People & Power

Belarus: Europe’s last dictatorship

We investigate the state of political freedom in Belarus and President Lukashenko’s unshakable grip on power.

In October 2015 a presidential election was held in Belarus.

It wasn’t a convincing contest and few thought that victory would go to anyone other than the man who had ruled the country for the past two decades. With an economy in tatters and a chilling charge list of human rights violations against his name, Alexander Lukashenko has long presided over Europe’s closest equivalent to North Korea.

That said, the president many accuse of being a dictator eschews a personality cult. There’s little need, say his opponents; Lukashenko rules through fear.

Today, time-warped Belarus provides a glimpse into what life was like before the collapse of the Soviet Union, where the secret police are still called the KGB and the success of the economy is measured in tractor sales.

In the run-up to the poll, filmmaker Glenn Ellis went to investigate the state of political freedom in Belarus, the reasons behind Lukashenko’s apparently unshakable grip on power and the capacity of the country’s embattled and suppressed opposition to fight back against overwhelming state repression.

During the making of this film, we wrote to the Belarusian government asking for an interview with President Lukashenko to discuss the issues and opposition criticisms raised in this film. Producer Glenn Ellis also phoned the government’s press office with the same request. We did not get a response.


By Glenn Ellis 

It was late at night when my plane landed in Belarus. I was eager to see what this former Soviet Republic was like. I’d heard it had hardly changed since the days of Brezhnev but the streets of the capital, Minsk, were gloomy and dark and not that conducive to sightseeing. First impressions would have to wait until daylight.

Stepping out of my rented apartment in Victory Square the next morning was like stepping back in time. In front of me lay the Eternal Flame, a memorial to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is known in these parts). Over it loomed a column some 30 metres high, topped off by a massive red star and bedecked with Soviet-era hammer-and-sickle imagery, while a troop of smartly dressed young soldiers, men and women, marched solemnly in a synchronised goosestep around the flame.  

I was here to cover the presidential election – not, of course, that there was going to be much doubt about who would win. Belarus has been ruled by the same moustachioed autocrat, Alexander Ryhoravich Lukashenko, for the past 21 years and the 61 year-old, often dubbed Europe’s last dictator, appears to have no immediate retirement plans.

But while this landlocked nation has remained frozen in time, the world around it has been in the throws of a geopolitical earthquake. Both Ukraine’s revolution and Russia’s violent response to it had rattled the regime here, adding tension to the forthcoming vote.  

The Eternal Flame at the centre of Minsk's Victory Square commemorates the victims of World War II [Ryhor Bruyeu/Getty Images]
The Eternal Flame at the centre of Minsk’s Victory Square commemorates the victims of World War II [Ryhor Bruyeu/Getty Images]

My first appointment was with Lyubov Kavaliova, whose son Vladislav Kovalev was executed for a crime he most certainly didn’t commit.

I was eager to meet her as this sad episode might shed some light on the atmosphere surrounding the 2015 vote. In the aftermath of the previous election, roundly criticised by international critics as fraudulent and rigged, massive street protests in Belarus had been followed by a brutal security crackdown.

Thousands were arrested, some tortured, and a number of political prisoners were put on trial.

These trials began receiving wide coverage abroad and, for a brief moment, Lukashenko’s grip on power looked shaky. Then, out of nowhere, a bomb went off in the Minsk Metro, killing 15 and injuring 195.

It was supposedly the work of terrorists. Vladislav Kovalev was picked up – seemingly arbitrarily – then was charged, denied legal representation, and badly beaten and tortured, before signing a confession to the crime.

The guilty verdict and Kovalev’s subsequent execution were condemned by human rights groups and governments around the world (including the Kremlin).

In fact, most observers believe both the bombing and subsequent trial were merely a convenient smokescreen to divert attention from the increasingly controversial trials of Lukashenka’s political opponents.

That’s certainly the view of Lyubov, Vladislav’s mother. “They had to find someone to convict and punish in order to distract the focus of people from the problems that existed then. It was when Lukashenko’s opponents were arrested, when thousands of people were imprisoned. That moment the trials of the political prisoners started.”

She was in the capital to campaign against the death penalty with the national human rights NGO, Viasna. “We collect signatures for the abolishment of the death penalty in Belarus. The death penalty here only serves as an instrument to keep people in fear. And we have the elections again and it’s not clear what is going to happen. Maybe there will be new political prisoners. It is impossible to foresee the situation. That is why we are trying to give the people information about what happened to us, to show people the weakness of the investigative and judicial system, when here they are following instructions to arrest, convict and punish innocent people.”

