|This account reflects the experiences and views of the author and
not necessarily those of the Conservative Party or its Human Rights Commission
Belarus: an eyewitness account:Full Account - for summary version
“Mama told me not to come...she said...that ain’t no way to have fun, Son...” Lyrics from a Tom Jones – Stereophonics duet, but also the gist of my conversations with my mother before my trip to Belarus. “Can’t you just book yourself 2 weeks on the Costa del Sol?” chipped in my sister. I could, yes. But fun wasn’t what this was about, and apt as Tom Jones’ words were, the Beatles’ “back in the USSR” was probably a better theme tune for this trip.
For back to its Soviet past is where President Alexander Lukashenko has willingly taken Belarus since his election in 1994. And it’s not just the building of a motorway over the mass grave of 25,000 victims of Stalin at Kurapaty. Planned economy, the KGB, imprisonments, beatings and disappearances of opponents, rigging of elections and suppression of free media and free speech, it all happens here on the border of the EU.
My trepidation at this trip surprised me a little. I’d booked it willingly 2 months before, but only on the train to Luton Airport did it dawn on me that I was going to (roughly speaking) the 10th most repressive dictatorship in the world to watch the aftermath of another farcical exercise in simulated democracy. I had already visited Uzbekistan, a country where freedom is in a far worse state even than Belarus, 18 months before, but here I was actually anxious. A late night flight on a budget airline to Lithuania and a long bus trip over the border into Belarus would provide plenty of time to think about turning back, but I banished those thoughts over my third bottle of Lithuanian beer while passing the time overnight at Kaunas Airport.
The bus to Minsk in the morning, though, provided a real chance to turn back. Or rather, to be turned back. Coming into Belarus, your bags have to be searched by customs at the border. I get my passport stamped and proceed to empty my bags in front of a burly border guard. To my horror what should he pick up but my copy of the previous day’s Times, open at the page of William Hague’s article depicting this living Soviet state in all its horror. Promptly 5 more beefy Belarusians come to pore over my newspaper.
Dumbass. Why hadn’t I thrown the paper away? I think I wanted to show my Belarusian friends that the world cared for them. Why had I not closed the paper? Absentmindedness. Either way, I was sure I was being sent straight back into Lithuania. I was ordered to repack my bags and wait to be interrogated. Interrogation of an Englishman, though, is difficult when nobody speaks English. Myself and a border guard found a common language in German, and so I began the nicey-nicey “Yes, Sir” game with a despot’s henchman. But his German really was not up to the task. “Of course you can have my newspaper,” I said, and was allowed to proceed, giving the guard a courteous “have a nice day” on the way. Then the guards came onto the bus for me, to ask why I was going to Minsk. “To visit a friend,” I said, in German again. The guards seemed happy with that and let the bus proceed with me on it. “Phew,” I thought. It was indeed a good job they had not found the first 3 paragraphs of this article, which I had penned in Kaunas Airport and currently had stuffed inside the inside pocket of my coat.
I honestly do not know how I got away with that one. Either the guard’s lack of linguistic skills gave him an inferiority complex, or he secretly sympathised with the democratic opposition, or there was such a dearth of English knowledge in the guard team that they were still trying to figure out what the article said as my bus was rolling serenely through the blanket-white snow-covered Belarusian countryside.
That drama over, I arrived in Minsk, to be greeted by my friend. Let’s call him A. I had not been lying when I said I was visiting a friend, I just did not tell them that he was an opposition activist!
“Wow, Stalin lives for real,” was my first impression of the aesthetic wasteland of Minsk. Except the tower blocks have been painted blue, green and pink for some simulation of modernity that is about as convincing as Lukashenko’s simulations of democracy.
That said, the metro is pretty decent. It speeds me to A’s flat in quick time. Another friend, B, comes around to set out our plan. It is Friday, and election day is Sunday. It seems that tonight is taken up with a public meeting held by the candidate of the unified democratic forces, Alexander Milinkievich. Tomorrow is taken up with planning for Sunday. Sunday is a whole other adventure.
The public meeting with Milinkievich is the first taste of democracy Lukashenko-style. B’s wife, C, and her friend, D, take me there by metro and minibus. We cram into the back of a crowded theatre hall and can see nothing. Small places such as this are the only ones where the opposition are allowed to gather. In the foyer outside, the girls teach me how to spot an undercover KGB agent. The description seems to fit an inordinate amount of people. Yep, they’re everywhere, the girls confirm. I make a reference to “Soviet times” referring to the past, and C corrects me. “We live in Soviet times.”
After the meeting, a bit of sightseeing: but no photos. Photographing a public building is an offence in Belarus, and in an 80% state-owned economy “public building” can be virtually anything. So it’s a walk along the Svislach River followed by a dinner of the Belarusian speciality “potato pancakes.”
Exhaustion from the journey makes Saturday’s lie-in a long one. I make it to Milinkievich’s planned public meeting at the Minsk Concert Hall, just over the river from the Dynamo Minsk football stadium, but when I get there there seems to be no way of telling whether it is on or not, and it looks too dangerous to have a look. A lot of men in plain clothes just wandering around consulting their collars. The parked cars all seem to have men in them, looking attentively in the direction of the hall. I walk around the front of the hall looking for the entrance: yep, there it is, behind the militia men and the no entry signs. OK, keep walking and come back. When I come back around another side of the building, a man starts walking behind me. I look around and he stops suddenly and turns. Then he consults his collar. I walk along the only side of the building I have not tried – entrances here but nobody going in or out. I decide to walk back to the metro. The boys told me the meeting would probably be cancelled as everyone would be preparing for Sunday, but in all reality it was too dangerous to try to find out.
I use the time before my rendez-vous with the girls to locate the British Embassy in Karl-Marx-Street – militia smothering the entrance – and take a break from the sub-zero chill in McDonald’s, half surprised that such a thing exists here. My Russian stretches to “menu number 2”. Russian. That’s an interesting one. Belarus must be the only country in the world whose own language, flag and symbol are outlawed on its own territory. When Lukashenko came to power he set about restoring the USSR in symbols as well as realities. Belarusian was outlawed in favour of Russian. The white-red-white flag of the shortlived Belarusian Democratic Republic of 1918 and the independent Belarus of 1991-94 was replaced with the old red-green flag of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The national symbol, a byson (“Zubr”) was outlawed and is now the name of a semi-legal youth protest group.
So the girls take me to Saturday’s rock concert. BBC News called this “a low-key gathering of a few thousand people in a suburb of Minsk.” Well they got the suburb bit right. The authorities allowed it in a park in a Minsk suburb because it was the only place where it would go largely unnoticed by the voters. Low-key seems to be inaccurate though. Popular Belarusian bands get up and sing songs about freedom in their outlawed native language. One song chants a list of Belarusian disasters that will never be repeated if freedom comes: Niemiga (a metro station where hundreds of youths died in a stampede and Lukashenko refused an international investigation), Chernobyl, Kurapaty. Thousand of young people who have campaigned in an election while scared witless of the authorities and the KGB let off steam by dancing and swaying, and chanting “Sva-bo-da” (“free-dom”) and “Zy-vie Bie-larus” (“Long Live Belarus”) in betweens songs. Such nationalist slogans are banned by a government that tells its people their best days were as a province of the USSR.
The music stops when Milinkievich arrives. A crowd descends around him and the fans chant “Mi-lin-kie-vich”. This guy is the most courageous of them all. He could be in prison this time next week for the rest of his life but he comes to address the crowds regardless. The bands joke about not being scared of coming out for the opposition because they’ve just been told they’ll have jobs in the Ministry of Culture! Humour in the face of terror, both amusing and depressing. A and B join us midway through the concert with news that more of their organisation’s people have been arrested at their office. “Office” here means one of their flats turned into an office, as public and private landlords are all forbidden to rent office space to opposition organisations.
Sunday rolls again with an ominous inevitability. D-Day. It all goes off today. And the authorities know it. Militia everywhere. I go with A to the polling station. This all seems quite normal, just like Britain really. I love voting – and not just because it’s usually the only relaxing thing about election day. A is the same. Then he remembers that nobody will count his vote for Milinkievich. “They just put most of them into Lukashenko’s pile no matter where the cross is, and divide the rest, and then hand the pre-decided result to the Central Election Commission.” Which, of course, is totally Lukashenko-controlled and completely obedient.
