Belarus: Europe’s ugly little dictatorship

Paul Wells on Alexander Lukashenko’s violent, corrupt, economically and morally bankrupt government

Europe’s ugly little dictatorship

Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

For the longest time, the ruling regime in Belarus permitted Ales Michalevic to practise politics almost as he might if he were living in a democracy. The soft-spoken lawyer from Minsk, now 36, ran as a candidate in last December’s presidential election. He travelled widely, held rallies, met local officials and delivered a centrist message that sought to peel votes away from the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, by offering only muted criticism of Lukashenko’s violent, corrupt, economically and morally bankrupt government.

And Michalevic was permitted to go about his political business, as were more than a half-dozen other opposition candidates, right up until the election returns came in on Dec. 19. Then the news anchors announced that Lukashenko had won almost 80 per cent of the vote. His nearest rival, Andrei Sannikaü, had won less than three per cent. Michalevic scored even lower. Many Belarusians sensed a gap between the official result and the message of their own hearts. Thousands spilled into the streets to protest. Black-clad thugs showed up to beat them senseless.

The police arrested perhaps 800 people overnight, including seven presidential candidates. The KGB—Belarus is the last country in the world to keep the Soviet-era name for its secret police—came for Michalevic at 4 a.m., while he sat drinking cognac with his campaign staff.

The police gave him a text to read for television, accusing other candidates of inciting mass disturbances and “hooliganism.” He refused. “So they said, ‘Okay, you are guilty of organizing mass disturbances with a penalty of from five to 15 years,’ ” Michalevic told me last week in Ottawa.

“I said, ‘I’m ready to do it. You are facing such bad economic circumstances you’ll need foreign credit, so you’ll release me within half a year. And anyway, I like the conditions in your prison. Because it’s the detention centre of the KGB, it’s not a place where criminals are staying. It’s a place where businessmen and civil servants are. Very well-educated people. I like your cells, I like your meals, I’m ready to stay here.’ ”

The quality of Michalevic’s accommodation went downhill fast. On the third day, black-clad men came to his cell. “They started to make so-called searches,” Michalevic said. “I was hung, I don’t know how to say it, spagat,” he said. It means his legs were pulled in opposite directions, in the splits. For variety, his captors bound his hands behind his back and lifted him by his wrists. Both treatments cause excruciating pain and are internationally recognized as torture techniques.

Broken by his abuse, Michalevic agreed to telephone his wife, Milana, and tell her not to leave the country. She understood from his tone of voice that he meant the opposite. She set out the next day to drive to Warsaw. Four KGB cars stopped her and escorted her back to Minsk.

On Feb. 19, two months after he was jailed, Michalevic was released. He made his way to Ukraine illegally and obtained an entry visa into the Czech Republic. “The Ukrainians were so happy to see me leave,” he said. Ukraine and Belarus are neighbours. The Ukrainians need to pick their fights.

Today Michalevic lives in exile. Lukashenko’s regime permits Milana to visit her husband once a month in Lithuania. The rest of the time, Michalevic reminds the rest of the world that Europe has not yet seen its last brutal dictator.

Michalevic was in Ottawa to receive the John Humphrey Freedom Award, the highest honour bestowed by Rights and Democracy, an arms-length agency whose board is appointed by the federal government.

I spent much of 2010 chronicling the astonishing fiasco of the Rights and Democracy board under its chairman, Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political scientist. A Braun-led faction on the board spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars investigating unfounded allegations against the organization under its previous president, Rémy Beauregard, after Beauregard died. Several former staff members are suing the agency. Among the members of the board who resigned in protest was Sima Sumar, an Afghan advocate for women’s rights who won the John Humphrey Award in 2001.

The management of Rights and Democracy over the past few years has been a mess. But meanwhile, Belarus is not a democracy. The latter situation matters more, and if it takes Rights and Democracy to spread the word, I’ll take it. Sannikaü, the leading opposition candidate for the job Lukashenko has held since 1994, remains imprisoned; his family isn’t sure where he is. The head of the most prominent human rights organization in Belarus was sentenced on Nov. 24 to 4½ years in prison. There is little Canada can do about this isolated country east of Poland, but it can leave a light on.

“I am absolutely sure these are the last years, maybe even last days of Lukashenko,” Michalevic said. “So it’s not about Lukashenko, it’s about what comes after. It’s not about the next dictator, it’s about a strong civil society.”

His faith in an independent legal community and a free press is touching. He knows such things cannot push Lukashenko out, but he also knows life in Belarus will not improve afterward without them. He knows strong institutions can protect against rule by fiat. There is no place where that lesson can’t be taught and learned again.


Belarus: Europe’s ugly little dictatorship

  1. Mr. Wells had to get in a shot against Right and Democracy.       “I spent much of 2010 chronicling the astonishing fiasco of the Rights and Democracy board under its chairman, Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political scientist. A Braun-led faction on the board spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars investigating unfounded allegations against the organization under its previous president, Rémy Beauregard, after Beauregard died. Several former staff members are suing the agency.

