The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Lukashenko’s dictatorship, enemies are shamed and the West is shunned

This week, in commemoration of the second anniversary of Alexander Lukashenko’s fraudulent election, the United States announced new visa restrictions on 100 regime officials and their “affiliates,” including high-ranking officials in the presidential administration and the notorious GUBOPiK. (Markus Schreiber/AP)
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Despite a barrage of Western sanctions that followed Alexander Lukashenko’s claim of victory in a fraudulent presidential election two years ago, the Kremlin-backed dictator of Belarus continues to brutally — and bizarrely — repress political dissent.

Among his regime’s favorite tools: the video of shame, in which citizens are forced to make humiliating “confessions” while stripped to their underpants, wearing Santa hats or draped with their own pro-democracy banners.

These “extremists,” arrested by the government’s anti-extremism unit GUBOPiK, mumble out details of their alleged crimes for videos that are posted on pro-government Telegram channels. The channels call it “self-denazification.” Many of the so-called offenders did little more than attend protest rallies, or subscribe to online independent media.

The persistent, pernicious persecution of innocent dissenters in Belarus highlights the failure of Western powers, including the United States, to deter Lukashenko or bolster the country’s democratic opposition, whose leaders are now mostly jailed or in exile. Not only did Lukashenko turn to Russian President Vladimir Putin for political and financial support in squashing the protests, he then allowed his country to be used as a staging ground for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

In different ways, the fates of Belarus and Ukraine underscore the limits of Washington’s diplomacy on Russia’s western borders, long a carrot-and-stick balancing act. Moscow views each as a strategic buffer. In Ukraine, Putin went to war to try to force capitulation to Moscow’s interests; in Belarus he succeeded without firing a shot.

The United States and Europe wooed Ukraine for years with billions in assistance. They punished Belarus with sanctions only to see Lukashenko sucked back into Putin’s orbit.

This week, in commemoration of the second anniversary of Lukashenko’s fraudulent election, the United States announced new visa restrictions on 100 regime officials and their “affiliates,” including high-ranking officials in the presidential administration and the notorious GUBOPiK.

In a statement, the State Department said the targeted officials “have been implicated in torture; violent arrests of peaceful protesters; raids of homes and offices of journalists, members of the opposition, and activists; coerced confessions; electoral fraud; politically motivated sentences of political prisoners; expulsion of students for participation in peaceful protests; passage of legislation impacting the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms; and acts of transnational repression.”

In a symbolic move, Lukashenko’s rival in the 2020 elections Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania, announced a transitional cabinet. But while Tikhanovskaya is regularly welcomed in Western capitals, and met President Biden at the White House last year, Lukashenko faces no internal threat to his power.

Instead, Lukashenko’s thuggish enforcers at GUBOPiK have a green light to rough up activists and target their families. They post spoof videos mimicking a popular Russian before-and-after apartment renovation show — but instead the homes are destroyed.

Wielding crowbars, they break up the apartments of parents of exiled Belarusian activists, the camera panning slowly across the view, “after the search,” showing floors pulled up, broken furniture, mirrors and fittings smashed, shards of glass and tangled clothes. GUBOPiK did not respond to requests for comment about the confession videos.

How Belarus’s ‘Cyber Partisans’ exposed secrets of Lukashenko’s crackdowns

The 2020 protests marked Lukashenko’s greatest crisis since coming to power in 1994, but he was saved when Putin supported his violent crackdown. Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine have bound Lukashenko even more tightly to Putin, forcing Belarus to rely on Russia as a market and on Russian ports to ship exports.

Before the war, 41 percent of Belarusian exports went to Russia, while 35 percent went to Ukraine and Europe — markets now largely lost.

“Every new stage of this isolation imposed by the West on Lukashenko means that his dependence on Moscow grows economically,” said analyst Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Lukashenko has resisted pressure to send his own military to fight in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf. But he has tightened his grip on dissent since the war, broadening the death penalty in May to bring in firing squad executions for the “preparation of terrorist acts,” in an ominous message to antiwar activists.

Dmitry Ravich, Denis Dikun and Oleg Molchanov, who set fire to a railway signal box to slow the advance of Russian military equipment, have been charged with terrorism, treason and joining an extremist group — and could face the death penalty, according to activists.