A’s friends have all deserted their flats for the 2 days around the election and taken residence in a flat they have collectively rented in a secret location, so that the authorities cannot find and imprison them. We go to this flat, a flat equipped with 3 laptops, where news will be e-mailed and phoned through to us, then sent to the world by email. Normally election day for me would be spent chasing pledged voters to make sure they have been to the polling station. No such campaign possible here, of course, so the best they can do is tell the world as the travesty of democracy that is Lukashenko’s Belarus unfolds its latest episode.
The plan seems to have come a cropper as all internet connections to Minsk are cut. Of course they are cut. The authorities don’t want news getting out about the planned demonstrations. They don’t want people even to be in Minsk, that’s why classes at universities were cancelled Friday and Monday and students forced to vote early for Lukashenko on pane of being thrown out of university, so that they would then go home to their families in the regions at the weekend. It’s why all routes into Minsk were blocked, except for the thousands of extra militia thugs brought in to bolster the long arm of the law that is attached to Lukashenko’s iron fist. In a brief interlude, the Web comes back. “Hallelujah,” cries B. “And I bet that’s what “our” KGB guy is saying too, hallelujah these idiots finally got on line!” he jokes. But the joy is shortlived as the 3 W’s disappear again. We have to sit around looking out of the window for militia or KGB, and watching the TV news fawning over Lukashenko and laughing at the few drug-addicted youths and western-funded would-be terrorists that we are told make up his opposition, as we wait for 8pm and the start of the demo.
The flat is a veritable barracks. Another 6 incredible young people who have refused to believe all they’ve been told and have opened their eyes to a better life in freedom, and decided to fight for it at great personal risk. E is a Ukrainian Orange Revolutionary, one of the few who managed to sneak into Belarus without being deported or imprisoned. His work didn’t finish on 26th December 2004. The revolution must be exported to Ukraine’s northern neighbour. Nobody is optimistic that it will happen this time, but they are all prepared to try.
After we sneak out for dinner and sneak back, A decides he will stay in the flat for a while and translate the news into English, and take it to an internet café in the suburbs, rather than join the start of the demo, or rather the crowds being blocked off from October Square, as we anticipate. B and E-H go to the demo, while myself, A and the 2 girls, I and J, stay in the flat with laptops. The translation works but the internet does not. At the internet cafe, Hotmail and Yahoo are blocked. It’s getting late and A says the news is that the 30,000 crowd made it to the square and demonstrated without violence from the authorities. The unofficial word is that Putin has told Lukashenko if he uses excessive force against the demonstrators, he will destroy him. Strange. Why would someone like Putin do that, especially to a dictator whom he is propping up with political support and cheap oil and gas? Because, apparently, the West has finally played hardball with Putin. “Either pressure Luka for us, or kiss goodbye to G8 membership and WTO entry talks,” seems to have been the message. So the world’s leaders can do some good after all. When the US, UK, France, Germany, and Italy have all to some extent been playing a “hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil” policy on Putin’s propping up of tyrants in his near abroad, any majority with which to threaten Putin in the G8 is an incredible achievement. Do I sense the hand of the DDR’s most famous daughter, Angela Merkel, in this? Who knows. But my faith in the world order was restored, at least temporarily. As the demo has passed peacefully, the organisers have asked the demonstrators to go home and reassemble tomorrow evening. It’s midnight, sparks have failed to fly and the day peters out. Probably the best of all endings.
I wake on Monday with the sneaking feeling that the drama has not
yet begun. The day unfolds as expected: the official result is
announced, with Lukashenko credited with 82.6% of the vote,
Milinkievich 6% and Alexander Kazulin, a second democratic
candidate, 2.3%. The OSCE have declared the election “deeply
flawed.” The US and EU refuse to recognise Luka as a legitimate
president and say that sanctions are highly likely. The Russian
Foreign Ministry and a monitoring mission from the CIS, made up of
largely of the representatives of some of the world’s most
repressive dictatorships, declares the election free and fair. The
BBC reports the OSCE and CIS missions’ findings as competing equals
and says that while it’s conceivable the vote could have been a
farce, Lukashenko has popular support anyway, and so gives the
impression that it isn’t really bothered. I can detect a sarcastic
BBC glee that the US has not got its man. Independent exit polls put
Luka on 47%, with Milinkievich on 30% and Kazulin 10%, results that
would force a second round. The only official election poll, run by
the state-owned National Academy of Sciences, had called the result
perfectly. Advance information of what the final score would be, no
The main national TV station is showing Lukashenko’s victory press conference, to which only loyal journalists have been invited, and some bright sparks ask whether Milinkievich and Kazulin should be imprisoned. “I think they should, as a personal view” says Luka, “but I will recommend that they are not,” he finishes. How charitable. It is a common ploy to abrogate responsibility. “Hey it’s the judges that put these people in jail.” Under orders. “Hey it’s the people that vote for this constitution where we can imprison peaceful demonstrators.” In rigged and flawed referenda.
