In the wake of a terrorist bombing and a massive devaluation, the president of Belarus addressed his nation Thursday.
Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko gave a three hour state of the nation speech Thursday. But he did not talk about this week’s 50 percent devaluation of the national currency or reveal motives behind the massive metro bomb of 10 days ago.
While Belarusians waited for hours in lines outside exchange shops, their leader blamed Western countries for trying "to strangle the country with a slipknot”"
European Council on Foreign Relations Belarus expert Jana Kobzova said the tactic of blaming others is a key to the 17 year rule of a man often called "the last dictator in Europe." "The key to his surviving is making sure that others are blamed - and that is exactly what the speech was about: blaming the West," Kobzova said.
But economists blame the devaluation on President Lukashenko. They say he went on a liberal spending spree to buy support prior to the December 19 presidential election. A key plank in his election platform was: no devaluation.
The Belarus leader also did not clarify motives behind last week’s bombing of the Minsk metro. Timed to explode at a rush hour, the shrapnel filled bomb killed 13 and wounded 203. Police say they have arrested five people in their 20s, largely from Vitebsk, a city close to the Russian border.
Speaking immediately after the bombing, President Lukashenko ordered police: "Detain and question, don’t pay any attention to any kind of democracy and the wails and groans of the pathetic Westerners."
Speaking Thursday, he said only: "This act of terror has thus far not led us to any politician, criminal or bandit."
In this information vacuum, conspiracy theories fill the Belarus Internet, a free speech corner in a highly policed society. In a poll by Tut.bu, the country’s leading news website, about 60 percent of respondents blamed the bombing on the government.
Referring to conspiracy theories, President Lukashenko blasted his political opposition and the nation’s tiny opposition press for "dancing on the bones" of the metro victims.
The nation’s lone opposition newspaper, Nasha Niva, has received two government warnings for its subway bombing coverage. The next warning could lead to its closure.
President Lukashenko said the bombers learned their techniques from the Internet. He said they were emboldened by the atmosphere prior to the Dec. 19 presidential election, a time when "there was so much democracy, it was just sickening."
Lukashenko told Belarusians that his government is undergoing a temporary break with Europe and that relations will improve.
In reality, the US and the European Union are considering adding 19 names to a list of Belarusian officials banned from traveling to the west. President Lukashenko tops a list of 158 government officials, drawn up after western observers reported widespread fraud in the presidential election.
In his speech, the Belarus leader frequently blurred that distinction between himself and the nation. "He says ‘the West hates Belarus’, meaning that the West hates Lukashenko. That is what he is always complaining about," Kobzova said.
After the election, police arrested seven of the nine opposition candidates. On Wednesday, Andrei Sannikov, the candidate who came in second, is to go on trial on charges that could bring 15 years in jail. Sannikov, a former Belarusian diplomat has not been seen in public since his arrest four months ago.
With 15 other opposition figures scheduled to go on trial next week, the Belarus leader vowed Thursday to smash any "fifth column" - those secretly trying to undermine his government.