Belarus: Visiting Europe’s last dictatorship - and reflecting on our prejudices

, by Martin Stadelmann

Belarus: Visiting Europe's last dictatorship - and reflecting on our prejudices

Most of the prejudices about Belarus are met: Non-state organisations are not allowed, and the government controls the media and the economy. The opposition parties and human right activists are absolutely peaceful but not even allowed to express their opinions. Surprisingly, many Belarusians or even most of them support the regime. Is this a reason to stand back? The author argues for a clear “No!” and tells about a recent success in the case of alternative service.

Before visiting Belarus, I just knew the basics: last dictatorship in Europe, last European country with death penalty; and the long struggle for democracy. A backwards country with a suppressed population? I was eager to know if my own prejudices were correct.

While neighbouring countries like Poland and the Baltic state have rebuilt their cities, re-established a free economy and democracy, Belarus just seems to be a modern copy of the former Second World.

What stroke me most when arriving in Minsk: the country seems to be captured in some kind of post-Soviet sovietism. While neighbouring countries like Poland and the Baltic state have rebuilt their cities, re-established a free economy and democracy, Belarus just seems to be a modern copy of the former Second World. Modern buildings? No, just sugar versions of existing styles. Democracy? Yes, but only superficially. Free Economy? Yes, but only if it does not bother the government. Freedom of meeting? No, not even on the paper.

We heard of businessmen arrested for fake reasons when their firms grew too fast, but unfortunately we could not meet them. However, we met the political side. Each day we spoke with human rights organisations, parties, religious and youth groups. We were in contact with very different persons: old and young, loud and calm, liberal and conservative, socialist and free-economy promoters - but they all had two things in common: they were absolutely peaceful but not officially accepted by the government. Some tried to get recognition, even several times, but were always refused because of some trivia (writing the wrong postal code, forgetting to tick a box and s.o.): Others did not even try as they knew the answer beforehand.

The controlling of the people is, however, not limited to non-freedom of assembly and association, it penetrates the whole public space. On each square in Minsk, you see at least ten uniformed police men and some further militia representatives dressed as ordinary people. The government also employs most people and controls the media as well as the vast majority of economic activities. When people criticize the government, they may lose their job. If you are young, you may be excluded from the university, your parents can be made redundant or if you are a man, you are recruited for the army even if you are in medical treatment or you are willing to do an alternative service. We met young bright people who criticize the government and the bureaucracy but would never state this position in public out of fear to lose their jobs.

Meeting opposition groups and human rights activists, you could have the impression that the majority of Belarusians opposes the government. Why is this regime then so stable? In the train back home we met a woman living in Germany who was absolutely persuaded that the current system is best for people in Belarus. Even if I had the impression that she was a victim of the selective information issued by the state-owned media, I started to have some doubts: if even a woman with access to more neutral media releases in Western Europe is favouring the current regime, do we have a distorted perception? Can we just copy our political and economic ideas from Western and Central Europe and ask them to be introduced in Belarus? Some people say that even under free elections President Lukashenko would be re-elected. However, for me the main point is: even if a majority of Belarusians voted for Lukashenko, they still should have free access to information and the chance to cast their vote for someone else.

So, we continue to support human right groups and parties in their struggle for democracy, a freer economy and human rights. We also see some first results: We support a movement in Belarus for the establishment of an alternative service. Here, as in many other countries, Belarus is one the last countries to introduce a progressive policy. After issuing a statement with several other European organisations and persuading German and Swiss parliamentarians to contact Belarusian officials, there seems to be some movement in the case. The Belarusian government now finally wants to abide by its own constitution and starts elaborating a law on alternative service.

The introduction of an alternative service is a very pleasant development but the progress is tiny when compared to the challenges still ahead: when do we achieve free elections, free press, the abolition of the death penalty and a freer economy? In less than a year, the next national “elections” will take place. Time for looking east and not looking away.

Image: Victory Square in Minsk. Source: Wikipedia Commons

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