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.