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Belarus's Lukashenka Doubles Down On Fear To Silence Pro-Democracy Opponents

A protester holds a forbidden red-and-white Belarusian flag as he stands in front of a police line during a rally after the disputed Belarusian presidential election in Minsk in August 2020.
A protester holds a forbidden red-and-white Belarusian flag as he stands in front of a police line during a rally after the disputed Belarusian presidential election in Minsk in August 2020.

MINSK -- Dzyanis Urbanovich, a Belarusian opposition leader and no stranger to longtime leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s security apparatus and jails, was snatched off the streets of Minsk on April 21 and locked up in a prison that has become synonymous with torture.

Urbanovich, leader of the outlawed Malady Front (Youth Front) movement, was sentenced the next day in a trial that he says lasted all of three minutes and thrown back into a overcrowded two-person cell at the notorious Akrestsina detention center.

Dzyanis Urbanovich
Dzyanis Urbanovich

Versed in the harsh conditions at Akrestsina, Urbanovich was nonetheless shocked by a new tactic the guards employed.

“It was hot in there, and they poured in a bucket of bleach,” Urbanovich recently recounted to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “The air became thick with the fumes and you couldn’t breathe. Your eyes started to tear up and your throat burned. You became wobbly, swaying here and there…. You needed to rinse your mouth with water and spit it out.”

The recent use of bleach at Akrestsina has been confirmed publicly by at least one other Belarusian jailed there and highlights what observers say are Lukashenka’s increasingly aggressive measures aimed at eliminating the remaining opposition to his rule.

Displaying the opposition’s colors of red and white -- be it on banners or even socks -- can result in arrest, detention, or a fine.

Lukashenka, a 66-year-old former Soviet collective farm manager who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has pushed changes through in his rubber-stamp parliament that further criminalize criticizing the government or taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations. Other pending changes would make it a crime for reporters to cover unsanctioned protests or stream them online.

Lukashenka has chosen a "deterrence strategy,” unleashing a new wave of repression to prevent any fresh wave of mass protests, one analyst says.
Lukashenka has chosen a "deterrence strategy,” unleashing a new wave of repression to prevent any fresh wave of mass protests, one analyst says.

Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of an August 9 election amid claims the vote was rigged against Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and arguably the biggest threat to Lukashenka’s decades-long rule. More than 30,000 have been detained and thousands beaten or even tortured in the government’s brutal crackdown.

The Belarusian NGO Vyasna says there are now 369 political prisoners in Belarus. Many opposition leaders are either in prison or have fled Belarus. Hundreds of journalists have been targeted as well, many simply for reporting on the protests.

Hard Authoritarian Or Soft Totalitarian?

To demonize the protest movement, Lukashenka has also recently pushed unfounded claims that the opposition -- allegedly backed by Washington -- was plotting to murder his family and depose him, prompting one of his top Interior Ministry officers to describe regime opponents as “wild dogs.”

While public discontent remains high, the price of protesting the Lukashenka regime has become increasingly high, with people either out of work, out of the country, or too scared to risk harsher penalties by taking to the streets, explained Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Center for Eastern Studies.

“In the past few months, the regime has evolved from what I’d call medium authoritarian to hard authoritarian or even soft totalitarian,” Klysinski told RFE/RL in e-mailed remarks. “His opponents are punished for everything, even for flags or clothes with the illegal white-red-white symbol. It’s an unprecedented situation, and that’s why there is no activity on the streets.”

Protests that once attracted as many as 200,000 people in Minsk in the wake of the disputed election are long a thing of the past. In recent months, flash mobs and other subtler forms of protest have become the norm.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya leads the Belarusian opposition from Lithuania.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya leads the Belarusian opposition from Lithuania.

Tsikhanouskaya, who left for Lithuania after the vote, conceded in February that the pro-democracy movement had “lost the streets.” She had hoped to reignite it on March 25, or Freedom Day, when Belarus marked the anniversary of the founding of the first, albeit short-lived, democratic Belarus republic in 1918.

Ahead of the planned nationwide rallies at that time, Ivan Tertel, the head of the KGB state security agency, claimed to have uncovered plans to “destabilize” Belarus. State-run television showed Interior Ministry troops preparing for “mass unrest,” and a top Interior Ministry official talked of dealing harshly with protesters, whom he had described as “enemies of the state.”

Given the threats and ongoing arrests, the large crowds never materialized. Nevertheless, more than 200 people were arrested that day at modest marches across the country, according to Vyasna.

Lukashenka “chose a deterrence strategy,” unleashing a new wave of repression to nip in the bud any fresh wave of mass protests, explained Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian analyst based in Sweden.

“Dozens of journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens were arrested,” Rudnik explained in e-mailed comments. “The regime introduced draconian laws on extremism and mass events. Right in this period, state TV started to actively produce more advanced propaganda materials with new narratives and stories. All this indicates Lukashenka is attempting to strengthen his power.”

Changes to the country's mass-media law -- passed by the rubber-stamp parliament in April -- would make it illegal for journalists to "discredit" the state, or livestream mass unauthorized gatherings, among other draconian measures. Average Belarusians face stiffer penalties for criticizing the government or taking part in unsanctioned rallies, according to changes to the country’s Criminal Code. The proposed changes have been denounced by rights activists, including Human Rights Watch.

