News / Europe

Analysts: Belarus Moves From Authoritarian to Totalitarian

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the Parliament during an annual state of the nation speech in Minsk, April 21, 2011
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the Parliament during an annual state of the nation speech in Minsk, April 21, 2011
James Brooke

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, long called the last dictator of Europe, is cracking down even harder on freedoms of speech, assembly and representation.

Struggling with an economic crisis, Lukashenko seems to be taking his country back to its totalitarian past - as a Soviet socialist republic.

Last week, he closed the last two opposition newspapers in the country. An editor of one, Narodnaya Volna, vowed to keep printing, either in exile or underground, echoing the samizdat  [clandestine dissident] printing of the Soviet Union.

Then, Andrei Sannikov, a leading democratic politician, went on trial, standing with other democracy activists in a barred cage in a Minsk courtroom. His mother whispered to a foreign reporter that her son was going through a "show trial."

Stifling dissension

On Tuesday, the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, KGB agents greeted people attending an unofficial rally. Agents searched and photographed each participant.

For Natalia Koliada, a theater director who fled Belarus after last December’s post-election crackdown, the trials and newspaper closings make clear the increasingly totalitarian nature of the country's long-running dictatorship.

Speaking from New York, she said, "Finally the world understood that after 17 years of Lukashenko’s existence in power, that he is the last dictator in Europe."

President Lukashenko’s fear of free speech and assembly comes as anecdotal reports indicate many people believe that government agents were behind the April 11 Minsk metro bombing that killed 14 people and wounded 200. The president portrays the suspects as apolitical young men fascinated with explosives.

Sowing suspicion

Jana Kobzova, Belarus expert for the European Council on Foreign Relations, sees great skepticism on the Belarus Internet.

"It’s a lack of trust to the government. And I think if I were Lukashenko, I would be totally alarmed," said Kobzova. "Because basically he didn’t manage to sell well what he offered as an explanation, which means there are people who just don’t believe him any more."

Last week, a former Belarus KGB colonel, Vladimir Borodach, told Russia's NTV television that the two suspects "were used as mules who simply carried the bags."

Speaking from exile in Germany, he charged that the men were asked by the KGB to carry out the strike in a bid to deflect attention from the nation’s mounting economic problems. On Friday, the two men, still not publicly identified, were formally charged with terrorism - charges that can carry the death penalty.

Koliada agrees with this theory, saying, "I do believe it happened only because authorities wanted to take away attention of people of Belarus from economic problems."

Economic woes

Lukashenko clearly is feeling pressure. Last week, when asked by reporters why he did not attend a Chernobyl memorial ceremony in neighboring Ukraine, he lashed out, using locker room vulgarities to describe foreign political leaders.

As he spoke, the value of the Belarusian ruble fell, losing about half of its purchasing power in two days. With only enough hard currency to pay for two months of imports, Belarusians are seeing imported goods vanish from store shelves.

More importantly, factories are shutting down because managers are unable to buy imported parts. The state statistics office reports that the import shortages forced Belarusian companies last week to lay off 600,000 people -13 percent of the nation’s total work force.

UBS bank economist Jonathan Anderson said Belarus currently has the world’s fastest credit growth - and the fastest growing external deficit.

"This is patently and even rabidly unsustainable the way the numbers are shaping out now and you can’t just run an economy like this too long before you actually hit the abyss," said Anderson.

Moscow intervention

Moscow says that it will probably extend a $3-billion loan to Belarus this month - eight months after Minsk first made the request. Russia seems to be moving slowly in hopes of buying Belarus state assets on the cheap. Russia wants to buy Belarus’ oil refinery and its energy export pipelines.

Moscow is talking about extending the Russian ruble zone to include Belarus. But Anderson, speaking from Hong Kong, said Moscow’s planned loan would only buy Belarus six months before it is broke again.

"We have got a pretty fast moving train, right? And the tracks seem to end up ahead. That is the worry we have," said Anderson.

No help is expected from the West.

Last January, the U.S. and the European Union imposed travel restrictions on President Lukashenko and 158 aides.

Additional sanctions possible

Next week, the European Union is to debate matching American sanctions on two state companies that provide Belarus with most of its hard currency earnings [from sales of potash - a substance used in fertilizers - and petroleum products].

Kobzova talked last week with Belarus experts in Brussels. "EU will press hard with the economic sanctions if the political trials continue. That is the clear message that comes these days, and they are ready to do it."

At present, 12 political activists are on trial in Belarus. A second group goes on trial this week. At the same time, the main opposition party - the Belarusian People’s Front - is losing its headquarters, one of the last remaining venues in the capital for opposition events.

With an economic crisis bound to increase social tensions in the coming months, Lukashenko seems to be regressing to a political atmosphere familiar from his youth - creating a Soviet Belarus. He has ordered Belarus police to speed up completion of a project to fingerprint all adult men in the nation.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid