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Belarus, the Land of No Applause

Belarus, the Land of No Applause


14th November 2011 - World Affairs Journal

Unlike other dictators, who speak of their love for “freedom” and “liberty,” President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus is admirably blunt about his disdain for any trace of liberalism. “We have had so much so-called democracy that it has made us nauseated,” he said in April, after a mysterious bomb struck the Minsk metro, killing eleven in an attack which many Belarusians suspect was the work of the regime itself. From that point forward, he declared, democracy would be “limited to the square meter around where you are standing.”

But even that much democracy would prove to be too much for the Belarusian dictator, who has ruled the country for seventeen years. In late July, his regime drafted a law that would prohibit a “joint mass presence of citizens in a public place that has been chosen beforehand, including an outdoor space, and at a scheduled time for the purpose of a form of action or inaction that has been planned beforehand and is a form of public expression of the public or political sentiments or protest.” The measure, which in the words of the New York Times “prohibit[ed] people from standing together and doing nothing,” was proposed in response to a series of weekly protests that had begun a month earlier, whereby citizens gathered in public parks or on street corners each Wednesday night and did nothing more than clap their hands or synchronize their cell phones to ring at an appointed time.

There was nothing overtly political about these protests, like the one I attended in late June. Aware that such a demonstration was planned to take place that evening in Minsk’s October Square, as it had occurred for the previous three weeks, the government hastily scheduled a rock concert in the space and mandated that students enrolled in state universities attend. Undeterred by these cynical tactics, several hundred people showed up on the sidewalk outside the heavily policed plaza and began a slow procession, clapping their hands. Within minutes, dozens of bullet-headed, plainclothes security officers began corralling individuals into waiting police vans. Not a single demonstrator bore a political sign or chanted a political slogan. There was no mention of the name “Lukashenko.” Not even the word “freedom,” which has gained a new global currency in the wake of the Arab upheavals, crossed anyone’s lips. But then again, in Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, politics does not have to be overt to earn the wrath of the authorities.

That Belarus has been ruled for seventeen years by a regime that would proscribe clapping is hardly the least of its problems. But as the former Soviet republic faces the worst economic crisis since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko’s ossified leadership is, for the first time, actually beginning to threaten his near-two decade rule. Belarus’s economic predicament is the result of several factors, but was made inevitable once Lukashenko suddenly increased the salaries of public employees by thirty percent just weeks before last year’s presidential election, the results of which were declared on December 19th. In a country where little has changed since Soviet times and where some eighty percent of the public is still employed by the state, the move was Lukashenko’s attempt to literally buy support. Given his near total control over the country’s media, domination of the electoral commission, and harassment of opposition activists, however, he didn’t need to resort to such a Peronist tactic. His regime rigged the ballot in a process widely condemned by international observers, dispatched violent riot police to set upon thousands of peaceful protestors, and imprisoned seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates, two of whom remain in jail to this day.

A former collective farm manager who won a democratic election in 1994 and has withstood both Western sanctions and Russian pipeline politics to stay in power, Lukashenko can definitely boast of possessing certain leadership skills, but basic economic literacy is clearly not among them. Artificially raising the salaries of the vast majority of the country’s citizens was obviously going to boost inflation, which it almost immediately did. By April, the country’s foreign currency reserves had fallen by more than $2 billion to $3.7 billion. The following month, the government devalued the ruble against the dollar by thirty-seven percent. From the time I visited Minsk in December to my return in June, the value of the ruble had been cut in half.

In the aftermath of last year’s brutal post-election crackdown—which saw more than seven hundred people detained—a pall of desperation descended upon the country’s already beleaguered democrats. Many of the Belarusians I spoke to that frigid December night, both those formally affiliated with opposition politics and those who had never taken part but felt inspired to gather outside the main government building and demand an end to Lukashenko’s rule, genuinely felt that they had a chance to bring down the man often described as “The Last Dictator in Europe.” The large presence of international media and election observers (welcomed by Lukashenko in a halfhearted bid to prove his democratic bona fides), added to the perception that he would negotiate with the people on the street. That naive hope came crashing down when Lukashenko unleashed truncheon-wielding riot police, expelled representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and held a series of Stalinist show trials against his opponents. Many activists fled the country, adding to the already sizeable Belarusian diaspora.

The economic crisis, however, has given new life to anti-Lukashenko sentiment, broadening it to sectors normally supportive of the regime like pensioners and people living in more rural areas of the country. This new protest movement, organized via an Internet-based entity calling itself the “Revolution Through Social Networks,” is not tied to any of the established opposition groups or political parties, rendering it a new feature on the Belarusian political scene. Each and every week, plainclothes policemen have violently dispersed the gatherings, beating and arresting participants and even passersby who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since the meetings began last summer, nearly two thousand people have been arrested, many of them released after just hours or days in detention. While these protests do not represent a serious threat to the stability of the regime, they do indicate that discontent is growing. A recent poll found that Lukashenko’s approval ratings, which have almost always been fifty percent or higher, now stand at twenty. In a study conducted last summer by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, a Belarusian think tank forced into exile in neighboring Lithuania, respondents who say their personal finances have worsened in the past three months jumped from 26.9 to 73.4 percent. More than eighty percent polled believe the country’s economy is in “crisis,” and a similar number blame either Lukashenko or his “government” for the country’s predicament.

Though there are certainly other regimes in the world that are more oppressive than the one in Minsk, what makes Belarus unique is its geographical location in the heart of Europe. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, Europe has prided itself on being the exemplar of democratic and humane values. Belarus is the only country on the continent that holds political prisoners, a term which Europeans thought they had relegated to the jungles of Latin America, the deserts of the Middle East, or the Oriental tyrannies of Asia. That political prisoners are still being held on the continent is something Europeans rightly see as an embarrassment, and it poses one of the most significant challenges to the grand ambition of European integration. Like an unsightly boil too thick to lance, Belarus has been a pustule of authoritarianism on the body of Europe for nearly two decades—an obnoxious rebuke to that dream, repeated endlessly by presidents and prime ministers alike, of a Europe “whole, free and at peace.”

Vladimir Neklyaev bears a semblance to Vladimir Putin, but he sounds like Vaclav Havel. Like the famous Czech dissident who led his people to freedom without firing a shot, the sixty-four-year-old Neklyaev is a man of letters, a poet who shares Havel’s unassuming manner. He entered politics last year with the creation of a movement called “Tell the Truth!,” from which he mounted his campaign to challenge Lukashenko for the presidency. Already a figure of some national renown, he emerged as one of the leading contenders, a prominence for which he paid a high price: on his way to join his fellow candidates at the post-election protest, he was savagely beaten by a group of unidentified men and then kidnapped from the intensive care unit of the hospital where he had been rushed by supporters.  

As he was dragged naked from his hospital bed, Neklyaev told me, he thought that evening would be his last, reasoning that his captors would dress him if they meant to keep him alive. So when he ended up in a jail cell instead of a dark forest, he was relieved. (Such are the things that pass for reassurance in an authoritarian state). He was tortured in prison, forced into stress positions, and made to stand outside in sub-zero temperatures. Neklayev was ultimately given a two-year suspended sentence for organizing a mass disturbance, though the threat of re-imprisonment on trumped-up charges continues to hang over his head. Joined by his much younger wife, Olga, we sit on the second floor of an expensive cafe not far from the presidential palace and across the street from October Square, where opposition protestors had initially gathered last December. Just a few blocks down the street is the headquarters of the KGB (Belarus is the only former Soviet republic whose security service has retained the name), run by Lukashenko’s oldest son, Viktor, and looming over Minsk’s main thoroughfare like an impassive ogre. 

Neklyaev tells me that he sees four possible outcomes for Belarus. The first would be a revolution in which a mass of people storms the presidential palace. The second would be the “Ceausescu option,” in which, faced with large street protests, figures in the Belarusian security apparatus decide to dispose of Lukashenko as their counterparts in the Romanian army executed the communist leader and his wife. Third is the “Kuchma option,” whereby Lukashenko, like the former Ukrainian president who failed to orchestrate the fraudulent election victory of his successor, stepped down peacefully. Finally, there is the “Jaruzelski option,” named after the last Communist leader of Poland, who took part in the negotiations with the opposition Solidarity movement that set the way for the first fully democratic elections in 1991.