'They Started Coughing, Retching…'

Urbanovich said conditions at Akrestsina -- one of the most notorious detention centers in Belarus -- worsened around the time of the planned mass demonstrations coinciding with Freedom Day.

“Up until Freedom Day, things were more or less the same,” he said. “There were mattresses, books, board games. And then on the 27th, it all changed. First, they took out the mattresses, and then gradually by April 1, there was nothing left. And after April 1, they began to deal with us physically.”

Mikalay Kazlou, a member of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian Opposition (KRBA) and leader of the opposition United Civil Party (AHP), was also jailed for 15 days at Akrestsina around the same time, having been snatched off the streets of Minsk on March 22. He also described being subjected to bleach or chlorine.

"They poured in two buckets of highly concentrated chlorine," Kazlou told Current Time. “So high, that after about half a minute everyone’s eyes began to tear, their noses began to run, they started coughing, retching. Some turned blue because the concentration was too high.”

Officials of the Lukashenka government denied the bleach claims.

Illegal Socks?

Meanwhile, reports appear on a near-daily basis of Belarusians being detained or fined for merely displaying anything with the colors red and white, which are associated with the opposition and the first republic flag.

Natalia Sivtsova-Syadushkina had the red-and-white banners hanging from her Minsk apartment balcony ripped down by Belarusian security officers on March 24. She was charged with “illegal picketing” and fined 2,030 rubles ($794).

The next day, Freedom Day, she was stopped on the street and fined 2,320 rubles ($900) for wearing "socks of the wrong color” -- red and white.

Belarusian Student Says He Was Beaten In A 'Torture Truck'
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“Now I owe 4,350 rubles,” Svitsova-Syadushkina told RFE/RL.
“I don’t have that kind of money to pay the fines, even though I work.”

According to Vyasna, more than 300 people were detained in April and at least 98 people were sentenced the same month on what it described as politically motivated charges, notably for the use of red-white symbols.

Coup Plot?

On April 17, Lukashenka made bizarre claims that an assassination attempt was being prepared against him and his two sons, as well as a military coup, to be carried out by a “group of foreign security services, probably the CIA and the FBI” and approved “by the top political leadership” in the United States. Washington quickly denied what it called the “absurd” claims.

The same day, Russian security services reported they had detained two people in Moscow for allegedly planning a military coup in Belarus. Yuras Zyankovich, a Belarusian-born lawyer who also holds U.S. citizenship, and Alyaksandr Fyaduta, who served as Lukashenka’s spokesman in the 1990s, were extradited to Belarus.

The claims came days before Lukashenka traveled to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Lukashenka has leaned on amid growing international isolation for his regime’s crackdown.

A protest against the actions of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Kyiv (file photo)
A protest against the actions of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Kyiv (file photo)

Moscow probably had a hand in the concocted plot, argued Klysinski, allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who was facing growing international criticism at that time over a troop buildup around Ukraine, as well as over the treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny -- to cast himself as a bulwark against the perfidious West.

“Moscow exploits this plot because it needs to fuel anti-Western -- mainly anti-American -- propaganda and they are doing this quite intensively. At the same time, the Kremlin can show itself in the role of defenders of [the] post-Soviet area, of [the] independence of smaller and weaker republics,” Klysinski said.

[Lukashenka] simply keeps going back to the same familiar bag of tricks, especially when he feels he is getting the upper hand."
-- Former U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Yalowith

Putin reaffirmed Lukashenka's claims during an address to parliament on April 21 and accused the West of pretending that "nothing is happening."

For Lukashenka, accusing foreign forces -- even Russia, as before the disputed presidential election -- of plotting his downfall is nothing new, explained Kenneth Yalowith, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s.

“When I was there, he accused me on national TV of leading a NATO ambassadors plot against him. He simply keeps going back to the same familiar bag of tricks, especially when he feels he is getting the upper hand,” Yalowitz told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

Like the supposedly foreign-inspired unrest that Belarus warned about before the opposition’s Freedom Day marches, the latest coup plot was ostensibly timed for the May 9 celebrations of the end of World War II in Europe, another time when the opposition has been calling on backers to take to the streets again.

After Belarusian state broadcaster ONT on April 25 aired a program on the alleged conspirators, Mikalay Karpyankou, a deputy interior minister in charge of the ministry's troops, said the regime opponents were “mad dogs.”

According to Karpyankou -- no stranger to brutal threats and actions -- opponents of the government have “crossed a line” with their “plans and actions,” putting them in league with “international terrorists.”

"This means that the fight against them will be fought as the Israeli forces fight their terrorists. The fight against them will be carried out in the same way as the ‘most humane’ state fought against Osama bin Laden and his followers," Karpyankou said, referring apparently to the United States,in comments reported on April 29.

Lukashenka, for now at least, may have won the battle on the streets, but Rudnik notes he may be running out of time, albeit perhaps slowly.

“Economic crisis, pressure from the democratic world, less support from the former electorate, and a lot more -- these are the factors of instability for Lukashenka today,” Rudnik said. “Forecasting whether he finds means to overcome these pressures, economic crises, and lack of trust is difficult. But I would lean toward two or three years more with Lukashenka, quite a short term in a 27-year perspective.”

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky with reporting by Current Time and RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.