Belarus dissidents defy KGB and the threat of jail in latest crackdown
Alexander Lukashenko's regime steps up harassment of the opposition as his popularity ratings plummet
Dania has a new game; he puts his bears in a car and drives them round the flat. When they reach their destination, he tells them: "This is your new prison". Like his dad. Recently Dania, four, told his mother: "Mummy, maybe we should move to London". A year ago the Belarus authorities threatened to take the boy into care, but in any case Irina Khalip cannot leave Minsk, where she is under house arrest. However, she continues her work for the Russian magazine Novaya Gazeta.
The only place Khalip can go is Vitebsk, in the east. Since November her husband, Andrei Sannikov, has been imprisoned there. Sentenced to five years, he was one of the opposition candidates who ran against Alexander Lukashenko in the December 2010 presidential election, the overture to the worst clampdown in 20 years.
Elected with an 80% share of the poll, the president crushed the feeble hopes of liberalisation fed by the European Union. Prosecuted for "massive disturbance of public order", the main opposition leaders were held responsible for sporadic outbursts of violence on the night of the election's first round. Almost 30,000 massed in the capital, Minsk, to protest against vote-rigging, but the gathering was brutally dispersed.
A year later Khalip still bears the marks of this trauma, prematurely aged by fear and sleepless nights. She, too, was prosecuted, but received a two-year suspended jail sentence. On 24 January she saw her husband for the first time since October, but without being able to talk freely. "It's as if in three months he had endured 10 years in the gulag. He was careful what he said. He'd been warned. He made it clear that our family was under threat," she says.
On 20 November Sannikov had to sign an application to Lukashenko for an official pardon. She thinks the president wants to gradually destroy her husband, just like Nikolai Statkevich, another longstanding dissident sentenced to six years in jail, including three of corrective labour. On 23 December Lukashenko did not rule out a possible pardon, providing the application followed proper procedure.
Defying the regime is a dangerous pursuit. "People are supportive but passive," says Khalip. "There has never been such hatred towards the regime. It's an interim period with people openly expressing their views but not wanting to act. Even the people who never questioned the [country's] cemetery-like stability must finally have plugged in their brains. They now realise there's a link between human rights and the price of sausages."
The price of sausages, much like all other staples, has rocketed since the end of 2010. Belarus has neither the funds nor foreign investments to cope any longer. With 108% inflation last year and the collapse of the currency against the dollar, no one believes in the miraculous island of stability promoted by the government. The propaganda on state television channels is running on empty, particularly with increasingly widespread access to the internet. Half the population is connected. Wi-Fi is commonplance in trendy bars and restaurants. But a list of banned sites – pornography and opposition politics – has been issued. Since January cafes and telecom operators must archive data viewed by their customers.
The clampdown that followed the presidential election marked the victory of the siloviki, hardliners led by Viktor, one of Lukashenko's sons. He has brought several departments – including intelligence and public prosecution – under his control. Their prerogatives, and those of the KGB secret police, have been extended. Last summer silent protest gatherings were banned. Lukashenko's popularity has plummeted (down to 20% positive opinions in September).
"There was a time when the two pillars of the regime were the social contract and repression," says Vladimir Labkovitch, 33. "Now the first one has gone. Eighteen months ago the man in the street knew he could save enough to have a holiday in the Crimea or buy a car, and that he could keep his job as long as he did not actively oppose the regime. That's all over. Only force prevails." He is the legal adviser of Viasna, the most famous human rights organisation in Belarus, acting as the NGO's spokesman since its head, Ales Bialiatski, was imprisoned. Just before the signature of an economic pact with Russia last November, Bialiatski was sentenced to four and half years in jail on charges of concealing foreign currency abroad. The accusation is laughable. As Viasna is not officially registered, it has to use devious means to import donations. It was not helped by the readiness with which Poland and Lithuania responded to Belarusian requests for extra-judiciary assistance, even if the two countries have apologised profusely since. More than 800m Belarus roubles ($105,000) have been collected to pay Bialiatski's fine. But his prison sentence still stands.
"Bialiatski is a greater danger for the regime than the opposition, because Viasna lowers the fear threshold in society," says the analyst Dzianis Melyantsou. "Protesters know the NGO will be there to pay fines, defend them in court, support their families." But Viasna is a recurrent target for police harassment and has been raided five times in the past year. A dozen or so regional offices have suffered a similar fate.
As one of the vice-presidents of the International Human Rights Federation (FIDH), Bialiatski has plenty of support in Europe and the US. But westerners have few means of exerting real pressure on Minsk, which is counting on Moscow and its customs union with Kazakhstan. The list of 200 senior officials banned from entering the EU cuts little ice. "On the other hand, the campaign in favour of Bialiatski is crucial," says Andrej Dynko, the editor of Nasha Niva, one of the few independent newspapers. "Many people are already backing his nomination for the 2012 Nobel peace prize. He was certainly jailed because of his call for economic sanctions against the regime."
The opposition is in tatters and divided on how to confront this implacable force. Meanwhile a recurrent dilemma has resurfaced: should opposition parties boycott the general election this autumn? Khalip believes there is no question of taking part as long as there are political prisoners such as her husband. Others want to seize the opportunity of a public broadcast to address the electorate.
One way or another, they must agree on a common position, says the poet Vladimir Neklaiev, who heads the Tell the Truth movement and competed in the presidential election in 2010. "The opposition still has the same mentality," he says with a sigh. "It's still the same ideas, the same faces and the same conflicts as 20 years ago. The only real issue is regime change, and for that we must act together."
On the day of the election Neklaiev was attacked on the way to the demonstration in Minsk. He spent two months behind bars, then was placed under house arrest for four more. At present he is not allowed to leave the capital; every Monday he has to sign on at a police station. If he puts a foot wrong, he could go back to prison for two years. "The worst part about jail is not the physical side, but the psychological pressure," he says. "I only broke down once, when they threatened my wife, talking about handing her over to the police and turning a blind eye to what might happen". "A regime that depends exclusively on the security forces is very weak," says Neklaiev. "When Lukashenko can no longer feed all his officials, who live on bribes and kickbacks, he will end up like Ceausescu."