    I’ve also studied Right and Democracy under Aurel Braun, and found that his group has done a remarkable job. The money they spent was a small amount of the funds given to R & D over the years. There was money given out to groups that many Canadians would find objectionable, yet the only way to source this was by doing forensic accounting. 

    My understanding is that the forensic accounting indeed found out what it had been looking for, and these types of procedures are now a thing of the past. In other words, money well spent.

    Mr. Wells seems to have a personal axe to grind in this regard. I think the work of the present board at R & D is doing a much better job of representing Canada and transparency, and I’d like to know what his problem is with that.

    • “Your understanding”would be wrong then. Which you would know if you had actually read the account that was rendered to parliament, or the Deloitte touche report itself[ covered somewhere by PWs here at macleans in great detail] It painted the new board as almost hilariously inept and idealogical, to the extent they looked paranoid. Israel needs no such defenders.
      The amount of money pissed away by Braun and company was indeed objectionable, particularly since it produced almost nothing to back up its vendetta against Ms Beauregard
      Perhaps you could provide some evidence of just how much better the team of floppy nosed clowns[ what was Paul’s expression again?] are now performing, rather then simply asserting it as fact.

      • The Rights and Democracy organization is anything but a promoter of rights and democracy and will remain merely the unconditional supporter of Israel until a new government is elected in Canada. For now they merely follow Harper’s policy.

        • Gosh Yp11, I was just thinking that kvm2 owned the patent to moronic comments and along you come, vying for the lead.

          Ever since Mr. Mulroney’s government began R&D, we’ve had a situation until recently whereby the leadership of that organization seemed to go out of it’s way to support groups that were hostile to Israel. Strange, given “rights and democracy” is exactly what Israel has practiced for 63 years while all the countries around them have done just the opposite.

          Mr. Harper tried to balance the field by appointing people with opposing views. It got to the point whereby it was almost even as opposed to the one-sided organization it had been.

          Then Rene Beauregard died after an acrimonious meeting of the board, which may or may not have played a part in his passing. It is a personal tragedy for the family for which I offer my condolences, but it also allowed the R & D saga to take on an entirely different tone, as in “those newcomers caused his death and they were pro Israeli”. If Mr. Beauregard was still alive, it’s unlikely R & D would have made the headlines the way it did.

          My guess is that not a single dollar of R & D’s funds has EVER gone to a pro Israeli organization while millions of dollars have gone to organizations whose sole purpose is to delegitimize Israel, some of which have ties to terror organizations as defined by our laws.

          And while I haven’t read every word that Paul Wells has written about R & D, every word I have read has made them out to be a dysfunctional group that that has spent money unwisely in tracking down what the previous leadership may or may not have done.

          I have read the works of at least two members on the board. They are amongst the most learned intellectuals with the greatest sense of morality and decency one can imagine. Their works will be read by others long after you and I are gone.

          One of the deals a society like ours makes is that media reporters can have the final say on any given subject. People of tremendous integrity can be made to look bad by a reporter, if he so chooses.

          Now I don’t know Paul Wells work enough to state this is the case here, but it wouldn’t be the first time a mid level writer had the forum in which to demean the work of highly motivated and decent government employees or appointees. Reporters used to only report but now they bring their own slant and possible biases into articles. How is any reader to know?

          So my answer to you is that R & D is unlikely to be a current supporter of Israel if that means funds are directed towards Israel friendly organizations. If you mean that R & D no longer hands out loads of Canadian taxpayer money under the table or openly to organizations openly hostile to Israel for purely political reasons, you may be correct. And that would be a good thing since R & D was never set up to do otherwise.

  2. Kcm2, what happens politically verses what happens in real life are often two different things. If the new group is regarded as ideological, then the old group should be viewed as pathological.

    If the amount spent showed a disregard for the rules of the game by the group in charge at the time, then I, as a citizen, want to know about it and have it stopped.

    This is not a forum to produce evidence, nor is it a trial. There are few who followed Right and Democracy but for those of us who did, Mr. Wells showed contempt from day one and I merely commented on that trend of his. You are entitled to your opinion, but I value it on the same level that I judge your spelling, grammar, language and writing. It’s seriously wanting.

    • http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/versus#Etymology

      People in glass houses…what were you saying about it being not a forum for perfect outcomes?

      “Kcm2, what happens politically verses what happens in real life are often two different things. If the new group is regarded as ideological, then the old group should be viewed as pathological.”

      I am sure if i looked long enough i might find a smidgen of logic in there, somwhere?

      “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”

      I believe i can live with any deficiencies with my spelling, grammer, language and writing, if you can live with your inability to back up your argument with anything approaching or approximating facts. I don’t recall you writing dozens of posts on the subject or inviting all interested parties to post their version of events.

    • It’s “versus” not “verses.”  And Canadians should thank Paul Wells for his excellent coverage of Rights and Democracy earlier this year because without his commitment to researching and writing about what happened there, we would never have known since assuredly our government had no intention of telling us. 

  3. Mr. Wells, nice to meet you. My name is Barry, as stated. I see no reason to provide my full name on this forum. What can I do for you?

      • Ok, I’ll just assume it was you just being social

        • Or that you have nothing , other then snide insults, to add.

