Belarus ended the year 2004 with two emblematic political events. On 17 October, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a referendum on lifting the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency. Simultaneously, Belarusians went to the polls to elect the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, the country's lower house. According to the official results, Lukashenka's hopes for staying in power indefinitely were supported by 5.55 million people, or 79.4 percent of all eligible voters. And Belarusians officially filled all but one seat in the Chamber of Representatives with Lukashenka's backers and associates.
An independent international pollster found that Lukashenka's proposal to clear the path to a presidency-for-life was supported by just 48.7 percent of all eligible voters, leaving it below the 50 percent threshold required for such a constitutional amendment. However, opposition protests against what appeared to be a blatant falsification of the referendum results were lukewarm, lasted only several days, and gathered several thousand people at best.
Since the 2001 presidential election, the Belarusian opposition seems to have remained in protracted disarray. Sadly, there are no signs that the opposition is able to muster up any significant support for its candidate, provided it would agree on such a candidate, to challenge Lukashenka in the presidential election expected in 2006.
To demoralize the Belarusian opposition even further, a court in Minsk on 30 December 2004 sentenced Belarusian opposition politician Mikhail Marynich, 64, to five years in a high-security prison and confiscation of property. The court found him guilty of misappropriating several computers that the Dzelavaya Initsyyatyva (Business Initiative) association, of which he was chairman, had received for temporary use from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.
The bizarre case against Marynich and the harsh sentence he received were of a plainly political character. To compare, on 8 February the Belarusian Supreme Court sentenced Halina Zhuraukova, former head of the presidential administration's Property Management Department, to four years in prison, finding her guilty of embezzling $3.4 million under the same article of the Criminal Code as applied to Marynich.
Cause For Concern
The 17 October 2004 referendum and the Marynich case have received a fair amount of media coverage both at home and abroad. On a daily basis, however, there are many depressing and gloomy developments that do not make the headlines. Like the aforementioned issues, these developments, too, testify to the growing consolidation of the Belarusian authoritarian regime, which has tasked itself with not only uprooting any political dissent but also curbing any other unwanted or suspicious behavior.
For example, on 11 February police charged activist Aksana Novikava with beggary after she attempted in the subway to raise private donations for what she called an "orange revolution" in Belarus. "Some gave money, some refused to, and some just laughed," Novikava told Belapan. But the police proved to be less amused; Novikava is facing a fine.
On 5 February, police detained opposition activist Syarhey Antonchyk and some 20 people that gathered at his private apartment. Police have accused Antonchyk of organizing an unsanctioned rally and drawing up a protocol. If the case goes to court, Antonchyk has the chance of becoming the first person punished in Belarus for inviting friends to dinner.
In January, the authorities fired Rehina Ventsel, a rector of Baranavichy State University, and her deputy Ivan Kitsun. A group of students from their university had cracked a joke about President Lukashenka's salary at a forum of students in Minsk. "Alyaksandr Ryhoravich, how big is your salary?" a student from Baranavichy asked another student who was impersonating the Belarusian leader. "Let me count. As president of the country I get 300 bucks per month. As president of the National Olympic Committee I get another 300 bucks. And I get an extra sum as supreme commander. Generally speaking, not so bad," the other wag from Baranavichy responded. Now all jokes from Baranavichy State University intended for the public reportedly have to be approved by the university's ideological supervisors.
In Minsk, the independent Belarusian-language literary magazine "Dzeyaslou" has recently been removed from Belarusian bookstores run by the Belkniha state distribution network. Belkniha reportedly charged that "Dzeyaslou" propagates smut by printing foul language. "Dzeyaslou" Editor in Chief Barys Pyatrovich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Belarusian bookstores are full of books by Russian authors with expletives and nobody is going to ban them.
According to Pyatrovich, the measure against "Dzeyaslou" is purely political -- the magazine has recently published several stories by Vasil Bykau, who remained very critical of the Lukashenka regime until his death in June 2003. In November 2004, the Belsayuzdruk state retail sales network for printed publications refused to distribute "Arche," another high-profile independent literary magazine in Belarus, while Belkniha refused to distribute an "Arche" issue that documented Lukashenka's decade in power.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, last week Belarusian state-run bookstores began stocking a book glorifying Soviet-era dictator Josef Stalin. The 700-page book, named "To Stalin Bow, Europe," is a collection of articles by Stalin as well as texts venerating the Soviet dictator by other authors and political leaders of the past. "This collection, which glorifies Stalin and condemns his closest entourage, is yet another attempt to whitewash the image of the Soviet leader and lay a theoretical foundation for the transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism that we are witnessing in Belarus," Belarusian independent historian Ihar Kuznyatsou told Belapan.