Neklyaev personally excludes the first option (he does not support, or even grant the possibility of, taking control by force) and the Kuchma option (“Lukashenko is not capable of rejecting power,” he tells me). That leaves either an internal military coup or some sort of negotiated settlement that opens up the space for a genuine democratic election. Neklyaev says that the security services hold the power, and that whereas they initially supported Lukashenko for ideological reasons, today they merely want to protect their status. “If I were in Lukashenko’s shoes, I would not count a lot on the security services because their motivation is clearly financially driven,” he says.  

This renders the economy the most important factor. Lukashenko has no economic vision, and has thus far responded to the crisis in an ad hoc manner, begging for International Monetary Fund aid or loans from individual governments. Making the necessary economic reforms is anathema to Lukashenko, Neklyaev says, as it would require privatizing huge sectors of the economy and thus reduce his stranglehold over the country. Neklyaev told me that the situation would come to a head by this fall, when citizens return from their summer dachas and “there will be no money to pay wages and salaries.” Yet, far from take to the streets in protest over the worsening economic situation, Belarusians remain submissive as ever.

Neklyaev, like so many of the opposition activists I’ve met in Belarus, is an admirable man. But he is unable to explain to me why, instead of rallying around one opposition figure and movement, opposition politics remains so fractious. Indeed, the fact that Belarus is an authoritarian state that ranks near the very bottom of Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” index is seemingly belied by the panoply of opposition parties (albeit only a handful of which are legally registered) and organizations. In addition to Neklyaev’s “Tell the Truth” campaign, there’s the alphabet soup of the Belarusian Popular Front, the United Civil Party, Belarusian Christian Democracy, European Belarus, the Movement for Freedom, and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, among others. Though they may vary in their approach to specific policy questions, it’s difficult to see what divides them from the primary goal of bringing the authoritarian regime in Belarus to an end.  

In this sense, while they no doubt have had to endure under incredibly difficult circumstances, the Belarusian opposition has contributed to its own failures by stubbornly refusing to unite. One of the crucial features of the national movements that helped bring down Communism in the former Soviet bloc was that they were united around a single organization and charismatic figure; Solidarity and Lech Walesa in Poland, Charter 77 and Havel in Czechoslovakia. That no leader has galvanized opposition to Lukashenko’s outmoded regime ranks as yet another of Belarus’s misfortunes.

 

Viktor Martinovich, a journalist for the independent BelGazeta newspaper, is as withering a critic of the opposition as he is the regime. “They have been useless since December 19, 2010” he told me. A slim, unassuming man in his early 30s, Martinovich is the author of a novel, Paranoia, about a love triangle in an unnamed, post-Soviet state. Though the word “Belarus” never appears in the novel, its theme was sufficiently subversive to earn the wrath of the authorities; two days after its release, the government banned its sale in shops. We’re sitting in BelGazeta’s cramped, dirty office, right down the hall from a government agency, the innocent-sounding Operational and Analytical Center, which monitors Internet use and occasionally attacks antigovernment websites. The opposition parties, Martinovich says, “Are infiltrated by the KGB and manipulated by the KGB.” When I ask him what more the West can do to help Belarus, his answer surprises me. “The more Western countries aid, the more they help, the more corrupt receivers we have here,” he tells me. It’s for this reason that he’s so pleased to see the development of the Web-based movement Revolution Through Social Networks, as it’s not affiliated with the hodgepodge of what he considers to be ineffective opposition groups.

That sentiment is shared Vital Rymasheuski, cochair of the Belarus Christian Democracy party and its presidential candidate last year. “I think the much bigger problem is the high number of Western sponsors and donors that exist,” he responds when I ask why there is such a proliferation of relatively small opposition organizations. “I think if those donors, if they left Belarus, that would automatically trigger the elimination of several political structures which you mentioned and that could make our political life easier.” Of course, Rymasheuski isn’t offering to leave politics. Iryna Vidanava, editor of the independent youth magazine 34, says that,  “personal ambition” is “everywhere” in politics, and in Belarus the story is no different than it is in “the United States or in any other big country,” except that there’s “a small pie” to divide. But the pie has just grown substantially bigger; in response to the election crackdown, Western donors committed more than $120 million to Belarusian opposition groups.

