“We are on our way to hospital. Oh…we are being stopped by a police car. It looks like we are being arrested. This is like a Hollywood blockbuster. They (the policemen) have pushed me against the car. We’re on the ground! (…) They’re hitting my face! They’re twisting my arms!” With these words the journalist Irina Khalip documented live, in a telephone interview to a Russian radio station, how she and her husband, Andrei Sannikov – a candidate running in the presidency of Belarus, and an opponent of the masked dictatorship of President Alexander Lukashenko – were arrested. It is also the opening sequence of the documentary film Europe’s Last Dictator, directed by Mathew Charles and Juan Luis Passarelli and produced by Guerrilla Pictures.
One of the main protagonists of the film is Irina Bogdanova, sister of the prisoner Andrei Sannikov. After the arrest of her brother, Irina fought tirelessly for his release, until the government gave in to international pressure last April and decided to release him with another political prisoner, the journalist Dmitri Bondarenko.
The documentary, presented by its directors at the IX Human Rights Film Festival of Barcelona, reveals a reality that is often unknown: in Belarus, in the heart of Europe, next to strong European democracies such as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, a ruthless dictatorship deprives its citizens of their basic democratic rights.
A chronicle foretold
What happened on 19 December 2010, when the couple Sannikov-Khalip was arrested along with about 600 people? That day, thousands of citizens had gathered in Independence Square in Minsk, capital of Belarus, to protest against the alleged fraud in the presidential election that took place a few days before, in which Alexander Lukashenko – the country’s President since 1994 – was re-elected with 80% of the vote. The event was essentially peaceful, until there were some attacks on government buildings. These were isolated cases, however. According to the opposition, the perpetrators of these violent acts were secret agents instigated by the government. The images recorded that day corroborate this version, as they clearly show how the protesters themselves formed human chains to prevent any violence.
Despite the evidence, the Belarusian security forces charged the crowd and dispersed the demonstrators. The organizers of the demonstration were arrested and accused of inciting mass riots. As a result of the harsh police repression, seven out of the nine opposition presidential candidates, as well as dozens of protesters, ended up in hospital or in prison.
The manifestation of December 2010 was not an isolated case. In recent years there have been several peaceful demonstrations that ended up being harshly repressed by the government, especially after the last three presidential elections. An example of this are the so-called ‘silent protests’, in which opponents meet in the central locations of their cities without carrying any banner or flag, just clapping their hands or making their mobile phones beep in unison. These demonstrations, convened through social networks, began in early June 2011. To date, they have led to the arrest of 2000 activists, according to the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna.
What ever happened to the democratic transition in Belarus?
The “color revolutions”, which first took place in Serbia with the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, ended up radically changing the political landscape of the post-Soviet region. These revolutions have a set of factors in common, including the presence of authoritarian leaders with popular consensus on the decline, a favorable international situation, the support of international actors (mainly the U.S.) for the country’s civil society, and the so-called “snowball effect”, that is, the positive influence of the revolutions and the spread of protests following regional lines.
However, despite this “snowball effect”, the revolutions in Serbia in 2000, Ukraine in 2004 and Moldova in 2009 did not cause a similar response in Belarus. In fact, in the presidential elections of 2001, 2006 and 2010, Lukashenko swept the polls with overwhelming majorities.
What are the causes which have led to this failure? Yauheniya Nechyparenka, who works at the International Rescue Committee in the U.S., claims that the determining factor must be sought in the relationship with Russia. The regional hegemon, Russia, has been the insurmountable obstacle that has prevented a democratic transition in the last three elections in Belarus. Low prices for Russian gas and opaque loans lacking any democratic conditionality eventually played in favour of the autocratic regime of Lukashenko. Thus, the President managed to camouflage reality, and simulate vis-à-vis Belarusian citizens stable economic growth and social equity, both determining factors for the population when deciding for whom to vote.
According to Taras Kuzio, a well-known Ukrainian academic, the dependence on Russia, far from being only economic, it is also cultural. Belarus never developed an ethno-cultural identity prior to its incorporation into the USSR. The Soviet regime took away the last traces of a Belarusian identity, and its possible recovery was boycotted and blocked by Lukashenko, who promoted a referendum in 1995 to convert Russian into the official state language and reinstate the national symbols of the Soviet era – the red flag and green with a coat of arms instead of a white and red flag symbolizing an independent Belarus.
The conclusion to be drawn from this, according to Kuzio, is that the “Soviet Belarusian identity” promoted by Lukashenko, which is by nature based on the nostalgia of the past, can in no case be the engine of democratic economic and political reforms.
Perhaps it is important to note that, despite having common factors, each color revolution differed considerably in regard to actors, motivations and consequences. It is therefore very difficult to place the peculiar political situation in Belarus in a pre-established theoretical framework.
The analysis of Nicolás de Pedro, a researcher of the Barcelona Centre of International Affairs (CIDOB), on the replicability of the Arab revolts in Central Asia may well be extended to the case of Belarus: “There can be no doubt, then, that reasons (for a revolution) exist, and actors too but, as happened in the Arab countries before the revolts, the strength of the former and the capacities of the latter are yet to be discovered. “
According to the Central Election Committee of Belarus, Lukashenko won the 2010 presidential election with the 79.6% of the votes. It is, in reality, very difficult to determine the exact percentage of votes the incumbent President received. The report of election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states that – far from complying with democratic standards – the 2010 elections were characterized by the lack of independence and impartiality. The range of voting preferences indicated by pre and post-election surveys varies greatly, from the 79.1% of EcooM, a theoretically independent sociological centre but directly related to the government, to the 40.2% of SOCIUM, a more independent Ukrainian centre.
In spite of these differences (range), we can see how Lukashenko continues to lead the voting preferences of Belarusian citizens. Andrew Wilson, a professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, reminds us that Lukashenko, even more than Putin, shamelessly controls the media and the electoral roll but, like Putin, could win any election straight out if he chose to.
Knowledge is Power
A number of weeks ago, United Explanations published an article on Belarus, the only country in Europe where the death penalty remains in force. The post opened with a question: what do we know about Belarus? This same question was raised by the documentary “Europe’s Last Dictator”, showing that most European citizens cannot even imagine the political reality of this country. This widespread ignorance is due to the lack of media coverage of Belarus in Europe, despite the fact that the country has been for many years the main conduit for Russia to the West and that it still has a considerable strategic importance.
To popularise, to talk about, to write on and ultimately to spread the Belarusian reality among European civil society is the mechanism that can more effectively strengthen the fight against the dictatorship of Lukashenko. Despite this, Belarus remains a country ignored by foreign media. Now more than ever, Belarusian society needs the support of international civil society: it is essential to make international actors such as the European Union and United States press for respect for human rights as an inexorable condition in their relationships with the last dictatorship in Europe.
This is a nonprofit explanation.
 Andrew Wilson (2011), Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship, Yale University Press.