The totalitarian experiment in Belarus
One year after a disputed general election result that led to unprecedented protests, Belarus is experiencing repression on a scale not seen since Stalin
Last week, CNN reported that the Belarusian authorities were constructing a prison camp for dissidents at an old rocket storage facility. The camp, it said, could be used if protests in the country resume ahead of the anniversary of the presidential election on 9 August or the upcoming constitutional referendum.
Belarus’s defense ministry denied these allegations, and claimed that the site, in Novokolosovo, outside of Minsk, was merely being used for military storage. But one year after protests erupted in response to the apparent results of Belarus’ presidential elections, it’s not as if speculation about Belarusian prison camps has come from nowhere.
After the protests started, the Belarusian authorities set up an improvised detention camp for protesters near the city of Slutsk. Then, according to a phone conversation that leaked online, the head of Belarus’s organised crime squad, Nikolai Karpenkov, gave the following orders to his subordinates:
“The order is to develop, to build a camp. Not for prisoners of war, not even for internees, but a camp for the ‘sharp-heeled’, for resettlement. With barbed wire around the perimeter [...] And to keep them there until everything calms down.”
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Karpenkov is now deputy interior minister. And although Belarus is not yet home to fully-fledged concentration camps for dissidents, the repression campaign is taking place at a scale we have not seen since Stalin.
Over the past year, 35,000 Belarusian citizens have been subject to administrative detention. More than 4,690 people have been prosecuted or are facing criminal charges. Between eight and 15 people have died, and humiliation and torture by the police has become an everyday practice.
Strength in apathy
Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 27 years, but he has never carried out these kinds of brutal repressive campaigns before.
Prior to the current events, 2011 was considered the most severe period of the dictatorship: then, at the peak of repression after the 2010 presidential elections, there were a little more than 50 political prisoners in the country. (Now there are more than 610 and this figure will obviously only grow.)
In 2015-19, the Lukashenko regime created an image of itself as an enlightened dictatorship, and one that treats its opponents gently, demonstrating openness to the outside world (30-day visa-free travel for foreign citizens, progressive legislation for the IT industry).
The strength of the Lukashenko regime has always been based on the apathy and apolitical moods of the majority of the population
The strength of the Lukashenko regime has always been based on the apathy and apolitical moods of the majority of the population. The government kept its most stalwart opponents in the so-called ‘democratic ghetto’. Opponents’ attempts to expand their influence were consistently and harshly suppressed. But within the framework permitted by the dictatorship, dissidents –including opposition parties, NGOs and media – could feel relatively safe.
For the apolitical section of Belarusian society, this ‘democratic ghetto’ principle was so effective that they began to believe certain things about the dictatorship. For example, people began to believe that although the regime does not always act honestly, it nevertheless recognised certain limits and would not exceed them.
Viktor Babariko, a former top banker who tried to run in the 2020 election, expressed this common misconception at his first press conference in May that year. Speaking to a crowd of journalists, Babariko stated that he did not believe in the possibility of mass repression and mass electoral fraud. The ex-banker then noted that he was ready to place his campaign headquarters in the Belarusian KGB headquarters (Belarus’s state security service is still called the KGB). He had no episodes in his past that could become a pretext for prosecution, he said.
Less than a month later, Babariko was arrested, and in summer 2021 he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the true scale of the electoral revolution that took place in Belarus in 2020. Independent sociological research, which would permit some kind of objective assessment of citizens’ attitudes to Lukashenko, is prohibited.
Even so, it is clear that by the summer of 2020, extraordinary processes were unfolding in society. From data collected by the Belarusian Institute of Sociology and the results of online polls to the record number of supporting signatures for alternative presidential candidates, and signs of unprecedented politicisation of society during the election campaign: all suggested the regime was experiencing an electoral disaster.
Numerous evidence indicates that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya won the election in the first round, but the Central Election Commission announced that more than 80% of the votes were cast for Lukashenko. The figure looked so implausible that even supporters of the current government didn’t believe it. On the evening of 9 August, election day, people went out to protest in more than 33 cities around the country.
Lukashenko would later declare the events of 9-12 August as a “failed blitzkrieg”. Allegedly, the country’s external enemies had planned to “strangle the country” in just a few days with the help of a “street rebellion”. But in reality, in the summer of 2020, it was Lukashenko himself who was behind a ‘blitzkrieg’.
The country’s leadership was well aware that protests of an unprecedented scale would be inevitable after the rigged elections. Lukashenko planned to solve this problem quickly – by means of unlimited police terror, which was supposed to paralyse the will of society to resist.
State propaganda methodically fomented public hatred of future protesters. “The propaganda message went as follows: if the current government loses, then each of us [police officers] will be hanged from trees by the road. Therefore, it is necessary to defend the government by any means,” a police lieutenant colonel, Yuri Makhnach, later revealed.
A few days before the elections, the then interior minister, Yuri Karaev, broadcast a video message to Belarusian police officers, where he warned them to expect “significant psychological and physical stress”, but said the authorities were ready to protect their interests. The meaning of this strange message later became clear: this was a green light for violence right from the top.
To suppress the street protests, Belarusian security forces used flash grenades, rubber bullets and other special equipment en masse. These were used absolutely in accordance with the logic of the war: the main goal was not to disperse the crowd of protesters, but to inflict maximum casualties on them. Hundreds of people were injured and maimed, two were killed by police weapons. (In total, according to unconfirmed information, at least five people died in the immediate post-election period.)
According to the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, 6,700 demonstrators were detained on 9-12 August. Detainees were treated with unprecedented cruelty, and human rights activists have documented more than a thousand testimonies of police torture. There are reports of violence against women and children, including sexual violence and rape with police baton. “The torture was of a massive, systemic nature and was an organised, politically motivated punitive action by the authorities, with the aim of intimidating the Belarusian society,” the Viasna Human Rights Center reports.
