One night in April 1995, Siarhiej Navumchyk found himself held by his arms and legs, while four masked men used his skull as a ram to open a door in the Belarusian parliament.
Navumchyk was one of 19 Belarusian parliamentarians to protest against a referendum that new President Alexander Lukashenko wanted to hold on a series of issues, including the modification of state symbols and the closest ties to the Russia. In the early hours, men dressed in green entered parliament, beat politicians and forcibly expelled them.
Lukashenko said he had ordered the evacuation of lawmakers for security reasons following a bomb threat and that there had been no violence. But for Navumchyk, it was crossing a red line. “Beating deputies in parliament – that had never happened before, in Belarusian history,” he says. “He made it clear that if Lukashenko could do this with parliamentarians… Then he would do whatever he wanted to ordinary people.”
In the following years, more red lines came and went. After winning the first, and only, free election of Belarus in 1994, the former head of the mustachioed collective exploitation shut down opponents and crushed the independent media. By the time huge protests blasted last year after claiming a landslide victory in a flawed election, Lukashenko sent his security forces to beat the subdued protesters, and forced his rival, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in exile.
This week he crossed another spectacular Rubicon, shipping one hunting jet to force an intra-EU flight to land in Minsk, just to be able to arrest him Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old journalist-activist, who played a key role in last year’s protests.
The episode brought relations between Belarus and the West to a new bass. But diplomats say this is a price the 66-year-old pugnacious is prepared to pay while fighting to reaffirm his authority. “I think the possibility of any normalization of relations with Lukashenko in office is gone. And I think he understands that as well,” says a Western diplomat. “The main message of this exercise was ‘he can take you anywhere.’ The old KGB message.”
Born in 1954, Lukashenko was raised by a single mother in eastern Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union. After working on collective farms, he entered politics when the USSR disintegrated, joining the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusian parliament, a springboard for his presidential candidacy in 1994.
From the beginning, he was a hardliner. In 1991, he held a coup attempt against the liberalization of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 2004, he had sterilized the Belarusian parliament and won a referendum to abolish the limits of the presidential term. He becomes wary of rhetoric, marching against his opponents’ “mice,” “traitors,” and “terrorists.” An Profile of the Orwellian presidential site he describes it as “firm,” “firm,” and “uncompromising.”
For a time, many were willing to endure Lukashenko’s authoritarianism in exchange for the relative economic stability it provided – especially when Russia and neighboring Ukraine were subjected to a tornado transition to capitalism. Lukashenko’s repressiveness also experienced periodic thaws when he needed to offset Russia’s influence by opening up to the west – especially after 2015, when released political prisoners and criticized the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
But beneath the surface, its pattern has long been uncovered. After a decade of growth, the economy, still dominated by furious state-owned companies, has stagnated. A younger generation with Internet access and travel skills tried alternatives to the Soviet-lite state of Lukashenko. And the modest reforms that Lukashenko has allowed have helped build the middle class that led last summer’s protests.
“He let the middle class grow, and it was very clear that sooner or later he would turn around and fight against the authoritarian state,” says a European diplomat.
Lukashenko faced protests after dubious electoral victories in 2006 and 2010. But last year they were on another scale. Frustrated by economic stagnation, and angered by his response to the coronavirus – which he dismissed as a “psychosis” and advised to treat it with vodka – hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the biggest protests. of the independent history of the country. Lukashenko’s response was brutal. Rights groups say in the next nine months, about 35,000 people have been detained, many of whom say they have been tortured. More than 400 have become political prisoners.
“Most Belarusians. . . he voted against Lukashenko and cannot forgive them for that, “says Pavel Latushka, who was minister and diplomat under him before joining the opposition.” It may seem horrible, but he has decided to punish the whole nation. “
For Navumchyk, repression is a rigorous return to the 1990s, when Lukashenko’s police state was at its most virulent, and a confirmation that the post-2015 thaw is an old story. “Until last August, I said that psychologically [Lukashenko] changed. He became calmer, more respectable, a retired dictator. . . He was like an old lion with prey running around him as he lay down, thinking, “To hell, I can attack you all and kill you if I come, but why bother, I’m a lion, I’m not.” me? He says.
“But now, in recent months, it’s been exactly the same [in the 1990s]. A person full of energy, but energy of hatred. He is willing to do absolutely anything with any of his opponents. It has no limits. ”