This is a guest post by Michael Taylor.
The recent Minsk metro bombing has brought Belarus back into the news, after it was overtaken by the extraordinary events of the Arab spring. Belarus, relatively unknown in the West, seems like a nightmarish leftover from 1989, when we were supposed to have ended the spectacle of tortured dissidents and baton charges across the snow. This bombing has bought Belarus lurching into the focus of the world attention, once again as a source of sad news. While we are not sure who is responsible for this terrible atrocity, it is clear that the regime is responsible for creating a climate of fear, violence and instability which has made this terrible event possible. A coterie of ambitious and venal bureacrats have trashed an entire country in the pursuit of wealth and power, and the system they have created is creaking at the seams
Belarus was a textbook case of post-Soviet hijacking of power by Communist elites who managed to reposition themselves as nationalists at just the right moment. Lukashenka, President since 1994 has managed to establish himself at the top of a regime encompassing the army, the KGB, and the reigning bureacracy Since then he has cemented his power by carefully playing off the EU and Russia against each other, while keeping a line open to the People’s Republic of China, with whom he recently signed a set of economic agreements (source in Polish).
Until relatively recently there had been high hopes of a thaw, with many believing that the EU Eastern Partnership programme, backed by Poland, would be able to manoeuvre Lukashenka into a step-by-step embrace of democracy. A key step in this was supposed to be a successful presidential election in December, which many believe Lukashenka could have won without massive vote-rigging. However, this was not put to the test. Instead, ballot boxes were stuffed, and opposition demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the KGB (not renamed since Soviet days) and military units.
These events rapidly faded from the public consciousness, until Monday, when a bomb went off in the Minsk metro at Oktyabrskaya station, close to the Presidential palace, killing 12 people and wounding over 100 more. Lukashenka arrived on the scene hours later for a photo opportunity with rescue workers, where he suggested the blast was “a present from abroad”. Arrests have been made and confessions obtained, although it is unclear how seriously these charges can be taken.
While it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of hotheads trying to launch a campaign of urban terrorism against the regime, it seems unlikely given the polarisation this would cause, largely involving a massive rallying to the regime. While it seems unthinkable that any government could support this kind of action against its own people, a situation similar to the Italian counter-terrorist campaign of the late 60s and 70s, where elements within the security services carried out murders and bombings in order to undermine and discredit their leftist opponents, is eminently possible. In any case, Lukashenka is already calling using the blast against his political enemies, calling for a “purge” of society.
In conclusion, there are no easy options left to Europe at this point. This foetid dictatorship on our doorstep has been able to divide and rule its own people, and avoid a reckoning with either Russia or the EU for 20 years now, and hopes for a swift collapse seem forlorn. Sanctions have been used by the EU to try to protect the opposition, with limited effect, and military intervention is clearly unthinkable (strange how boots on the ground seem so much more unthinkable when the occupied population would be white). The least we can do, the very least, is to be aware of what is going on in Belarus, deny Lukashenka any kind of legitimacy, and maintain pressure on him by any means at our disposal (including making it easier for his citizens to travel to the West to see what it’s like . We must not accept, tolerate or ignore Europe’s last dictatorship.