"The KGB came to search our apartment," says Natalia Pinchuk, an elegant 48-year-old whose fair hair gives her a distinctly Nordic air. "They were looking for material to use in the case, but they didn't find anything." Last year, secret police grabbed her husband, human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, off a street in Minsk, the capital of the Belarusian police state. They packed him off to jail, where he remains today; he's now serving out a four-and-a-half-year sentence. (She last saw him in May, but further visits have been canceled by the prison authorities -- allegedly on grounds of "bad behavior.") The ostensible charge was tax evasion, but everyone knows what his real crime was: Bialiatski runs an organization that provides aid to political prisoners in the former Soviet republic.
The KGB? Political prisoners? Wait a minute. Isn't this 2012? The Soviet Union broke up 21 years ago. Today, Belarus's three neighbors to the West -- Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia -- are all members of the European Union and NATO. The citizens of these countries regularly elect new leaders through democratic, multiparty elections. They have free media, independent courts, and myriad institutional checks and balances.
In Belarus, population 10 million, President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He recently gave an interview to foreign journalists in which he boasted of his status as "the last and only dictator in Europe." Under his rule, Belarus has preserved Soviet-era organizations like the Young Communist League and the Young Pioneers. And yes, the KGB -- the Committee for State Security -- still proudly operates under its old name. (The organization's website includes a number for a telephone "helpline," presumably for use by upstanding citizens eager who are eager to inform on their neighbors.) Even Vladimir Putin's Russia felt compelled to rename its internal security service. Not so Belarus; there's much about the place that harks back to the days of Brezhnev.
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The United Nations may have observed Human Rights Day earlier this week, but Minsk clearly didn't get the memo. Lukashenko, who got his start in politics as the director of a collective farm, cultivates a public persona that is equal parts gangster and a clown. He takes his seven-year-old son Myakaly along to his meetings with visiting dignitaries and suits him up in a miniature officer's uniform (complete with his own little gold pistol) for military parades.
The buffoonery is deceptive. This is a man with a shark-like understanding of power. When Belarusians started campaigning against his regime back in the 1990s, a prominent journalist and two of Lukashenko's leading political opponents simply disappeared. The government launched a half-hearted investigation, but, oddly enough, no trace of the men has ever been found.
Potential critics got the message. The opposition is still alive, but just barely. Two years ago they managed to bring significant crowds onto the streets to protest a rigged presidential election. Lately they've resorted to some innovative tactics, like the so-called clapping protests. Even those who participated in these innocuous activities met with a brutal response from club-wielding police. (And that stunt by Swedish sympathizers, who airlifted teddy bears adorned with pro-democracy messages into the country this past summer, certainly drummed up some welcome publicity. Lukashenko was so angry that he fired two generals for the presumed lapse in the country's air defense system.) But they've faced an uphill battle -- actually something more akin to a perfectly vertical wall -- in their efforts to garner support.
Bialiatski's group, called Viasna ("Spring") Human Rights Center, has been decimated by the government's assault. (At one point, the KGB even arrested his 23-year-old son, Adam; he was later released, and now lives in Poland.) Bialiatski himself could have left before his arrest; it was clear where things were headed. "Everyone told him to leave," says Zhanna Litvina, a leading Belarusian journalist. (Her group, the Belarus Association of Journalists, won a Sakharov Prize in 2004.) "But he said, 'This is my country. I'm not guilty of anything. I'm not running away.'"
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.
This sad backstory, combined with Lukashenko's undeniable skill at intrigue, helps to explain why Belarus has ended up where it is. The majority of Belarusians clearly aren't happy with their present situation, but most now respond by hunkering down. Independent polling suggests that around 30 percent still support Lukashenko, while 15 percent side with the opposition; the rest have sunk into a profoundly apolitical apathy. Many Belarusians are voting with their feet, thronging into the European Union for any jobs they can find. (One big difference from Soviet days is that people can now travel more or less freely -- as long as they can get visas.) "We're a country of partisans," says Reviaka wryly. "We're very good at hiding in the bushes."
Perhaps. But there's no question that many Belarusians would welcome a way out of their current stagnation. The European Union already has a Nobel Prize of its own. How about giving Bialiatski a Nobel Prize? Now that would send a breath of fresh air through this musty corner of Europe.