Just over a year ago I was in eastern Poland. The edge of the European Union – a strip of sand between two rickety gates – was quiet.
At least 3400 alleged ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ are currently awaiting trial in Belarus. According to Alexander Lukashenko, protesters against his government have been ‘literally’ inspired by Mein Kampf. Contemplating tensions on the Lithuanian border, he warns that ‘true Nazis’ are on the warpath. For a year now, Lukashenko has been branding his enemies fascists. The rhetoric has escalated steadily since May, when he pushed through a law to prohibit the ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’. The statute was modelled on a Russian edict passed after Crimea’s annexation in March 2014, and mirrors legislation enacted by nationalist governments throughout Eastern Europe. What distinguishes the ‘memory laws’ is their targets. Beyond Minsk and Moscow, they’re hostile to Communism as well as Nazism.
Alexander Lukashenko’s media outlets aren’t happy with Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya. The least insulting thing they’ve so far said about the Belarusian athlete’s sudden exit from the Tokyo Olympics is that it was precipitated by ‘her emotional and psychological state’. The main TV channel ridiculed her ‘failure’ to qualify for the 100 metres, and called her decision to seek refuge in Poland instead of returning home a ‘cheap stunt’ and a ‘disgusting act’.
The fate of Roman Protasevich has taken another unexpected turn. Though the powers-that-be in Belarus have described him as a ‘terrorist’, they initially pretended that his arrest was unplanned. On Alexander Lukashenko’s account, a bomb threat necessitated the grounding of his Ryanair flight, and his presence on board was a coincidence. But a new narrative has gained traction. State media are reporting that his detention, like the arrest of his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, wasn’t an accident after all. It was a Western plot. To intensify pressure on Belarus, Western secret service agents ‘framed’ Protasevich.
All that’s so far certain about Alexander Lukashenko’s decision last Sunday to force down a Ryanair flight on its way from Athens to Vilnius is the immediate outcome. Roman Protasevich, an exiled Belarusian journalist on board, was arrested after the plane landed. Criminal charges have been outstanding since November – because he helped run a Warsaw-based Telegram channel that circulated material hostile to Lukashenko after August’s contested presidential election – and within 24 hours, the authorities had what they wanted. The 26-year-old, his face visibly bruised, appeared on state television to assure the world that he had been ‘treated with respect’ and was co-operating with the police. Wringing his hands, he kept the rest of his statement short: ‘I confess to organising mass protests in Minsk.’
Ever since Alexander Lukashenko’s highly contested re-election, the ruler of Belarus has had problems with the neighbours. Having spent 27 years imagining himself the true heir to Soviet power, he’s increasingly dependent on the rival he used to see as a subordinate, Vladimir Putin. And though Brussels once played counterweight to Moscow, the EU states adjoining Belarus are no longer friendly at all. Lithuania has granted asylum to Svetlana Tichanovskaya, the presidential candidate who claims to have beaten Lukashenko last August, and isn’t about to extradite her: the Lithuanian foreign minister says ‘hell will freeze over’ first. Resistance to Lukashenko has taken root among the Belarusian community in Poland, and the government in Warsaw is financing calls for regime change in Minsk.
The customs post at Bobrowniki was looking busy a couple of weeks ago. Inactive, too. When I drove there from Białystok, the stationary juggernauts snaked back ten miles. A driver halfway along said he’d already spent two nights in his cab. Individuals headed for Belarus could jump the queue, but only if they surrendered all goods acquired in Poland. When I optimistically suggested to Nikita Grekowicz, a Belarusian-Polish journalist, that we one day meet in Minsk, he smiled. ‘Not today though,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t take a cookie. And they’d probably arrest me as a spy.’
Alexander Lukashenko has normalised many dubious practices during his 26 years in power in Belarus, and his share of the vote in the most recent presidential election – 80.1 per cent – is uncannily similar to the figure recorded at his five previous landslides. His initial response to suggestions of vote-rigging was characteristically ruthless. Protests were met by water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades, and three demonstrators were killed. As more than seven thousand people were taken into custody, social media were flooded with accounts and images of torture. Lukashenko wasn’t defiant in the face of the resistance so much as dismissive. His adversaries were either criminals or unemployed, he said. Insofar as they reflected a genuine threat, it was only because they were ‘sheep’ under the direction of shadowy foreign powers.
Before the lockdown began, I had been hoping to celebrate VE Day in Belarus this weekend. Within a year of winning power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko organised a march in Minsk to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, and it’s become a quinquennial tradition. Events intervened. Curiosity ceased to be a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, and Belarus requires foreign visitors to isolate themselves for 14 days. If that suggests the president is taking a precautionary approach to Covid-19, however, it’s misleading. With neo-Soviet folksiness, Lukashenko claimed in March that the disease is ‘nothing more than a psychosis’ which people could overcome by driving tractors and disinfecting themselves with vodka. He has ignored the social distancing recommendations made by the WHO, which said on 1 May that infections were spreading faster in Belarus than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below two hundred, but the true figure may be far higher. Two TV journalists were last week stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.
The Belarus Free Theatre’s first performance was in 2005, when they staged Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in a café in Minsk. The café owner lost his licence after two performances. The cast and crew lost their jobs with the state theatre. Between 2006 and 2010, their performances of, among other pieces, documentary plays by political prisoners were staged in private apartments and in forests. They were often broken up by KGB operatives toting machine-guns. At a performance during the 2010 protests, everyone in the audience was arrested and beaten. The creative directors moved to London. But the theatre still performs in secret locations around Minsk. I went to one a couple of months ago. They called me on my mobile a few hours before the play and told to come to a bus stop by a supermarket. ‘Wait on the corner. We’ll come and collect you. You can try to guess who else is there for the play.’
Twenty-year-old Nasta Polozhanka was detained by the Belarusian KGB for more than two months. One of the leaders of the youth movement Molodoi Front, she is accused of organising ‘mass disturbances’. If convicted, she faces up to 15 years in prison. The ‘mass disturbances’ in question were a largely peaceful protest against last year’s rigged presidential elections. As soon as polling stations closed on 19 December, the Election Commission announced yet another landslide victory for Aleskandr Lukashenko, ‘Europe’s last dictator’, who has been in power for 16 years.