I don’t remember meeting a more dignified woman. But it’s clear that for her and the rest of the country the shadow of the last election hangs like a pall.

The outlawed Belarus Free Theatre

In other circumstances my next appointment might have seemed a little frivolous: I was going to the theatre. But it wasn’t just any troupe of actors or a normal setting for a play. The outlawed Belarus Free Theatre puts on clandestine performances of banned plays in basements, warehouses and even in the forests on the outskirts of Minsk. Audiences are texted before a performance to meet at a secret rendezvous. They are advised to carry their IDs in case they are caught by the KGB.

Shortly before sundown my crew and I were met by an actress at a prearranged location and taken to the secret venue. The BFT was cofounded by theatre producer Natalia Kaliada, her husband, the playwright Nicolai Khalezin, and another activist, Vladimir Shcherban.

It was a collaborative project involving many of Belarus’s most gifted theatrical artists. Before leaving London I’d met Natalia, who now lives in exile and coordinates performances remotely. I’d  asked her about the effect of Lukashenko’s rule.

“In terms of culture,” she told me, “our traditions and language are completely destroyed. There are some games that Lukashenko is playing – from time to time, perhaps once a year, he starts to speak in the Belarusian language in order to show to Russia that we are independent; but in reality our best philosophers, writers and historians are removed from the school programme, so if you go deep into our society it’s a catastrophe.”  

She explained that she and her colleagues had all lost friends, who’d been targeted by the regime’s death squads.

“There were four major political opponents who were kidnapped and killed one after another… their cases were not investigated, their bodies never found; and then there was another murder of a journalist, a very close friend of ours. It was a staged suicide and it was in 2010, right before the last elections.”

I thought back to this grim assessment as I settled down to watch the play. It was called  “Discover Love” and it told the story of one of the disappeared. It was startling, brutal and completely mesmerising. Looking around to gauge its effects on the audience, it was easy to understand why the work was banned in Belarus and why Lukashenko sees the BFT as a threat.
In October 2015, Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected as president of Belarus [EPA/Tatyana Zenkovich]

Election day

On the eve of polling day I went along to an opposition rally. This was something of an unprecedented event – the first one to be held in the centre of Minsk for almost a decade. It had been organised by Mikalai Statkevich, an opposition leader who after standing for president in 2010 had been imprisoned for almost five years and was only recently released.

He’d been beaten and kept in solitary confinement for months on end, and says he was offered his freedom if he agreed to sign a confession. He refused and even an assassination attempt on his wife failed to break his spirit.

This steadfastness only added to his popularity, and when I turned into Liberty Square, where the protest was being held, it was clear that thousands of supporters had turned up to see him.

Of course Statkevich had been banned from standing in this election but, as the crowd weaved its way through the city the enthusiasm of his supporters, many of whom had only ever known life under Lukashenko, was plain to see. They wildly applauded his short speech.

“The nation lives for as long as there is someone fighting for it,” he declared. “As long as you live, Belarus lives. Long live Belarus! Long live Belarus!”

The following day I saw Belarusians being enticed into voting booths by official stalls selling cheap vegetables, cheap chocolate and even cheaper vodka – in one place I even witnessed a child singer belting out patriotic songs under the proud gaze of his mother.

This was the same polling station where Tatsiana Karatkevich cast her vote. As the only truly genuine opposition candidate allowed to stand in this tightly controlled contest, she attracted a lot of support – certainly everyone I met over subsequent weeks told me they’d voted for her.

But even as Karaktevich arrived amid a clicking of cameras from the local media, it was clear that supporting her was an exercise more in hope than reality – as the candidate herself clearly realised. As she left I grabbed a moment of her time to ask about her prospects in the poll. She quoted Josef Stalin at me: “It doesn’t matter who votes, it matters who counts the votes.”

Those counting the votes this time were almost exclusively going to be Lukashenko’s people, all of whom surely had the example of one Viktar Hanchar in mind. As a former head of  the electoral commission, the body supposedly responsible for overseeing polls in Belarus, Hanchar had once made a fatal error of disagreeing publicly with the president. He subsequently disappeared without trace. His successor, Lidia Yarmoshyna, already the subject of an EU travel ban for her alleged role in previous electoral frauds, was unlikely to make the same mistake.

A negative signal from Minsk

Like all the other foreign journalists in Minsk, I hung around to see if there would be a repeat of the crackdown that followed the last election in 2010.

Back then crowds had gathered in Independence Square outside the electoral commission in their tens of thousands. This time there was hardly anyone to be seen. A giant TV screen on the edge of the square was showing endless clips of Lukashenko casting his vote with Kolya, his 11-year-old son, in tow. It came as no surprise to the few people watching when Lukashenko was declared the winner.

