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Belarus: The Slow-Boiling Dictatorship

A Belarusian political analyst recently compared the Lukashenka regime's repression of its political opponents to cooking a live frog in a kettle. If a frog is thrown directly into boiling water, it will almost certainly jump out and save its life. But if a frog is put into cold water and heated gradually, the poor creature will boil to death largely unaware. The latter method, the analyst argued, perfectly reflects the way in which Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime has been dealing recently with political dissent.

Arguably, the Lukashenka regime would not have found it very difficult or time-consuming over the past five years -- when it actually ceased paying attention to what the West was saying -- to imprison all significant opposition leaders and activists, ban all influential nongovernmental organizations, and shut down all opposition-minded or independent newspapers. Bloated police forces are more than sufficient for rounding up all the participants in any opposition rally (usually several dozen people), while courts are only too ready to mete out extended jail terms to those "disturbing the public peace" and "impeding public traffic."

There are probably several good reasons as to why the regime has not taken such drastic steps. First, it is likely that the regime fears that overheating the political atmosphere could push the "frog" into making an uncontrollable leap. Second, the regime still needs to have a controllable group of opponents at large in order to justify its ever-increasing repressive character.

Whatever the true motive behind this tactic of creeping repression, it seems to be working quite smoothly. Virtually every week brings new arrests and/or jail sentences for oppositionists, as well as new administrative and legislative measures introduced to make the parameters of political and intellectual freedom even narrower than before. If the current pace of repression is maintained until the presidential election that is due some 12-15 months from now, Belarus will fully deserve the dubious accolade of "Europe's last dictatorship," which some Western politicians and media have been calling the country for several years. There will hardly be any niches left for the Belarusian opposition when Lukashenka takes on his anticipated third presidential term.

Corrective Labor

Last week, a district court in Minsk sentenced opposition activist Andrey Klimau to 18 months in a correctional-labor colony, finding him guilty of disturbing the public peace during an opposition protest he organized in Minsk on 25 March. Prosecutor Vadzim Paznyak demanded that Klimau be sentenced to three years in a high-security prison with no right to amnesty. Ten days before, following the demand of the prosecutor, the same court sentenced opposition leaders Mikalay Statkevich and Pavel Sevyarynets to three years of "restricted freedom" and corrective labor each, finding them guilty of organizing a series of unauthorized demonstrations against the official results of the 17 October 2004 constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections.

Statkevich and Sevyarynets had already been convicted and served jail terms for the same offenses shortly after the 2004 votes. "Convicting Statkevich and Sevyarynets a second time for exercising their internationally acknowledged rights of expression and assembly is a travesty of justice and a clear abuse of the courts for political purposes," the U.S. Embassy in Minsk commented on their current punishment.

Nor is it Klimau's first custodial sentence. He spent four years in prison from 1998-2002 on charges of embezzlement and forgery, which were widely believed to be trumped up in order to punish him for his role in attempting to impeach Lukashenka in 1996. Klimau could also receive a harsher term in the near future, as he has also been accused of insulting Lukashenka in three books he published after leaving prison.

At the end of May, Lukashenka issued a decree limiting the use of the words "national" and "Belarusian" in the names of organizations. The word "national" may be used only in the names of government agencies, organizations whose property is owned by the state, and media outlets founded by the government. Political parties, national nongovernmental organizations, national trade unions, and banks are allowed to include the word "Belarusian" in their names, but not the word "national." Private media outlets are not allowed to use either the word "national" or the word "Belarusian" in their names.

Clamping Down On Language

The decree orders organizations and companies that do not meet the new requirements to apply for re-registration within three months. The act, while being a bizarre example of authoritarian whim, apparently targets, apart from other potential victims, three independent newspapers -- "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," "Belorusskaya gazeta," and "Belorusskiy rynok." These publications could face a lot of problems in re-registering and staying afloat under new names.

While not subject to the vocabulary restrictions, the only nationwide opposition daily, "Narodnaya volya," may also find it hard to survive after it was recently fined 15 million rubles ($7,000) to pay damages to six people who claimed that it had printed their names under an opposition political manifesto without their consent. The fine, painful as it is in a country with an average monthly salary of some $200, is not totally crippling. However, the daily is facing another libel suit of more than $90,000 for its articles about contacts between the Belarusian government and politicians in the former regime of Saddam Hussein.
If the current pace of repression is maintained until the presidential election that is due some 12-15 months from now, Belarus will fully deserve the dubious accolade of "Europe's last dictatorship."

And, of course, there will be more opportunities for the Belarusian KGB in the future. In May, a law came into effect, allowing KGB agents to conduct searches of private apartments and offices of public organizations, including foreign ones, without search warrants -- even if that means breaking in. Another novelty in the law is the provision allowing the KGB to plant secret agents in any organization in Belarus. Those exposing such agents to the public will face imprisonment of up to five years.

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listed Belarus as an "outpost of tyranny," along with Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran, and North Korea. This may seem to be an overstatement with regard to Belarus in 2005 -- as the designation "dictatorship" was in 1999 or 2000 -- but under the leadership of Lukashenka the country has every chance of living up to this categorization in the not-so-distant future.

See also:

Prominent Opposition Politicians Sentenced

Analysis: Lukashenka Plans No 'Democratic Change'

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