. It's a delicate balancing act, but the fact that Belarus has successfully resisted handing over more of its sovereignty to Moscow for so long attests to the success of the strategy.
This also explains why the Lukashenko system has managed to stay in place for so long. He has exploited the curse of geography to keep himself in power. There is nothing about Belarusians that ought to make them inherently different from other Europeans. But their place in Europe has dealt them a bad hand.
I've been to Belarus. It's a beautiful country, green and lush (in the summer). The people are well-educated, friendly, and cosmopolitan. Yet history has not been kind to this particular bit of real estate. There's a reason historian Timothy Snyder titled his book about Belarus and the areas that surround it Bloodlands. In the 1930s and 1940s, its people have seen -- in quick succession -- Stalin's terror, Nazi invasion and occupation, the Germans' scorched-earth retreat, and the return of Soviet power. The Holocaust and the Gulag have both left their lasting imprint. Minsk, the capital, basically ceased to exist during the war. Eighty percent of it was destroyed.