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Belarus: Analysis From Washington -- A Past That Can't Be Expunged

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Vandals have destroyed a monument near Minsk to the victims of Stalin-era mass murders in Belarus, an official of the opposition Belarusian People's Front said this week.

Vladimir Yukho suggested that this action appears to represent an attempt to expunge from the record one of the most notorious events in Belarusian history and one of the most important sources of the Belarusian national movement over the last two decades.

Yukho noted that the small granite memorial presented to the people of Belarus by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton when he visited that site in 1994 had served as a focal point for the Belarusian opposition.

The discovery in the 1980s of the Kuropaty mass graves helped to power the rise of the Belarusian democratic movement. Activists of the People's Front say that the graves, located in a forest near the national capital, contain the remains of hundreds of thousands killed in the 1930s. But officials of the current Belarusian regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka have attempted to play down the importance of Kuropaty and insist that there are no more than 7,000 dead buried there.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the defacement of this monument, and no one has been arrested or identified as a suspect. But the significance of this monument for the country's democratic movement and the timing of this attack may lead at least some in the Belarusian opposition to suspect that supporters of Lukashenka have somehow been involved. If that is in fact the case, recent history suggests, no one is ever likely to be charged or convicted of this crime.

That will certainly have consequences because from the time of the discovery of the mass graves at Kuropaty, they have been one of the prime motivating factors behind the country's national and democratic movements. Indeed, most activists in those movements over the last decade have sought to honor the Kuropaty site, frequently insisting that people coming to Belarus must go there to understand that country and its past.

Indeed, as Yukho made clear to Western news agencies this week, Belarusian democrats were at the site as recently as last week and thus are in a position to date more or less precisely when the destruction of the monument took place. Moreover, the fact that the American government erected this monument is for many Belarusian democrats a symbol of the interest of the West in Belarusian independence and democracy.

Consequently, many democratic activists there are certain to blame the Lukashenka regime and its supporters for this action -- all the more so since the destruction of this monument took place just as the Belarusian opposition has joined forces to advance a single candidate to run against Lukashenka in presidential elections now scheduled for 9 September.

So far, the destruction of the Kuropaty monument has attracted relatively little attention in either the Belarusian or international media. But because of its centrality in the life of many Belarusians, the demolition of this monument may have consequences very different than some might expect and lead to greater activism by the democratic opposition in Belarus.

Indeed, this action in Belarus this week recalls one of the more infamous stories of the Cold War. Once, when he came to the United Nations, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev warned the Greek prime minister that if Athens continued to support NATO and the West, it might be necessary for Moscow to attack the Acropolis with nuclear weapons.

The Greek leader responded that Mr. Khrushchev might very well be able to destroy the buildings on the Acropolis but that the Soviet leader would never be able to destroy the ideas of democracy and freedom that the Greeks gave birth to more than two millenia ago.

In like manner, the vandalization at Kuropaty is unlikely to expunge the memory of the events it commemorates.

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