Help not wanted: National security 's Belarus-style

  • 2004-09-09
  • By Simonas Girdzijauskas
It is a great time to live in Belarus these days. That is, of course, if you ask President Aleksandr Lukashenko. He would say that the authorities are working diligently to protect the national security interests of the country and its people, and that he has proposed a great strategy for the future of Belarusian energy by offering to burn more peat and lumber instead of oil and natural gas as a way to free the country from its dependency on imported energy resources.

Most importantly, Lukashenko would have us believe that the people of Belarus are free and preparing to exercise their democratic powers in open and transparent parliamentary elections this fall.
The definition of national security is very broad, according to Aleksej Begun, undersecretary of Belarus' Immigration Ministry who recently announced the extradition of professor Allan Flowers, a British academic from Kingston University. Flowers was ordered to leave the country before Aug. 3 and has been banned from re-entering for the next five years. The professor had been visiting the country by invitation from the National University of Belarus and was working with the members of the European Youth Parliament. He entered Belarus on July 9. Thus Belarusian authorities tolerated his academic activities for a mere three weeks.
A similar story occurred with Nikolaj Lis, head of one of the Education Ministry's departments. Lis, who is concerned about the comforts of the students studying at the European Humanities University in Minsk, announced on Aug. 3 that the teaching license for the university, the largest private pro-Western institution in Belarus, was being revoked due to the university's "inability to provide students with adequate studying space." The university was forced to suspend academic activity after it received a termination notice from the government on July 21 for the university building facilitating the majority of programs.
Other private universities have closed in the last few years in accordance with the new vision of a unified education system in Belarus, which incorporates mandatory political information and propaganda elements as part of its curriculum.
Indeed, ongoing civil repression and attacks on free speech and assembly rights have intensified in the last few months. The lack of international recognition for the approaching fall elections is a clear indication of this. In the latest move to intimidate and eliminate political opposition, authorities, through a ruling of the country's Supreme Court, have closed one of the main opposition parties 's the Belarusian Labor Party. The party, under Aleksandr Buchvostov, is one of the cornerstones of the opposition alliance Five Plus that unites five main opposition parties as well as other political organizations, including over 200 NGOs and labor unions both in and out of Belarus.
It is becoming painfully clear that Lukashenko and the current regime in Belarus are determined not to lose the election. Under current election law, the electoral process is too one-sided to provide even minimal objective oversight of ballot registration, vote casting and ballot counting. That is especially true if there isn't any opposition left on the ballots before the Oct. 13 vote. With the Labor Party out, the coalition Five Plus is facing possible procedural penalties based on its legal status, and now each candidate will be allowed to spend only $450 in state-provided funding on his or her campaign. With no access to national media sources, and having to face constant intimidation in the form of arrests and property search and seizure, the opposition candidates don't stand a chance.
The hope for democracy is dying in Belarus, and it does not look like the people will be able to overcome the autocratic rule of Lukashenko by themselves. For example, on July 21, a peaceful demonstration was held in Minsk by the opposition to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Luka-shenko's regime. The demonstration was interpreted as oppositional unrest and violently dispersed. Riot police made dozens of arrests. When the Moscow-run TV station in Minsk reported that a few thousand people attended the protest (starkly different from the official number given by the Interior Ministry 's 193 persons), the journalist who made the report was sent out of the country, and the station was closed.
Aleksandr Lukashenko has already made up his mind to run again, and just this week he decided to hold a referendum on Oct. 17 - the same day of parliamentary elections - which would give him the authority to change the constitution and hold a third term in office.
In the past, he has frequently said that he is certain of a victory if he were to run. Given his track record on democracy, few doubt he is capable of losing.
Indeed, it is a great time to live in Belarus these days 's at least for Lukashenko and his supporters. o

Simonas Girdzijauskas is program
director at the Joint Baltic American National Committee.