Europe prides itself on its democratic credentials. So why is a tiny band of underdog dissidents having such a hard time fighting the continent’s last dictator?
Tom Stoppard, the celebrated playwright, is hailed as a "bard for our times," who has been showered with awards for his work. Yet Sir Tom (Queen Elizabeth II knighted the Czech émigré in 1997) cannot mask the catch in his throat when he tells me about a review the New York Times published on January 17, 2013. The reviewer, Ben Brantley described Minsk 2011 as "beautiful and brutal" and enthused about its "mythic" quality.
"You couldn't hope for a better review, could you?"
Sir Tom is basking in reflected glory. The play is not his, but the work of the Belarus Free Theater, a company that he has long championed that was banned from performing in their homeland because of their daring criticism of Aleksander Lukashenko, the Belarusian autocrat.
Stoppard has also been helping another Lukashenko foe, Andrei Sannikov. The former deputy foreign minister was tortured and imprisoned for standing against Lukashenko in the December 2010 presidential elections. His show trial two years ago came to a dramatic standstill when a letter of support by Tom Stoppard was read out. Sannikov attributes his release (after 16 months in prison) to the playwright's intervention.
But despite their victory, neither the dissident nor playwright is capable of really opposing Aleksander Lukashenko. The man known as Europe's last dictator has held his country in an iron grip for 19 years. Under him, Belarus, a country the size of Kansas, with 9.5 million inhabitants, has earned one of the worst records on political rights and civil liberties in the world. The regime has carefully orchestrated every election and national referendum since 1994.
The first line of the national anthem may proclaim, "We are Belarusians, a peaceful people," but a secret death squad has been in operation since the late 1990s. A dozen members of the opposition have disappeared and a number of activists are thought to be political prisoners.
"Lukashenko's regime has dealt with the opposition by literally murdering a small number of people," Stoppard tells me. The Belarusian KGB (Lukashenko has clung to the old Soviet name and model for his secret police) keeps an eye on their fellow citizens. New laws make that all the easier, especially online, with the government investing heavily in the development of software to track Internet users i.e. 55 percent of Belarusians over the age of 15. Lukashenko has also been orchestrating cyber attacks against activists. On December 19, 2010, the day of the last presidential elections, opposition sites were blocked. By 2 p.m. local time, access to mail and Facebook were blocked, and by 4 p.m. almost all independent websites were inaccessible.
Belarus is Europe's dirty little secret. Its existence should fill Europeans with shame and the European Union with guilt. The institution that likes to grandstand about a common moral purpose and a sterling record on rights has done little to clean up the mess on its doorstep. Belarus may not be a member, but it routinely deals with the European Union -- which actually tends to put its weaknesses on vivid display.
Andrei Sannikov certainly thinks so. Exiled to a town just outside London, he feels at once baffled and frustrated by Western (and in particular European) indifference to his compatriots' plight. Self-interest should prompt them to action, he argues: "Westerners should remember that what happens in Belarus affects them. Lukashenko has established ties with other rogue states around the world, and supplied terrorists with arms. Qaddafi, Iran, Sudan, even Saddam Hussein: Lukashenko has sold arms to them all."
Self-interest does feature in the west's dealings with Belarus. But not in the way Sannikov hopes. E.U. countries like the Netherlands and Latvia buy cheap oil products from Belarusian refineries. In the first six months of last year alone, Lukashenko earned $8 billion from the trade.
The surveillance equipment he uses to spy on his citizens is made by Swedish telecommunication giant Ericsson -- though when confronted by Index on Censorship, Ericsson explained that this was because the company had sold its equipment to Turkcell, a Turkish cell phone operator, which in turn had sold their wares to Belarus.
Britain, meanwhile, last year sold to Belarus some £3 million worth of arms. The government-sponsored Joint Arms Control Implementation Group has invited Belarusian officers later this year to Britain, where they are supposed to receive training in "managing" Belarus's weapons stockpile.
Is it any wonder the Belarusian opposition thinks Europe is propping up the "last dictatorship?" Sannikov persists with his mission: to oust Aleksandr Lukashenko. The West finds it convenient to portray Belarus as a "basket case," he says indignantly, because depicting Belarusians as "passive and brutalized" makes it easier for Europeans to wash their hands of their troublesome neighbors.
It's difficult, despite Sannikov's patriotic fervor, not to view his homeland as a hopeless cause. Belarus has long been a geographical expression, but it only gained independence in 1918 -- and even then for only a few months. Sandwiched between Europe and Russia, Belarus was the center of the Holocaust, according to Timothy Snyder, and the "route number one" for the Nazis' invasion of the USSR in 1941.