One of the biggest structural challenges facing democrats in Belarus—aside from their own inability to unite against Lukashenko—is the lack of a coherent national identity. Anti-Communists in the former Soviet republics, from Azerbaijan to Ukraine, invoked distinct national narratives, conveyed to their people in a local language, and by this fashion exposed the immorality and oppressiveness of what was in actuality a newfangled Russian empire that hinged upon the widespread collaboration of local opportunists in Communist parties. But the Belarusian opposition’s task has been complicated by the fact that the country—unlike Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltics and most other nations of the Eastern bloc—had never enjoyed genuine independence until 1991. Prior to its becoming a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, the lands of modern-day Belarus had always been part of other countries, whether the Principality of Polosky (which lasted from the ninth to the fourteenth century), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (twelfthcentury to 1569), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569 to1791), or the Russian czarist empire, in which it was a part for some two centuries. While a Belarusian language exists, Belarusians primarily speak and read Russian. Throughout the country’s history, Polish and later Russian were seen as languages of social advancement, with Belarusian widely considered a rural, peasant tongue.

For most of his tenure, Lukashenko attempted to clamp down on Belarusian identity. He did so to prevent the development of a national consciousness that might subsume his status as supreme leader (he is often referred to, not always jokingly, as “Daddy”). Instead, Lukashenko has flattered Russia, emphasizing the two countries’ fraternal relationship in the erstwhile Soviet Union. In the 1990s, he actually went so far as to propose the idea of uniting Belarus and the Russian Federation in an arrangement that would have seen him replace Boris Yeltsin as leader. Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written that, “the closest historical analogue to Lukashenko’s ideology is that of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy France: an idealization of hearth and home, an unequal and cloying alliance with a powerful eastern neighbor, and a constant condemnation of outsiders.” Under Lukashenko, the country’s official history begins with World War II, emphasizing Belarus’s role as a front-line region against the Nazi’s Operation Barbarossa. Belarus suffered more, on a per capita basis, than any other nation during World War II, with nearly a third of its prewar population perishing.  

This history of hardship accounts for a contemporary culture of political passivity. Without being too culturally determinist, there is, as more than one Belarusian expressed it to me, a “genetic memory” that inhibits political change here, as Belarusians are raised on stories of the adversity their ancestors endured. “We have two hundred years of suppressed political culture,” Martinovich says, referring to the period that began with Belarus’s incorporation into czarist Russia. “Every Belarusian citizen who reads history books in school knows there is no chance we could get freedom.” Perhaps it is this story of submission that dulls Belarusians into compliance, instilling in them a belief that life is a vale of tears to be endured, not improved. Indeed, Belarusians have never enjoyed prosperity as they have under the rule of Lukashenko, whose authoritarian social contact exchanged political freedom for economic stability. While the protest last December was one of the largest in the country’s history, the total number of people who showed up—with estimates ranging from ten to forty thousand—is negligible for a country of ten million, not nearly enough to overturn a well-armed and legitimately popular regime. “It’s a contradiction,” says Anna (a pseudonym), a twenty-four-year-old teacher as we met for coffee late one evening at a cafe on Prospekt Nezavisimosti, Minsk’s main drag. “Inside most of us, on the one hand, we are against this system, and on the other hand, we are apathetic. The fear is deeply rooted. Our grandparents told our parents: don’t get involved [in politics]. And they tell the same to us.”

Walking the streets of Minsk, it does not take long to figure out that Belarus is a police state. The broad avenues in the center are spotlessly clean in a way that the streets in democratic countries simply are not. Men in uniforms walking slowly and sternly with batons affixed to their waists are ubiquitous; their purpose seems solely to intimidate. But the appearance of so many uniformed men on patrol, and the strong-arm tactics the regime uses to disperse peaceful demonstrations, can be deceptive. Belarus is not like Syria or Zimbabwe, where the government regularly tortures and kills political dissidents with impunity. Due to the Soviet-style economy, it doesn’t have to inflict violence on a wide scale to keep the population cowed. It can merely threaten the livelihoods of anyone who dare participate in a protest, never mind becomes involved in opposition politics. Anna tells me the story of one friend, “who was brave. But then one thing happened. Someone called her father and said, ‘If you want to continue working where you do, calm down your daughter.’ She quit all that opposition stuff,” and is now planning to move to Canada, joining the steady migration of young Belarusians who have decided they have no future in their country. “The bravest, cleverest people decide to leave if they want a normal life,” Anna says. Likewise, as practically all of higher education in Belarus is state-run, students who become involved in opposition politics—or are even spotted at an opposition rally—face expulsion. It’s for this reason that Anna doesn’t even think about attending a protest, no matter how badly she wants to. In exchange for her education, she must teach in a government school for two years. Involvement in politics could cost her not just her current job, but any future employment. She, too, is starting the process of emigrating.