So far, so predictable.
Here I feel the need to point a few things out to the BBC. Firstly, "Lukashenko has popular support" - they fail to link this with the media monopoly and complete absence of opposition voices on the media. Secondly. "Lukashenko is credited with stability and a growing economy" - it fails to mention that the economy is only growing because of Putin's propping up of the regime with the supply of Russian oil at about a fifth of market price, and that, in any case, Belarus' GDP per capita and economic performance compared to neighbouring countries Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is shameful, because of its Soviet-era planned economy. The monitoring mission from the CIS? Look at these countries: Russia, propping up the regime; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, dictatorships all and some even worse than Belarus. This is hardly a reliable source.
J is my guide for the afternoon. We are to have a meal at her aunt’s flat before the evening’s action. Her aunt is a hospital dentist, and we get keys from her at the hospital. Hospital: a place with cracked-glass doors and windows, filthy floors and walls with plaster peeling from them. In such conditions are highly skilled dentists with 25 years of experience paid $120 a month expected to work.
On to October Square. I seem to remember saying I wasn’t going to go to this. Luka had said he would wring the necks of revolutionaries, “like a duckling”, and give them up to 8 years in prison or even the death penalty. Yet after last night’s peace and with all the foreign journalists around, it seems quite safe, and we quickly find ourselves in the middle of the crowd, next to the guy with the Ukrainian flag. The gathering crowd are already chanting “Zyvie Bielarus”. The “front” seems to be the steps of the Congress of Trade Unions building. On the top step a youth is waving a “stop Luka” banner with a caricature of the mustachioed dictator. Elsewhere the outlawed white-red-white flags compete with Ukrainian, Lithuanian and EU flags for prominence. All are symbols of what these people want their country to be like. All are a world of improvement away from where Belarus is now. “Zyvie Bielarus” subsides to “Mi-lin-kie-vich” when the man himself arrives. I can pick out the phrases “last dictator in Europe,” “falsifications,” “svaboda” and “zyvie Bielarus” from his speech. I can pick out when he’s asking us to chant “niet” (“no”) to dictatorship. To this, to “sva-bo-da” and to “zy-vie Bie-larus” I gladly chant along, as I remember that as a human being this is my cause too. How else did I get here. Somehow I think I will be chanting these slogans in my dreams for weeks to come. And somehow the Scorpions’ 1991 song Winds of Change about German reunification is stuck in my head, an audio vision of the type of thing this crowd are chanting for.
After Milinkievich comes Kazulin. Then Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party. Luka is only standing in this election because, in an unconstitutional referendum which he unconstitutionally rigged, Luka extended his right to stand beyond the constitutional 2 terms in 2004. The opposition demonstrated at this, and at that demo Lebedko was so badly beaten he nearly died, after the hospital staff were forbidden to treat him.
After him, E speaks to rapturous applause and chanting, and the Ukrainian flag in front of me is shaken violently around on its pole. Then come student leaders. Then comes the leader of the Norwegian Liberal Party, who looks no more than 35, telling the crowd that their struggle is all of Europe’s struggle. Quite. Well said that man.