One of the founding republics of the old Soviet Union, Belarus played an instrumental part in the USSR's dissolution. But it has never managed to emerge from the Kremlin's orbit. Today it remains sorely dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. A telling sign of Belarusians' weak sense of identity is that most citizens speak Russian rather than Belarusian at home. As for their leader, Lukashenko uses Russian for all official functions -- though the wily dictator may do this to please Vladimir Putin. The two leaders have had their run-ins, though. Only last year, Russian television broadcast an unflattering four part series titled The Godfather, as it dubbed the Belarusian dictator.
The Mafia soubriquet fits only to a point. Lukashenko often plays the clown, Berlusconi-style. When Guido Westerwelle, Germany's gay foreign minister, warned him recently that the European Union would recall their ambassadors from Minsk in protest at his dictatorial regime, Lukashenko replied that "I'd rather be a dictator than gay." Such reckless behavior stems from Lukashenko's knowledge that the West wants to keep Belarus on the side. He ably plays Russia against the European Union and is not above using political prisoners as bargaining chips -- but only, Sannikov claims, because Europe allows it. "They enter into secret negotiations and promise Lukashenko something in return.... It's tit for tat, a loan for a prisoner." (E.U. bilateral assistance to Belarus consisted of 28.50 million Euros in 2012-2013, mostly in the area of environment, education and cross-border cooperation.)
Despite the bleak history of his homeland and the cunning ploys of its dictator, Andrei Sannikov has no time for those who claim Belarusians are not interested in democracy. For Sannikov, democracy is about aspiration, not habit. "When a group of people gather across a kitchen table, or over the factory assembly line, or in a youth group, and talk of making changes -- that is civil society. It exists in Belarus as in North Korea and China. It simply isn't allowed to have legal channels in these countries."
Natalia Kaliada, who with her husband Nikolai Khalezin founded the Free Belarus Theatre, was arrested at the 2010 election protests. She recalls being pulled up into a paddy wagon. "It was one of those specially built ones, to fit 70-80 people. I was shouting, and the police shouted back ‘face the floor, don't look around!' But then I remembered I'd been told that when you are taken, you must immediately collect all the names of those around you, then text them to someone abroad before they take your phone away. I managed to send many names ... but then the police started shouting that they would rape us women and take us into a wood and shoot us."
Kaliada was taken instead to a detention center already full of women protesters. She was released 48 hours later, and escaped through Russia to London. Her family has joined her there.
Like Sannikov, she believes that "so many [Belarusians] have experienced first-hand the brutality of the authorities, they will realize they cannot live with this regime." They will, she firmly believes, turn to the opposition. "Lukashenko controls the media, but there were 30,000 witnesses that day."
Sannikov believes that those 30,000 protesters will soon swell into 300,000. He points to the latest polls, which show that although a third of citizens support Lukashenko, 15 percent now side with the opposition.
He believes he can stoke the fires of democracy from abroad -- with a little help from his friends in the west. His confidence lies in part in Charter'97, the opposition website he helped found. "It can be populist and sensationalist," a former diplomat explains, "but the website is great propaganda. Not only critics of the regime but an awful lot of high-up civil servants and government ministers are reading the site."
Sometimes, Sannikov points out, grinning, "regime officials quote from the website... even on air. The internet means we can work abroad but reach those inside."
But Charter'97 alone will not transform Belarus. Sannikov calls on the West to help him and the opposition by adopting tougher sanctions. The recalling of ambassadors was one step. The European Commission also has drawn up a list of "undesirables" who may not cross its frontiers, and whose assets in the E.U. will be frozen.
Marietje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who has long campaigned for a more robust E.U. stance in regards to Belarus, admits that none of the European Union's "restrictive measures have had much impact on the policies or actions of the Belarusian government. On April 1, 2013, their foreign minister [Vladimir Makei] said his country was ready for dialogue with the E.U. -- but without any pressure or threat of sanctions."
When targeted sanctions, and his own heroic opposition, fail to dent a dictatorship, what can Sannikov do?
Exchange students, scout trips, cycle tours, and spa tourism: Greater exchange with the West, at every level of society, will make the Belarusian people "see for themselves freedom of speech, of the press, the rule of law. They won't accept their oppression anymore."
Sannikov wants to persuade the European Union to change their visa requirements: Traveling abroad is allowed -- but to date the West has made it difficult, as obtaining a visa is time-consuming and expensive. This may change, according to Marietje Schaake. The European Union wants to start negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements for the public at large. The Belarusian government has not yet replied to the offer, and Schaake says this speaks volumes for Lukashenko's desire for isolation. "After all," she argues, "the dogma and doctrine is easily challenged when people experience a higher quality of life abroad."
While Lukashenko mulls over his options -- can he afford to tweak Europe's nose once more? Will Vladimir repudiate him if he doesn't? -- Sannikov believes his own role is to keep Belarus on the international agenda.
It will be difficult, Tom Stoppard warns: "What are a handful of murders in comparison to the massacres we see daily in Syria? What are a dozen disappeared in comparison to the scenes of destruction of the Arab Spring?" He pauses. "But there is one reason why Belarus should matter to us: This is Europe."