Turning The Belarusian Opposition Into Dissidents
By Jan Maksymiuk
Performance artist and activist Alyaksandr Pushkin protests in a courtroom in Vorsha, eastern Belarus
September 13, 2007 -- A recent wave of arrests of youth activists in Belarus clearly testifies to the sad reality that the Belarusian authorities do not intend to democratize public life.
But the arrests also show that, following the hotly contested presidential election in March 2006, the ruling regime has considerably marginalized and alienated its opponents. Now Belarusian opposition activists appear to resemble Soviet-era dissidents, rather than competitors in a race for power.
On September 4, a district court in the city of Salihorsk issued an official warning to 16-year-old Ivan Shyla for acting on behalf of the unregistered opposition organization Youth Front. The judge reportedly took into consideration the fact that Shyla is unemployed and a minor, and therefore did not fine or jail him.
"In essence, they jail very few people, but intimidate millions." -- Opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich
The same day, an 18-year-old girl, Nasta Azarka, was tried in the city of Nyasvizh on the same charge as Shyla and fined the equivalent of $600, which is twice as much as the country's official average monthly wage.
Shyla and Azarka were lucky to have gotten off with such light sentences.
In October 2006, Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich was sentenced to 18 months in a correctional institution for being involved in an unregistered organization.
And in August 2006, a district court in Minsk jailed four young people, finding them guilty of running an unregistered organization that "infringes upon the interests and rights of citizens." The four, who wanted to monitor the presidential election on March 19, 2006, were arrested one month before the polls. Mikalay Astreyka was sentenced to two years in jail, Tsimafey Dranchuk to one year, and Enira Branitskaya and Alyaksandr Shalayka to six months each.
Punishments Toned Down
It seems that now, after the wave of opposition protests following the March 2006 presidential election has died down and the opposition are again under strict surveillance and control by the KGB and other law-enforcement bodies, Belarusian judges have been ordered to reduce the severity of punishment for involvement in an unregistered organization.
But the intolerance of the police and the courts toward political protesters continues unabated. During the Shyla trial in Salihorsk, police arrested 11 young people who came to show solidarity with their associate in front of the courthouse. Seven of them were jailed or fined by the same court the following day.
"We have selective repressions. Given that Belarusians are a nation of timid individualists, the authorities strike at the headquarters and the leaders. In essence, they jail very few people, but intimidate millions," opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich, who spent two years in prison in 2005-2007, told the Belarusian independent newspaper "Svaboda" in July.
Moreover, the Justice Ministry remains as adamant as ever with regard to registering opposition-minded organizations. It has already rejected half a dozen registration requests from the Youth Front, always finding some formal irregularities in documents submitted for registration. Confining the Youth Front to its illegal status, of course, makes it easier for law enforcers to pacify its members.
There are also signs that the Justice Ministry, under various formal pretexts, wants to outlaw most opposition parties in Belarus ahead of legislative polls in 2008, in order to make life for oppositionists in Belarus even more difficult.
Opposition Parties Closed
In August, the Justice Ministry suspended the legal status of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists for three months. The ministry had issued warnings over paperwork irregularities and the party's participation in the founding conference of a Belarusian left-wing alliance, which took place not in Belarus, as required by legislation, but in Ukraine, because the alliance was unable to lease a venue for the conference in its home country.
On September 12, the Supreme Court held a preliminary hearing on a suit by the Justice Ministry to shut down the opposition Women's Party "Hope."
Thus, after pushing out the opposition from parliament in 1996, the regime has now apparently decided to push its opponents outside even the precarious framework of legitimacy they have enjoyed so far.
But even for those parties that don't face closure, their activities in Belarus are now fairly similar to those of Soviet-era dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Belarusian oppositionists are basically allowed to remain free, but the authorities have managed to restrict their influence to the atomized circles of mostly urban intelligentsia that are opposition-minded even without any outside encouragement. As for the overwhelming majority of ordinary Belarusians, they appear to be ignorant not only of the opposition's goals, but also about its very existence.
Failure To Communicate
Such a situation cannot be blamed on the regime's repressive machinery and information blockade alone.
Many critics of the Belarusian opposition point out that its goals and slogans, particularly regarding democratic transformations and European integration, are very far from present-day concerns and expectations of most Belarusians.
Belarusian writer Svyatlana Aleksiyevich told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service earlier this week that she cannot help feeling that the opposition groups "are just clubs for harboring illusions." "The Social Democrats have one illusion, the Communists have another, and the United Civic Party has yet another. In other words, they have no base among ordinary people," she continued. Addressing those parties, Aleksiyevich asked, "Why is there such a gap between you and your own people?"
The hopes that the Belarusian opposition could mobilize wider social support behind former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich died at an opposition congress this past May.
Instead of formulating a clear-cut and consistent alternative to the authoritarian rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- which was particularly vulnerable at that time, following a painful Russian gas price hike at the beginning of 2007 -- the congress spent almost all of its energy squabbling about leadership.