“Sometimes you just don’t want to deal with the law. You have to take tough measures to stop scum in their tracks”
Lukashenko’s blitzkrieg failed, however. The terror of 9-12 August not only did not “calm the country”, but led to an even greater politicisation of society, galvanising more and more sections of the population in peaceful protests. Outrage at the violence of the security forces overshadowed the issue of election fraud. At the same time, the protests themselves, despite the unprecedented violence, remained emphatically peaceful.
For a while, the authorities fell into a stupor. After 12 August, the security forces suddenly disappeared from the streets of Belarusian cities. For almost two weeks, police took little action, and detainees were released. The largest protests in the entire history of Belarus took place in Minsk, and workers at large enterprises started mobilising. For a while, the initiative passed into the hands of the Belarusian opposition, but no decisive action was taken, and the expectation that the authorities were ready to sit down at the negotiating table turned out to be false. As a result, the authorities were able to catch their breath, and then went on the offensive.
“Sometimes you just don’t want to deal with the law. You have to take tough measures to stop scum in their tracks.” This is how Lukashenko addressed employees of the General Prosecutor’s Office on 10 September, when he presented the new head of department, Andrey Shved. The phrase “Sometimes you just don’t want to deal with the law” became a symbol of the legal status quo in Belarus, and Shved – one of its main backers.
The repression campaign of 2020-21 has been based on the principle of total legal segregation. Belarusian security forces have been transformed into a special caste with unlimited powers when suppressing dissent. There are no limits on what the security forces can do against opponents of the regime. And there is no action by a protester that cannot be declared a crime.
On 10 August, Alexander Taraikovsky, a resident of Minsk, was shot by security forces during protests near the city’s Pushkinskaya metro station. At first, the Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that he died after a self-made explosive device, which he had prepared to throw at the police, detonated. However, videos published by Belarusian media proved that Taraikovsky had nothing in his hands when he was shot. The authorities subsequently admitted that the man had been shot with non-lethal weapons, but that the actions of the security forces were allegedly legal.
“A man is standing in front of the riot police, then he comes out to them – and brazenly stands in front of the police. And stands purposefully.” This is how Ivan Tertel, head of the KGB, justified the murder. The authorities refused to open a criminal investigation into this killing. But the five Minsk residents who wrote “We will not forget” on the road where Taraikovsky died received prison sentences.
On 19 August, Gennady Shutov, a resident of Brest, was shot in the back of the head by a security services officer. No criminal case was initiated. Moreover, in the end, the authorities prosecuted Shutov himself, and a witness to his death, Gennady Kordyukov. They were accused of attacking plainclothes security officials. Shutov was found guilty posthumously. Kordyukov was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
No one has been prosecuted for the death of Roman Bondarenko, a resident of Minsk who was beaten by the security forces for trying to protect the national white-red-white symbols hung in his yard. The death of Bondarenko caused a national outcry, which only intensified after Lukashenko himself endorsed the official version of events: Bondarenko, he said, had been drunk, and had started a fight with “indifferent citizens”, i.e. supporters of the government.
Journalists Yekaterina Andreeva, my wife, and Darya Chultsova received two years in prison for running a livestream from a protest in memory of Bondarenko. Yekaterina Borisevich, a journalist with TUT.BY, was sentenced to six months for proving that there was no alcohol in Bondarenko’s blood at the time of death.
Belarus’s legal system now operates according to wartime principles. “From now on, we are not taking anyone prisoner,” Lukashenko said to the security forces in October 2020, urging them to brutally suppress protests. The ruthlessness has borne fruit: by the end of 2020, mass protests had ceased. Today, street activity is limited to courtyard marches, flash mobs and solidarity actions.
The security services are not only looking for active participants in last year’s protests, but are also busy exposing mythical terrorist organisations, preventing fictitious coups and assassination attempts
However, the current repression has gone far beyond the simple reaction of the dictatorship to the very fact of street protests. The fading of the protests did not lead to a softening of the regime; rather, on the contrary, the authorities have only intensified the police terror.
By the end of 2020, the authorities announced that they had opened 900 criminal cases related to the protests. Now there are more than 4,690 cases against individuals. AIt turns out that at the height of the protests, an average of 180 people were being prosecuted every month, and now -– roughly 540.
The security services are not only looking for active participants in last year’s protests, but are also busy exposing mythical terrorist organisations, preventing fictitious coups and assassination attempts. What we are dealing with is a rise in the everyday tempo of the terror campaign.
Having suppressed street protests, the authorities moved on to the systematic destruction of civil society and independent media. In July this year, an attack on the press and NGOs, which involved roughly 100 apartment searches, was called by the KGB “a large-scale operation to clean out the radicals”.
Powder keg experiment
The latest actions of the regime show that Lukashenko intends to turn Belarus into a classic totalitarian state, where there will be no place for dissent at all and where any manifestation of disloyalty will be severely punished. The peculiarity of the situation lies in the fact that he chose this course not at the peak of his popularity, but, on the contrary, at its nadir.
A year ago, the Lukashenko regime experienced a strategic catastrophe: it completely lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the country’s population and found itself in deep international isolation. All this brought the dictatorship into a state of permanent instability. After the killings, torture and humiliation, reconciliation between society and the government has become impossible. In fact, the Lukashenko regime is sitting on a powder keg: mass protests can erupt at any moment if people see that there is a chance to bring about change here and now. In these conditions, the authorities decided to finally abandon the practice of soft authoritarianism and sideline the ‘democratic ghetto’.
Now Lukashenko is conducting a unique political experiment in Belarus: he is trying to build totalitarianism without the appropriate social, economic and ideological resources. It is impossible to predict how long this hopeless experiment may take.
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