Belarus crackdown strains ties with both EU and Russia
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown on the opposition has prompted the EU to consider sanctions. But some members say that could backfire.
Belarussian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko appears to be accelerating the crackdown on Belarus' beleaguered prodemocracy opposition. There have been more than 600 arrests since riot police broke up a rally of about 30,000 people who were attempting to protest alleged fraud in the Dec. 19 presidential elections that brought Mr. Lukashenko back to power for an unprecedented fourth five-year term.Skip to next paragraph
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Russia this week cut off oil supplies to Belarus in a "commercial dispute" – a sure sign of Moscow's displeasure with its wayward former ally – while the European Union is mulling renewed sanctions that would ban travel to Europe for top Belarussian officials.
Authorities in Minsk claim that opposition leaders attempted to stage a coup d'etat on election night, when a small group of demonstrators tried to storm the central election headquarters on Minsk's central square and were beaten back by riot police. Thirty-one people, including five presidential candidates, have been charged with "incitement to riot," and could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
"Things are very tense, and there is no sign of this campaign against civil society winding down anytime soon," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, who was the presidential candidate for the liberal United Civil Party in last month's election. "It's a general assault on all democratic forces. Nothing like this has ever happened in Belarus before."
Mr. Romanchuk, who was reached by phone in Minsk Wednesday, says his own party leader, Anatoly Lebedchuk, is among those who've been held in prison for the past 3 weeks and face potentially lengthy sentences. "All of our efforts now are aimed at getting him out of jail," he says. "These charges are totally trumped up."
The most poignant example of the current crackdown is 3-year-old Danil Sannikov, whose imprisoned parents are former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and independent journalist Irina Khalip. Danil's grandmother, Lyutsina Khalip, has been informed by authorities that she's being investigated to see if she's "competent" to care for the boy. If they decide she is not, he may become a ward of the state.
Reached by telephone in Minsk on Wednesday, Ms. Khalip was near tears. "The police have just searched my flat – for the second time," she said. "There is constant pressure on me, and constant tension. I'm trying to get together documents to to establish guardianship over my grandson, but it's very hard. Danil keeps asking where his parents are. What do I tell him?"
Where is the media?
Andrei Bastinets, deputy chair of Belarus' non-governmental Association of Journalists, says that independent media is on the verge of being wiped out.
"We've had 25 journalists arrested, 20 of them beaten, and the majority of them are members of our association," he said by phone. "This is a very serious trial for us. Official media is waging an unrelenting campaign, with constant programming aimed at discrediting all democratic opposition. Almost every day there are fresh searches of media offices, journalists are summoned for interrogation, and many remain in prison. They seize computers, notebooks, everything. How can people go on working?"