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 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, said Statkevich. 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 as Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky recently pointed out, looks just like a slice of the western part of Belarus “that has the biggest Catholic population, the highest prevalence of the Belarusian language, and the part that voted nationalist in the country’s last free election in 1994.” Veishnoria, 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, as well as humorous memes, such as one of a frowning Lukashenko and the words “Your face when you realize that the citizens of your country support Veishnoria at the Zapad 2017 war games.”
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.