After Bombing, Belarus' Tyrant Cracks Down — on Everybody

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Alexey Gromov / AFP / Getty Images

A woman lays flowers outside a metro station hit by a blast in central Minsk, Belarus, on April 11, 2011

On Monday night, after touring the site of the subway bombing that killed at least 12 people in the capital of Belarus, the country's authoritarian President, Alexander Lukashenko, cast the net of suspicion as far and wide as he could. The shrapnel-packed bomb that blew up on the crowded platform that evening could have been a "gift from abroad," he told his security chiefs, or it could have been taken from an army warehouse. Anyone who owns a gun should be checked, he said, and anyone "interested in disturbing the peace" was a suspect. For the country's political opposition, this has meant one thing: lay low.

And that is just how Lukashenko likes it. In the past month, Belarus has been on the edge of economic collapse, with soaring prices, food shortages and a looming devaluation of the currency. On top of that, the public is still shaken from the brief revolt in December, when tens of thousands of people rose up to protest Lukashenko's re-election and provoked the worst political crackdown that the country — or for that matter, all of Europe — has seen in years.

On election night, seven of the nine candidates who ran against Lukashenko were jailed, and some were also badly beaten by police, as were hundreds of the protesters who went out to challenge Lukashenko's victory. Most of the opposition leaders, if not still in jail, have since fled the country or stayed out of sight, and Monday's bombing will likely keep things that way for a while longer. "No one is going to talk to you right now," a representative of one of the presidential candidates told TIME on Tuesday, asking not to be named. "I'm sorry, but this is not the moment to stand out."

That lesson was learned after the last terrorist attack in Minsk, in July 2008, when a bomb exploded at a concert celebrating the country's Independence Day. More than 50 people were injured, and Lukashenko himself was in the crowd that day. In the month that followed, members of the opposition were rounded up for interrogation, searches or brief stints in jail. Lukashenko also reshuffled his security services, raising his son Viktor, now 35, higher in the ranks. But the bombing was never solved.

"To be honest, this feels like some awful kind of déjà vu, and we're waiting in horror to see how this plays out for us," says Nina Shidloyskaya, an activist for White Legion, a nationalist opposition group whose leaders, including Shidloyskaya's husband, were jailed for 10 days after the 2008 bombing. "It looks like the bombing was meant to turn the public's attention away from the country's real problems," she says by phone from Minsk. "But who would do that?"

Since the latest bombing, which also injured more than 150 people, pundits have been furiously guessing at this question. But much like Lukashenko, they have come up with a range of theories so broad as to be practically meaningless. Belarus has no credible terrorist threat — no known separatists or religious fundamentalists — so various armchair sleuths have started suggesting an American plot, a Russian plot, an opposition plot, even a plot hatched by Lukashenko's underlings to curry favor with the President.

All of them are ridiculous, says Alexander Klaskovsky, a political analyst in Minsk. "The attack just makes no sense, especially for the authorities. But now that it has happened, it is still a fine excuse to shore up the police state and lock everything down."

On Monday night, that is roughly what Lukashenko asked his security chiefs to do. After touring the blood-spattered scene of the bombing along with his 6-year-old son Nikolai, the President told them to "increase security measures to the limit ... I think the people will understand."

The next morning, several unnamed suspects were reportedly arrested, and a police sketch of another suspect was leaked to the press. Then, as online forums continued to fret over the possibility of more attacks, the secret services showed a knack for policing the Internet. Three residents of Minsk were put in isolation cells on Tuesday for posting "false rumors" on social-networking sites, and 10 others were wanted for the same crime, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a source in the Belarusian security council.

"So it looks like they are moving toward the Soviet ideal," says Dmitri Oreshkin, a political commentator in Moscow. "Everyone must sit quietly, too afraid to do anything but eat the black bread the God-given ruler provided. That makes the end point something like North Korea."

Since the December unrest, that is already where Belarus has been headed. There was a brief détente with Europe between 2008 and 2010, during which Lukashenko loosened up on the opposition. But after the recent crackdown, the U.S. and the E.U. have again hit his government with sanctions, and the climate of fear has returned to Belarus.

So for some of the opposition leaders, Lukashenko's response to the bombing cannot make much of a difference. Andrei Sannikov, who took second place after Lukashenko in the December elections, remains in jail, facing a 15-year sentence on charges of inciting unrest. His wife, the journalist Irina Khalip, is under house arrest. "I'm not sure how much more they can tighten the screws," says her mother, Lyutsina Khalip. "But I guess they can always try." Especially now that they have such a strong excuse.