Ac­tivists in Be­larus fear Rus­sian war games could pro­vide cover for occupation

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - DAVID FIL­IPOV

minsk, be­larus — When I asked for an in­ter­view with Mikalai Statke­vich about his op­po­si­tion to the Rus­sian mil­i­tary ex­er­cises un­der­way in his coun­try, the an­swer said it all: He would be glad to see me if he wasn’t ar­rested first.

Statke­vich is a leader of the small but stub­born op­po­si­tion to Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko, whose 23-year rule of Be­larus has earned the na­tion wedged be­tween Rus­sia and Poland the nick­name “Europe’s last dic­ta­tor­ship.”

A court has sen­tenced Statke­vich to 15 days in jail for his part in a Sept. 8 demon­stra­tion against the Za­pad 2017 war games, which Rus­sian and Be­laru­san forces kicked off Thurs­day. Op­po­si­tion ad­vo­cates fear that the ex­er­cise could be used as a cover for the Rus­sian mil­i­tary to re­main in Be­larus to de­ter the coun­try from slip­ping out of Moscow’s or­bit.

Lukashenko’s op­po­nents believe they will even­tu­ally out­last the dic­ta­tor and forge a West­ern-ori­ented democ­racy. But “if Rus­sia leaves its troops be­hind” after the war games, Statke­vich said, “that’s the end.”

After he re­ceived no­tice of his sen­tence, Statke­vich hun­kered down with his wife at their sim­ple, one-story house in a lush wooded area on the out­skirts of Minsk, where he says he is un­der con­stant sur­veil­lance.

“They can pick me up any time, so I don’t go out alone,” said Statke­vich, 61, who al­ready has spent seven years in prison and served 30 shorter jail sen­tences for his po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.

Po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion is not the only thing that has earned Be­larus its “last dic­ta­tor­ship” des­ig­na­tion. The place has lots of So­viet-style trap­pings. In­de­pen­dence Av­enue, Minsk’s main boule­vard, is lined with Stal­in­ist neo­clas­si­cal build­ings and leads to a square above which red neon lights pro­claim that “the heroic deeds of the peo­ple are im­mor­tal.” The KGB here is still called the KGB — and still acts the part. Lukashenko has banned the red-and-white flag Be­larus adopted just after the U.S.S.R. col­lapsed and re­stored a So­viet-era one, mi­nus the ham­mer and sickle.

But Be­larus is no mere So­viet holdover. Sip­ping a cap­puc­cino among young pro­fes­sion­als tap­ping away at their smart­phones at the Fresh Cafe on In­de­pen­dence Av­enue on Fri­day, I felt as though I could be in any mod­ern Eastern Euro­pean city. That is, un­til my break­fast com­pan­ion, Yury Hubare­vich, an­other op­po­si­tion leader, told the story of a jour­nal­ist picked up by KGB agents in this same cafe after he was lured into a meet­ing at a ta­ble where agents had in­stalled a lis­ten­ing de­vice.

Lukashenko, who won a free and fair elec­tion in 1994, sub­se­quently changed the con­sti­tu­tion, cracked down on the free press, im­pris­oned his op­po­nents and gen­er­ally fixed things so he rules un­chal­lenged over this coun­try of 9.5 mil­lion and its largely state-owned econ­omy.

That econ­omy de­pends heav­ily on trade with Rus­sia, cheap Rus­sian oil and gas, and cred­its Moscow sends along reg­u­larly in ex­change for Lukashenko’s loy­alty. But the Be­laru­san leader has irked Moscow in re­cent years with ef­forts to forge an in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy, es­pe­cially in his re­fusal to sup­port Moscow’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and its sup­port of sep­a­ratists in eastern Ukraine.

The pol­icy puts Lukashenko at odds with the ma­jor­ity of his cit­i­zens, who gen­er­ally fa­vor Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and his poli­cies, said Valery Kar­bale­vich, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Minsk. And for the first time in years, Lukashenko felt po­lit­i­cal pres­sure at home, when thou­sands took to streets in cities across Be­larus to protest a de­cree that would have im­posed a So­viet-style “par­a­sitism” tax on the un­em­ployed.

To put a lid on demon­stra­tions, au­thor­i­ties levy $600 fines on pro­test­ers and con­fis­cate the prop­erty of those who can’t pay. It’s much more of a de­ter­rent than the 15-day jail sen­tence, Statke­vich said. He said he doesn’t re­mem­ber what he owes, but he’s sure it’s more than $5,000; the govern­ment gar­nishes half of the $230 monthly pen­sion he re­ceives as a re­tired army lieu­tenant colonel.

“Peo­ple are afraid” to protest, Statke­vich said. But the regime is also afraid, he added.

The sce­nario for Za­pad, which means “West,” re­flects Moscow’s own fear that West­ern govern­ments might try to wrest Be­larus from its al­liance with Rus­sia by wag­ing a cam­paign of in­flu­ence and spon­sor­ing sep­a­ratists. This is how Putin sees the re­bel­lion that brought a pro-West­ern govern­ment to power in Ukraine in 2014, and he has said Rus­sia should not let it hap­pen again.

The Za­pad ex­er­cises fo­cus on a hos­tile imag­i­nary coun­try called Veish­no­ria, which with two imag­i­nary al­lies, Lube­nia and Ves­baria, at­tempts to change the regime in Minsk, turn Be­larus against Rus­sia and an­nex parts of Be­larus to Veish­no­ria.

For weeks, pro-democ­racy ac­tivists in Be­larus have fought a drolly fake war of words on the side of Veish­no­ria, dream­ing up imag­i­nary lo­gos, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards and a plan for the econ­omy. But once the war games be­gan and the Rus­sian mil­i­tary and its Be­laru­san al­lies be­gan tar­get­ing their imag­i­nary foes, the fears har­bored by Lukashenko’s op­po­nents about Rus­sian in­ten­tions sud­denly seemed very real.

Shortly after the start of the drills Thurs­day, Rus­sia’s de­fense min­istry an­nounced that ar­mored units were head­ing into Be­larus. When a Be­laru­san mil­i­tary spokesman de­nied the re­port that night, a group of op­po­si­tion ac­tivists rushed to the border to sound the alert in case the tanks were spot­ted.

“If Rus­sia is send­ing troops that Be­larus doesn’t know about, then this is not an ex­er­cise but an at­tempt at an occupation,” said Paval Sieviarynets, the op­po­si­tion leader who or­ga­nized the watch.

They haven’t seen the tanks yet. Rus­sian and Be­laru­san lead­ers have in­sisted for weeks that when the games end, Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary will go home.

Sieviarynets is not so sure. Moscow, he said, will find an ex­cuse to un­der­mine Be­larus’s sovereignty. Putin is more pop­u­lar in Be­larus than Lukashenko, he said, and most Be­laru­sans prob­a­bly wouldn’t have a prob­lem with it.

“The Rus­sians are ca­pa­ble of com­ing up with any­thing,” he said.

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