In light of this repression, where the consequences of resistance are so great, fear is not hard to find. When I asked the owner of a music store who or what is responsible for the fact that his sales have been cut in half, he simply smiled at me. “I am a bit shy,” says Lilia, a fifty-seven-year-old woman whom I met at one of Minsk’s most popular markets, where she complained to me about the skyrocketing prices for produce. “I think you’re aware if you open your mouth and say something you will be taken to prison. There is no democracy here. It’s wrong.”

Sviatlana Harohavik, twenty-four, is one of the few Belarusians who have chosen to opt into politics, and knows the costs of that decision more than most of her fellow oppositionists. Both she and her fiancé, Pavel Vinahradau, had been involved with Neklyaev’s campaign and participated in the protest on December 19th. On the evening of January 5th, Sviatlana heard “a heavy knock on the door” of their apartment, a detail that opens so many of the stories one hears in Belarus. Pavel asked who was there, and when “KGB” came in response, he replied he would not let them in. The men, five in all, summoned the landlady and managed to enter the apartment. Pavel was taken away and, for the next six hours, the KGB agents rummaged through the apartment, eventually absconding with notebooks, a computer, mobile phone, and money. Sviatlana was left alone.

She didn’t see Pavel until four months later, in a courtroom. On May 5th, a judge sentenced him to four years in prison for helping to organize “mass disturbances.” Pavel was ordered to serve his time in a prison about a hundred and fifty miles outside of Minsk, near the Polish border.

Sviatlana and Pavel still managed to tie the knot. On July 22nd, the two exchanged vows at the Volchyi Nory penal colony. The wedding party consisted of the couple’s parents and two witnesses, and the newlyweds were allowed a three-day conjugal visit in a private room. When I ask Sviatlana if she had purchased a wedding gown, she replied. “I don’t think white wedding dress is appropriate for prison so I will put on something more modest.” She wore red.

In the early evening hours of a recent Sunday, a group of about fifty young Belarusians gathered at a decrepit house on the outskirts of Minsk. An old refrigerator, worn tires, and a broken bicycle littered the backyard, which was surrounded by a wooden fence. Inside the house, a narrow hallway led to a rectangular room, where styrofoam boards covered the windows to block out the light, and, one presumes, the prying eyes of passersby.

For Belarusians with an independent mind and more than a bit of courage, this clandestine gathering is just a regular night out at the theater. The Belarus Free Theater, that is, which was founded in March 2005. Over the past six years, its performers have been fired from their jobs in state theater companies, others have been forced to flee the country, and entire audiences have been arrested. It is for this reason that the theater must perform in the living room of a dilapidated home. Other venues have included the woods or apartments. Invitations are sent by text message; there is no admission fee though a donation box sits at the door.

The production I happened to attend, Zone of Silence, was not agitprop. One act satirized figures living on the fringes of Belarusian society, like a woman who parades around Minsk in a red dress while bearing the flag of the Soviet Union, or a black, gay man who is routinely harassed. There were no fiery monologues denouncing Lukashenko. Everyone in the audience knows about the nature of the regime, as evidenced by the fact that we were being forced to sit very uncomfortably, riveted but nonetheless crammed together in a secret location, just to watch a theatrical production. The people in the room understand that they don’t live in a democracy. What they might not know, however, are some of the statistics flashed on the screen in the third act, “Numbers.”

For instance, that thirteen “modeling agencies” participate in sex trafficking. Or that eight out of ten pregnancies end in abortion. Or that sixty percent of women report domestic violence. As these grim figures confront the audience, the actors dramatize them in pantomime.

These social problems have little to do with the repression of the Lukashenko regime per se. But they address the ugly realities of a country whose people hear little else but the sunny news typical of Soviet-style propaganda. These are the sorts of social problems that are simply not discussed in the state-controlled media, theaters, or other venues of public discourse. “I had never seen anything like that before,” my twenty-two-year-old friend Sergei says as he walks surreptitiously onto the street, alternately spellbound and shocked by the performance he had just experienced.