In effect, Milinkevich was dismissed as head of the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces, which instead received four co-chairs to please major opposition factions. "The fight for power in the country has been replaced by a fight for power among the opposition," Milinkevich aptly commented on the congress. The social momentum for change generated by the opposition during the March 2006 presidential campaign, not very impressive to begin with, was irretrievably wasted.
On September 12, the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces appealed to individuals with no party affiliation to become candidates on the opposition list in next year's parliamentary elections.
Desperate as it looks at first glance, the appeal nevertheless seems to be a reasonable attempt at bridging the gap between the elitist circle of Belarusian opposition politics and society as a whole. At any rate, it makes more sense for the Belarusian opposition to seek understanding among people in its own country than abroad. If they fail to find such understanding this time, they may be called dissidents without any reservations.
Yushchenko Accuses Russia Of Obstructing Dioxin Probe
Yushchenko spoke about his poisoning during a visit to Dnipropetrovsk
September 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko says it is very likely the poisonous dioxin that disfigured him was made in a laboratory in Russia.
Yushchenko did not explicitly accuse the Russian government of involvement in his poisoning, but he did say he has "practically all the pieces put together" and that the attempt against his life was "not a private action."
Yushchenko fell gravely ill in September 2004 during his pro-Western campaign for the Ukrainian presidency.
He was rushed to a clinic in Vienna, where doctors determined he had ingested large quantities of the poison dioxin. Yushchenko survived and eventually returned to Kyiv -- his face horribly scarred by the poison -- to defeat pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych in a late December rerun of the first vote, which was deemed to have been rigged. The rerun was ordered by the country's Supreme Court after weeks of Orange Revolution protests.
Now, Yushchenko is accusing Russia of blocking an investigation into who was behind the poisoning, and of harboring three key suspects in the case. No one has ever been charged.
In comments on September 11 to reporters in Dnipropetrovsk, in central Ukraine, Yushchenko said only three laboratories in the world produce dioxin, and that Ukraine has received samples from two of them.
"Analyses of dioxin have been made from all laboratories in the world, except those in Russia. I believe and hope that this research will also be done soon," Yushchenko said. "The three people needed most for the investigation are currently in Russia. All our requests to the prosecutor-general to have these people appear in Ukrainian courts have gone unanswered, including one in December that I personally handed over, requesting the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin."
Yushchenko said it is very easy to determine the origin of dioxin. The fact that Russia has not sent samples to be analyzed, he said, "limits the possibilities of the investigation."
He added that Moscow has a moral obligation to cooperate. "A country cannot let an attempt on anyone's life go unpunished, let alone on a presidential candidate. For both the country's honor and rule of law, the investigation must be completed and people have a right to know who committed the crime," Yushchenko said.
In separate newspaper interviews on Tuesday -- with "The Times" of London and the French daily "Le Figaro" -- Yushchenko stopped short of accusing Moscow of involvement, but said the attempt against his life was not the work of "private" individuals.
There has been no official reaction from the Kremlin to Yushchenko's statements. But Moscow's ambassador to Kyiv, Viktor Chernomyrdin, expressed surprise, saying he knows of no requests from Kyiv for assistance.
"Why are they making such accusations now, all of a sudden? They should have asked and talked to us. But who did they ask, who did they talk to? I have no idea, I've been here all the time and I have met the [Ukrainian] president many times and not only him, but also others, and it is the first time I've heard that he made such a request to the [Russian] president himself," Chernomyrdin said.
Russian political analyst Sergei Markov, who has close ties to the Kremlin, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that Yushchenko's allegations reflect nothing more than a deep-seated resentment toward Russia.
"Yushchenko is a Russophobe in his views. He hates Russia and Russians. He is trying to find a pretext for accusing Russia of something," Markov said. He continued: "Yushchenko is jumping to take advantage of the accusations made in Great Britain and other countries that Russia is hindering court investigations into murders and poisonings -- in particular, the accusation that Russia is hindering the investigation into [former security officer Aleksandr] Litvinenko's poisoning. He's simply making use of this pattern."
It is unclear why the Ukrainian president waited three years to level such an accusation. Ukrainian political expert Kost Bondarenko suggests such claims -- about Yushchenko's poisoning and other high-profile criminal cases -- may be seen as useful PR for Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine bloc ahead of Ukraine's September 30 parliamentary elections.
"These are absolutely groundless accusations. As early as two years ago, Yuriy Lutsenko, who was then [Ukrainian] interior minister, announced that the [poisoning] case had actually been solved and that he knew all the perpetrators," Bondarenko said. "They are now trying to find a way out of this situation." He added that people are increasingly seeking answers not only to the Yushchenko poisoning, but also to the unsolved murders of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000 and former National Bank governor Vadym Hetman in 1998.
Yushchenko's physical appearance has markedly improved since the poisoning. His face is still pockmarked but his skin seems to have healed considerably and no longer has a grayish-green hue. Describing his recovery to reporters in Dnipropetrovsk, Yushchenko said, "Given what has happened over the past three years, I have not really told anyone how difficult it has been for me simply to get up each morning, or for how many months I have no longer been taking pain-killers and antibiotics -- in short, the price I paid to remain among you."
Yushchenko has had to undergo regular treatment at a Swiss clinic to remove the dioxin from his body.