More than 30 members of their antiwar group, the Railway Partisans, have been arrested and forced to make confession videos. Five were sentenced Wednesday to prison terms from two years to 16 years.

“It is to make people afraid. It is to demoralize them and to make them feel unprotected — that this can happen to anyone at any time,” said analyst Pavel Slunkin, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a former Belarusian Foreign Ministry official. People are given years in prison for minor offenses that used to be punished with 15 days of detention, he said.

Belarusian authorities have named 372 internet activist or media groups and 448 individuals as “extremists.” More than 1,200 political prisoners are currently in jail.

“Right now, the political field in Belarus has been completely sterilized,” said a London-based independent journalist and analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis, Tadeusz Giczan. “There is not any real sign of dissent on the streets right now, because literally, hundreds of thousands of people — the most active ones — have been forced to flee the country.”

Some Belarusians, unable to pursue democracy at home, have volunteered to fight on Ukraine’s side in the war. And the parents and families of exiles, especially those fighting in Ukraine, face the worst public shaming. One 68-year-old woman whose son is fighting against Russia, was forced to disown him in a video broadcast on a pro-government Telegram channel.

“I am ashamed that I have such a son,” she said, visibly in distress.

The volunteer fighters see Russia’s defeat in Ukraine as a path to Belarusian freedom. It is far from clear how much of a political challenge they may pose to Lukashenko in future, analysts say, but the videos show Lukashenko’s regime views them as a threat, according to Shraibman.

“They are viewed by Belarusian authorities as the ultimate thugs, as terrorists,” he said. “They are armed and if they cannot topple Lukashenko, they can infiltrate the country, use their skills, use their weapons because they have nothing to lose.”

Other exiles are running opposition media or activist sites. Thousands of young IT specialists have fled, undermining the once-vibrant technology sector.

Bypol, an organization of former police and security officers, trains people to resist the regime and has a civil mobilization action plan to topple Lukashenko’s regime, with 200,000 Telegram subscribers.

What makes Russia’s massive war games with Belarus so worrying?

The Belarusian Hajun Project compiles detailed reports on Russian military movements in southern Belarus based on civilians’ photographs and accounts. Nexta news, an opposition media channel founded in 2015 by then teenager Stsiapan Putsila, has more than 4.5 million followers on Telegram, YouTube and Twitter, focusing mainly on news from Ukraine and Belarus.

In January, a flawed constitutional referendum vote empowered him to rule until 2035, ended Belarus’s nonnuclear status — paving the way for the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory — and granted Lukashenko amnesty from future prosecution.

In his 28 years in power, Lukashenko has jailed rivals, made opponents “disappear,” rigged elections and engineered constitutional changes to stay in office. His country’s economy rests on state-owned Soviet-style behemoths.

Lukashenko’s anti-NATO rhetoric is often more strident than Moscow’s, and he revels in bombastic threats. Last year, he amped up pressure on Europe by engineering a migration crisis on the borders of Lithuania and Poland, which lasted months.

Like many strongman dictators, Lukashenko’s political career had genuine populist origins. Trained as a history teacher, he joined the army before becoming director of a collective farm. In 1993, he was elected to parliament and his fiery speeches against corrupt officials provided a springboard to winning the 1994 presidential election.

Belarus forces down commercial airliner, arrests dissident journalist on board

Lukashenko chuckles at being called a dictator, once joking with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a February 2020 meeting in Minsk: “Our dictatorship has a distinctive feature: Everyone gets some rest on Saturday and Sunday, but the president works,” he said, according to state-owned news agency BelTA.

“The president has great powers,” he said in a recent interview with AFP. “We have elements of authoritarianism in the state.”

Lukashenko enjoys flaunting that power. On Monday, he dropped into a $400 million private Miory steel plant and declared it had been seized by the state.

Among Belarusian elites, the war in Ukraine has only consolidated support for Lukashenko.

There are no cracks in his support among the Belarusian elite of security officials and civil servants, Shraibman said. Many see Ukraine being clawed to pieces by Russia for its pro-European leanings, and feel grateful that Lukashenko’s wily, pro-Kremlin stance has spared Belarus a similar fate.