There is once again no violence at the square. However, shortly before 11, a Milinkievich aide gets up to report that provocations and apprehensions are happening at nearby metro stations and in the streets, as people come and go from the square. That is, away from the cameras and the foreign journalists, away from the world’s eyes. J and myself have long since been joined by A and most of the others, and we debate whether to stay the night on the square or, if not, how to get home without being arrested. For the first time I am actually scared that my worst fears may come true here. The creeping realisation that Luka has pulled off another falsification: making it seem like demonstrators were being left alone and allowed their human right to free speech, while in fact abusing them in the shadows, has forced a chill through our bones as cutting as the icy Siberian wind blowing across the frozen square. The warmth of the crowd and of chanting for freedom is being submerged by the chill of fear.
We can’t stay on the square without sleeping bags or tents. We decide that safety in numbers is the best policy. All 10 of us leave together for the train station, where we will get coffee, and will go home from there. The 10 minute walk is one of the most nerve-racking 10 minutes of my life, as I frantically avoid eye contact with any of the militia men who are swarming the streets. We make the station. As we are drinking, a militia man patrolling the station not so politely informs that we have to leave if we do not have a train ticket. We leave. A and myself take a taxi home, passing the routes to the square, which are all now blocked by militia. The tension is mounting, and my nerves are still buzzing as I head back to bed, speculating in my head at how big an escape I have made.
The full extent of that escape would become clear only days later. It wasn’t known until Tuesday that over 100 demonstrators had actually been arrested already on Sunday night, in the side streets and away from the crowds. Monday had seen similar arrests. I had been convinced that I would simply be deported back to Blighty if I was caught demonstrating, but the imprisonment of Ukrainians and Czechs, of which I read on my return to London, says otherwise.
Tuesday is departure day, and with the tension mounting I have mixed feelings at leaving. People have stayed overnight on the square, and more are expected from the region tonight. Before rushing for my bus, we take a look at the square. A has a sleeping bag in his rucksack. The militia are checking the bag of anyone entering the square, stopping anyone who looks like they might be staying. I can only envision what is going to happen when more and more of both demonstrators and militia turn up that night.
My last bus ride through Minsk is on a bus that is ordered not to stop in the square. As I get on my Kaunas-bound bus, leaving A standing at the bus station, I can’t help wondering what is going to happen to these courageous young people over the next few weeks. A still has a job, but the sackings of opposition activists from their jobs (easily ordered by the government in an 80% state-owned planned economy) tends to happen weeks after the elections, when all the foreigners have gone. They will all try to demonstrate again tonight. Busloads of militia pass my bus as it exits the city. I am leaving a gathering storm as my bus takes me back to Lithuania and I move on through the skies back to London.
What happens to them becomes clear on my return. I exchange emails with A. E has been arrested and imprisoned for 15 days. So too Lebedko and 3 other aides of Milinkievich, on their way back to the square with food. So too had scores more people, even while I had been there on the square, unaware of what was going on in the side streets. A few days later: B has had his flat searched by the KGB and may be facing up to 2 years imprisonment.
Demonstrators camp on the square until Friday, when the militia break up the protest, imprisoning 400 people, many of them beaten. The next day, the anniversary of the formation of the shortlived Belarusian Democratic Republic of 1918, a day celebrated by the opposition but ignored by the regime, which recognizes only Soviet historical landmarks, another demo is staged by those not in prison. Thy march to the detention center where most of the rest are being held, and many of them including Kazulin, are beaten and arrested.
The gathering storm in Minsk is one storm. The other is the international diplomatic storm. Lukashenko is not recognised by any functioning democracy or free country as a legitimate president. Putin has given him public support, of course, but his rumoured intervention at the West’s behest meant that Lukashenko couldn’t carry out his threats of 8-year jail terms and executions. Of course Luka is still president, and of course he still dominates Belarus – this was never going to be Ukraine and nobody expected change this time - but I wonder if he is sleeping a little less easily. More people than ever have shown they are not afraid of him, and if the West keeps intervening his threats may become more and more empty. And nobody is scared of empty threats.
On my return to London I receive a text from a friend who is going on a weekend trip to Riga, asking for advice from someone who has recently been to “the region”. I chuckle, and just draw on my previous experience of Riga. “Mate, 2 things. In Riga the women are all thin and blonde, and you’ll need warm clothes, but basically it’s just like the UK or any other developed western country,” I say. “It may be nextdoor but it’s a different world to Belarus.”In his own little world that he has made of Belarus, Lukashenko still rules. But the world outside is closing in. That, by the way, is a line from Winds of Change.