  4. Of course there are not good things policitically that happen there, but they have a strong leader.  What are the alternatives?  Belarus’ neighbours who became democratic and joined the EU such as Lithuania are no better off. Their currencies have been tagged to the Euro and made their imports uncompetitive.  Their people have left the country for Eire, UK and Germany.  Belarus have protected their manufacturing and have a major supporter in Russia which supports them financially.  

    We cannot tell them how to run their country.   Here in the UK, we are governed by a PrimeMinister who received only 32% of the public vote in last year’s election.   I have visited Belarus many times, the people are happy, friendly and warm and not as the media likes to make out.

    • Ah we have a Belurussian embassy staff visiting Maclean’s I see!

      • Software Outsourcing Executive actually.  

        I thinks it helps if to judge a country if you have visited it many times. When I visited another “ugly dictatorship” in Cuba, it was supported by thousands of Canadian tourists helping prop it up financially with foreign currency.  Why don’t you discuss that? 
        No doubt Canada will send a Ice Hockey team to Belarus in 2014 when they host the World Championships where their President is a major figure.

        • “Ice Hockey”

          A giveaway.

    • Have you visited Belarus recently, Mr. Steve? Have you seen happy people? Really? where? In so-called president’s administration? I’ve seen many old people begging in the streets because now they are not able to buy food and medicine and pay bills simultaneously. Do many people in the EU do so if they worked their whole life? Begging in the streets? Whoa, hardly saw that. Complaining, yes, but not begging. Not so much. Well, how about 120% inflation rate (according to official statistics) and a stable salary in belarusian rubles? Mikhalevich in this article mentioned economic situation of Belarus. So what do you know about it? Do you know what anticrisis measures “strong leader” is taking except selling all assets to Russia? I really regret your ignorance, Mr. Steve. If you visit this country often, you should be more interested in what’s going on there.

      • Hello B.  I can only talk about Minsk from late summer 2011, no I have not seen ANY beggars, only a couple of the old ladies outside the catholic churches who have been doing this for years.  Compared to Paris and London where beggars are common, I have not experienced this in Minsk. There is no lack of ignorance I can assure you.  There are financial problems all over the world, US, UK, Greece, Italy, and no one denies Belarus too.

  5. Belarus is a great country where Government  are living and working for people 
    You mr.wells, your employer and your government are working not  for people but for money
    Your avidity have no limited. and you never mind about people in Belarus, Libya, Irak, Kosovo or anywhere where ‘western democracy’  are pushed now. 
    ‘Dictator’ for ‘western democracy’ is the person who are conduct  independent policy and who are don’t give interest to ‘western bank system’ ..  
    Reality is that in US and UK most people leave worse then in Belarus (and in Libya before war)
    Reality is that US(CIA) support and finance opposite force in Belarus. (and delivery weapon in Libya, Syria and other)
      Shame you. and long health life to Alexander Lukoshenko

    • So, first-time commenter then? Don’t miss Scott Feschuk. He’s hang-you-by-your-wrists-behind-your-back funny!

  6. Alexander Lukashenka is a
    bloody dictator who murdered dozens, imprisoned hundreds and tortured thousands
    of Belarusian people. If lucky, he will get a fair trial and will spend the
    rest of his life in the prison. But it seems he will follow the path of Romanian
    dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu – they have a lot in common. Lukashenka knows that
    very well, so he will fight to stay at power as much as possible.

    And Lukashenka does not
    really care about Belarusians as some may dream. He cares only about his power
    and money. Belarus is a very corrupted state, and two sons of Lukashenka are
    local “oligarchs” that control lots of business in Belarus. While many common Belarusians live in near poverty, Lukashenka’s “family” cruise around Minsk in their Bentleys and Maseratis – the picture I have seen there.

    • Your comment: ” While many common Belarusians live in near poverty, Lukashenka’s “family” cruise around Minsk in their Bentleys and Maseratis – the picture I have seen there.”   

      so what?  Can you think of any other leaders of countries who don’t have personal wealth whilst many of their countries live poorly?  Blair, Bush? Brown? Obama?  They are all LOADED, get over it, leaders are wealthy, they are top of their profession and the money / power comes with the job… you shouldn’t use this as an argument…  

  7. Couple of interesting comments i see. It is really astonishing the degree to which people will attempt to argue away brutality and even torture.As always it’s the messenger who becomes a convenient target.

  8. I am truly astonished that Belarussians have and still accept the tirant Lukashenko as their leader for the past twenty years. Belarussians were brave people who fought fearlessly against the Nazi invaders. Why are they so gutless now, afraid to stand up against the last dictator of Europe? They should look at the Lybians and the Syrians and start their own revolution pronto.

    • There are reasons why:
      – First Belarus and  ex-Soviet states have higher pain thresholds than say Greek and Italians.  For many years they have been governed by non democratic systems, it is the norm.
      – Hard to take on the army / police
      – Biggest problem, Russia supports to a great extent. Belarus people, cannot fight both countries!  Russia holds the key, once they want change, they can make it, but they don’t want Belarus becoming Westernised like Estonia, Latvia….  

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