So we made our way to the nearby parliament building where a young man called Yahor Skrabneuski was carrying the Belarusian flag in lone protest.

“I’ve decided to come to express my civic position,” he told us. “If I didn’t come, there would be even fewer people.” A few minutes after speaking to us he was dragged off by the militia.

Next morning I met Mikalai Statkevich in the garden of his small cottage on the outskirts of Minsk. As we sipped black tea, he explained the surroundings: “I can’t invite you to our party office because our party is forbidden and acting in the name of it will lead to two years of imprisonment.”

I was keen to hear his view on the election in which he’d been forbidden to run.

“There were no elections yesterday, there was only the end of an operation that Lukashenko and his people had organised. My stance is to ignore them.”

So what’s next? I asked him. Could things improve in Belarus with Lukashenko still at the helm?

“Every year Belarus gets 20 percent of its GDP as a present from Russia. Lukashenko has turned Belarus into an unprofitable branch of the Russian economy. To develop an independent economy will need reforms which Lukashenko is afraid of because he thinks it will endanger his power over the country, so he will never agree to that. Therefore all the attempts of the Western politicians to make him turn from the East to the West look naive and out of place.”

A street scene in the city of Hoiniki in Belarus. 'Lukashenko has turned Belarus into an unprofitable branch of the Russian economy,' Mikalai Statkevich explains [Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]
A street scene in the city of Hoiniki in Belarus. ‘Lukashenko has turned Belarus into an unprofitable branch of the Russian economy,’ Mikalai Statkevich explains [Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]

On that note I asked for his view on the news that EU sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime had recently been suspended. There’d even been a remarkably emollient statement from Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, that Minsk is sending positive signals.

“Actually, I think that Minsk has sent a negative signal yet again,” Statkevich said. “The signal was about ignoring the basic principles of democracy and Mr Tusk has sent the world a signal that ‘we are afraid of Russia. And in order to stop Belarus turning into a playground for Russian aggression we are going to neglect our own values – the values which our countries were built on – and we are willing to send the people of Belarus a signal that these values don’t mean anything and can be disregarded.”

Trapped in a time warp

The following day I wanted to see some of the country away from the capital. We drove south towards neighbouring Ukraine, travelling on long empty roads through vast forests interspersed with villages that could have been a backdrop to David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago.

To pass the time I discussed the country’s past and present with my fixer, who valiantly tried to put a positive spin on things, but the truth is modern history hasn’t been that kind to Belarus.

It lost one in four of its population to the Nazis in World War II, endured decades of repression under Stalin and his Soviet successors, and then in 1986 was hit by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster just over the border in Ukraine.

Some 70 percent of the resulting fallout landed on Belarus and tens of thousands of people had to be evacuated. Even today a large part of the south of the country remains contaminated but in Lukashenko’s utopia there’s no room for failure and according to the president, these polluted provinces had been rehabilitated and were safe to be reoccupied.

As we drove towards “the Zone”, as it’s known, I reflected on what I’d  been told by a leading radiological expert, that previously abandoned fields in contaminated areas were now being cultivated as part of a drive to make the area profitable for a country in desperate financial straits. But of course radioactive residue had been finding its way into the local food chain with inevitable consequences – a 45-fold increase in thyroid cancers among children and soaring rates of leukaemia and prostate cancer.  

At the first village we came to in the Zone we met Alena Burak.

“Nowadays young people are more sick than the elderly,” she told us. “Maybe the elderly got used to it and the young ones are all sick. We are not too old, but everywhere it hurts. I’m scared of what tomorrow will bring.”

Children were playing in the fields and there was an air of normality. But before long we noticed deserted houses, dozens of them, some derelict, some looking much the same as the day they were abandoned by owners fleeing the radiation. We stopped and went into one. It still had family portraits on the wall, overcoats hanging on pegs and children’s toys lying scattered about. It felt as if the occupants had only just left; like much else of Belarus under its current president, the place was trapped in a time warp.

Can change ever come to Belarus? It had been hard to find any grounds for optimism during my visit, but on my last day in Minsk I visited the capital’s first and only independent bookshop. It’s called Lohvinau and last year it was fined 60,000 euros ($65,425) for daring to sell books banned by the regime and providing a space for people to discuss what they’d read.

This should have meant closure for the store, which was certainly what the authorities intended. But then thousands of ordinary citizens from around the country had clubbed together and donated enough money to save the place from going under. For every individual donation a star had been painted on the ceiling of the store. As I stood there gazing up at this samizdat Milky Way I couldn’t help feeling – just for a moment – that something may finally be shifting in this beautiful but tragic country.