Thursday, June 08, 2006

A cold grey summer creeps into Belarus

By Edward Lucas

"Don't spend too much time thinking about the Baltic states" warned Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel-prize winning Polish writer, "or you will go mad." At the time, he was right. The fate of the three occupied countries seemed so intolerably gloomy that it was tempting to ignore it.

Worrying about Belarus seems similarly fruitless now. Since the rather disappointing election result in March, in which President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected with 83% of the vote, the KGB is grinding the remaining fragments of opposition under its jackboots. This weekend I received a text message from the phone of Olga Karatch, a friend of mine from the eastern Belarusian town of Vitsebsk. She's a philologist, who is also the only independent member of the city council. She was elected thanks to her 'pavement politics': taking up her voters' everyday grievances with officialdom.
The message said that she and four other members of her organisation had been arrested. That's just the latest in a series of moves against the opposition, major and minor. The de facto leader, Alexander Milinkevic, was jailed briefly. His campaign director, Siarhej Lyashkevich, has been sentenced to five months. The authorities have also tried to close the Belarus Helsinki Committee. One of my last messages from Olga was that a fellow dissident (how odd it seems to be using this word again) called Zhanna Popova had been subjected to forcible psychiatric treatment.
It's hard to keep track of what is happening. One Estonian friend of mine involved in helping the opposition says that "e-mails are not answered, mobile phones are switched off - we don't know who is free and who isn't".
Meanwhile the outside world has been busy - sort of. The EU has frozen some bank accounts, and America has imposed a travel ban. I doubt that either move bothers Lukashenko and the goons and thugs around him. They are much more worried by Russia's threat to raise gas prices fourfold. The big boring point about Belarus remains the same: it can't go on like this, but it is hard to see quite how it is going to change.
Many people used to think that about Communism in the days of the Cold War. This time 20 years ago, I was conducting a depressing radio interview with Joanna Onyszkiewicz, whose husband Janusz (now an MEP) was a leading spokesman for what was then the still banned Polish trade union Solidarity. He had just been arrested. That was sad. But the really depressing bit was my BBC editor's reaction. "Just another boring dissident-in-trouble story," she said.
But fights between good and evil are not really boring. They are tiring, which is different. It would have been all too easy during the cold war to give in and accept the evil empire's grip on eastern Europe as permanent. "Peaceful co-existence" sounded so much easier.
Luckily, it wasn't just a moral issue: Soviet imperialism was a direct threat to our own prosperity and freedom. So defending Václav Havel, Andrei Sakharov and other heroes of the dissident movement was tied, albeit loosely, to our own self-interest. There was tiredness and timidity on our side, but outweighed by fear and greed (as well as idealism and bravery).
But Belarus poses no threat to us. On the contrary, being nice to Russia, Belarus's patron, is very profitable business. Which is why I fear that Olga and her brave friends face a long walk to freedom. When it ends with victory, as it will, I think we will feel pretty embarrassed about how little we helped.

  • Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist

  • © Copyright 2006 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.


    Cicero said...

    All too true Edward! Belarus also still suffers from the internal fatigue of the people who have given up hope. The telented folk have left the counbtry, creating the same kind of brain drain that afflicts Lithuania (and more drastically, Serbia) and which leaves the unimaginative and the depressed at home. These people are sadly easy meat for the vermin around the dictator.

    Edward Lucas said...

    fatigue was a feature of the cold war. But one way of lessening it was to show that there was a bunch of people in free Europe who cared passionately about what happened in the captive nations


    Cicero said...

    Yes, that is true- but in the cold war the ability to travel was so circumscribed- a perk reserved for the nomenklatura. Nowdays those who would oppose the regime are simply "encouraged" to leave. That being said, I agree that free Europe should be a whole lot more vocal against this vile regime.