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16.06.2006 | Yury Chumak, KHPG

Belarus – no trembling submission

   

The elections in Belarus this year, as has become the norm recently, were held without the right of choice. Lukashenko, dubbed “the last dictator of Europe”, continues as President. Those who have protested against his regime are facing persecution.

I recently spoke with one of the Belarusians who has come to Ukraine to escape the clutches of Batsko [Papa] Lukashenko’s henchmen.

His name is Andrei, and he has not been in Ukraine long. In March he was “feeling the heat” in a detention centre of one of the regional police stations in the Grodno region. Here in Ukraine he is tasting  freedom and is in no hurry to return.  Quite simply, because they’re waiting for him, and not with bread and salt [- the traditional Slavonic way of greeting welcome guests - translator].

Andrei was the editor of an independent local newspaper published in the district centre of the Grodno region. However, using a fabricated pretext, the Belarusian Ministry of Information decided to suspend issue of the newspaper. This happened in autumn of last year, on the eve of the beginning of the presidential campaign, clearly in order to “clear” the information realm within the country from the last bastions of free speech. In response, the journalist who was thus out of favour declared a hunger strike. With this protest action, the chief editor sought to bring about a reversal of the decision to suspend his paper and also to persuade the “competent bodies” to accept for consideration material on violations of electoral legislation during the previous elections and referendum which he had.  The hunger strike lasted 20 days when it had to be suspended due to a sharp worsening in Andrei’s state of health.

However even more acute than physical hunger proved the information-starved state that Belarusian society was driven into by the state policy under Lukashenko’s regime. Andrei had no intention of succumbing to this system. He became dangerous to the regime which was hoping to run the presidential elections in conditions of total control. Therefore, on 18 March 2006, literally one day before the voting, Andrei was detained. It all took place like in American action films: he was dragged from a taxi, sent to a temporary holding facility of the local police department, where they didn’t even let him vote. The formal grounds were provided by a ruling of the district court which sentenced the journalist to three days administrative arrest under the Article “petty hooliganism”, supposedly for foul language directed at the head of the district police station.

While imprisoned, Andrei’s blood pressure rose, as a result of which the ambulance service was called out 9 times. However, they still did not hospitalize him. “Because we haven’t been told to”, was the doctors’ response, looking away.

The “law enforcement officers” released Andrei only after first submitting two summons to the Committee for State Control – a somewhat specific Belarusian body which is a combination of the Ukrainian Control and Audit Department, the Tax Inspectorate and the Security Services.

However even at home Andrei was kept under scrutiny with his telephone tapped, his movements tailed almost openly, and his contacts with friends and people he knew being carefully monitored.

Preventive measures were applied to stop Andrei and those with similar views from taking part in the protest actions which the Belarusian opposition organized in Minsk.  Several people were detained. Using threats, blackmail, intimidation and arrests the authorities stopped the departure of a group of local activists of the civic movement who were heading for the capital of Belarus.

Andrei was warned: if you leave your house, you’ll be arrested and this time it won’t just be for three days. Not wishing to just sit it out, he decided to get out of the district centre however he could. At night and in secret, hiding in a car boot, Andrei fled his town and headed for Minsk. After the crushing of the democratic revolution in Belarus, the journalist decided not to wait for the regime to find another excuse for dealing with him, and headed to Russia, and from there to Ukraine.

Here in the country where the Orange Revolution succeeded, he clearly felt a huge difference between Ukraine and his home country.  It was manifested for him in the atmosphere of freedom. Freedom reigns in the Ukrainian media, in politics, in the civil rights of the population.  Yes, there are a lot of economic transformations that are far from complete. Yes, a lot of promises given on Maidan have not been kept. There have been a lot of mistakes, errors of judgement and inconsistencies in the actions of the regime. However, the main thing that separates democratic Ukraine from post-totalitarian Belarus is that we have freedom of speech, as against the total lack of such in the neighbouring Slavonic country which also emerged from out of the Soviet Union.

And this freedom is worth cherishing and must be defended.

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