Ever since Alexander Lukashenko’s highly contested re-election, the ruler of Belarus has had problems with the neighbours. Having spent 27 years imagining himself the true heir to Soviet power, he’s increasingly dependent on the rival he used to see as a subordinate, Vladimir Putin. And though Brussels once played counterweight to Moscow, the EU states adjoining Belarus are no longer friendly at all. Lithuania has granted asylum to Svetlana Tichanovskaya, the presidential candidate who claims to have beaten Lukashenko last August, and isn’t about to extradite her: the Lithuanian foreign minister says ‘hell will freeze over’ first. Resistance to Lukashenko has taken root among the Belarusian community in Poland, and the government in Warsaw is financing calls for regime change in Minsk.
The customs post at Bobrowniki was looking busy a couple of weeks ago. Inactive, too. When I drove there from Białystok, the stationary juggernauts snaked back ten miles. A driver halfway along said he’d already spent two nights in his cab. Individuals headed for Belarus could jump the queue, but only if they surrendered all goods acquired in Poland. When I optimistically suggested to Nikita Grekowicz, a Belarusian-Polish journalist, that we one day meet in Minsk, he smiled. ‘Not today though,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t take a cookie. And they’d probably arrest me as a spy.’
Alexander Lukashenko has normalised many dubious practices during his 26 years in power in Belarus, and his share of the vote in the most recent presidential election – 80.1 per cent – is uncannily similar to the figure recorded at his five previous landslides. His initial response to suggestions of vote-rigging was characteristically ruthless. Protests were met by water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades, and three demonstrators were killed. As more than seven thousand people were taken into custody, social media were flooded with accounts and images of torture. Lukashenko wasn’t defiant in the face of the resistance so much as dismissive. His adversaries were either criminals or unemployed, he said. Insofar as they reflected a genuine threat, it was only because they were ‘sheep’ under the direction of shadowy foreign powers.
Before the lockdown began, I had been hoping to celebrate VE Day in Belarus this weekend. Within a year of winning power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko organised a march in Minsk to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, and it’s become a quinquennial tradition. Events intervened. Curiosity ceased to be a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, and Belarus requires foreign visitors to isolate themselves for 14 days. If that suggests the president is taking a precautionary approach to Covid-19, however, it’s misleading. With neo-Soviet folksiness, Lukashenko claimed in March that the disease is ‘nothing more than a psychosis’ which people could overcome by driving tractors and disinfecting themselves with vodka. He has ignored the social distancing recommendations made by the WHO, which said on 1 May that infections were spreading faster in Belarus than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below two hundred, but the true figure may be far higher. Two TV journalists were last week stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.
The Belarus Free Theatre’s first performance was in 2005, when they staged Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in a café in Minsk. The café owner lost his licence after two performances. The cast and crew lost their jobs with the state theatre. Between 2006 and 2010, their performances of, among other pieces, documentary plays by political prisoners were staged in private apartments and in forests. They were often broken up by KGB operatives toting machine-guns. At a performance during the 2010 protests, everyone in the audience was arrested and beaten. The creative directors moved to London. But the theatre still performs in secret locations around Minsk. I went to one a couple of months ago. They called me on my mobile a few hours before the play and told to come to a bus stop by a supermarket. ‘Wait on the corner. We’ll come and collect you. You can try to guess who else is there for the play.’
Twenty-year-old Nasta Polozhanka was detained by the Belarusian KGB for more than two months. One of the leaders of the youth movement Molodoi Front, she is accused of organising ‘mass disturbances’. If convicted, she faces up to 15 years in prison. The ‘mass disturbances’ in question were a largely peaceful protest against last year’s rigged presidential elections. As soon as polling stations closed on 19 December, the Election Commission announced yet another landslide victory for Aleskandr Lukashenko, ‘Europe’s last dictator’, who has been in power for 16 years.