A few days after this performance, I meet with Alexander Feduta, a journalist and intellectual who had served as an adviser to Vladimir Neklyaev’s campaign. He had been arrested in the initial roundup of political activists last December, and held in prison for three months. We meet in a cafe just a block from Minsk’s massive World War II memorial, the place where Lukashenko would, in a few days, hold court over the country’s Independence Day celebration. He sets down his briefcase and a book about Russian theater, and begins to chat.

“The effect he’s had on the culture of this country is similar to that of tropical rain,” Feduta told me, in what might be the only positive aspect, albeit unintentional, of Lukashenko’s rule. “Because it’s under a lot of rain water and damp weather, you get a lot of weeds growing and these are not interesting to anyone. But this is not to say that these weeds do not prevent nice plants from growing. By his attempts to kill this independent culture he’s in a way stimulating its development.”

Feduta is fond of these lush analogies. “It’s kind of like telling them what an exotic fruit tastes like,” he says when I ask him if he thinks Belarusians are aware of the responsibilities and challenges, not just privileges, which democracy entails. That said, he sees no other option but the path of political and economic liberalization, though he shrugs his shoulders and sighs when I ask him if there’s anything more the West could be doing to help his cause. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the West could do to Castro, to put pressure on Kim Jong-il. I have no answer to that.”

 

On July 3rd, Belarus celebrated its independence. Not the twentieth year of its independence from the Soviet Union, but the sixty-seventh year of its liberation from fascism. As part of his campaign to simultaneously smother a distinct national identity and revive nostalgia for the Soviet past, Lukashenko changed the country’s independence day from August 25th (the day Belarus succeeded from the Soviet Union), to July 3rd, when the Soviets liberated Minsk from the Nazis. When I visited in late June, the city was festooned with the national flag of green and red, and giant billboards featuring the smiling faces of World War II veterans next to the phrase “Together, We are Belarus!” were everywhere in sight.

Lukashenko delivered a usual tirade about foreign conspiracies threatening to destroy Belarus. “We must strongly and consistently oppose the unconscionable scenario of the ‘colored revolutions,’ which are written as a blueprint in the capitals of other countries,” he thundered, the recent turmoil in the Arab world no doubt on his mind. What followed was a Soviet-style military parade, with soldiers and missiles and tanks on display. Positioned on the reviewing stand next to Lukashenko, dressed in a matching military uniform, was the dictator’s six-year-old son Kolya, whom the Belarusian president takes everywhere from diplomatic meetings abroad to public ceremonies at home. The obvious resemblance to Dr. Evil and Mini-Me seemed to have been lost only on Lukashenko and his inner circle.

In early September, Lukashenko announced that he would pardon all of those whom had been arrested for their involvement in the events of the December 19th protests last year, including presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who had been imprisoned since that evening. The announcement came as part of a dribs-and-drabs release of political prisoners, including Pavel Vinahradau, the twenty-three-year-old activist who married his fiancée while serving time at the Volchyi Nory penal colony. Though Belarusian democrats are obviously pleased by the release of their comrades, they warn the West not to read too much in Lukashenko’s moves; he has attempted to trade political prisoners for concessions in the past. And lest there be any doubt that the pardoning of opposition figures might eventually lead the regime to negotiate with them, Lukashenko ridiculed such hopes. “I’m not going to talk with any of them,” he declared. Despite Lukashenko’s promise, Sannikov, as well as Social Democratic Party chairman and presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich, remain in jail to this day.

“I think Lukashenko, by his own intuition, wants to drag all of the people into his madness, to bring them to his own state of mind and to create this impression of societal madness,” Neklyaev told me. And so the nation of Belarus, the bloody battleground of the  twentieth century’s dual totalitarian systems, a victim of both Nazi and Soviet occupation, is now daily subjected to the whims of a collective farm manager. An apocryphal story about Joseph Stalin recounts how the apparatchiks at party conferences would applaud endlessly after his speeches in the knowledge that “Dear Father” would execute the man who stopped clapping first. Alexander Lukashenko’s paranoia has driven him to do the complete opposite: at his nationally televised Independence Day speech, standing before tens of thousands of citizens whom he had bussed in from across the country, he forbade his beloved people from applauding him at all.

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europe, human-rights