I’m currently in Moscow having spent a week in Minsk, Belarus, which was a bit of an eye opener. I’m not sure what I expected when I first landed into Minsk 2 International Airport. I certainly wasn’t given the going over by the security officials that I had heard so much about. I had on the tip of my tongue and running through my mind the titles: ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’, an ‘outpost of tyranny’ (as ex US Secretary of State Condoleezzer Rice once vocalised), but futile phrases don’t prepare, neither do they tell even part of the story.
We were met at the airport by Oleg who introduced us to Minsk and it didn’t take me long to get him talking politics. Taking us around the city, around his old university from where he graduated in 1992, he recalled his happiest memories of a country that was full of hope during the Glasnost/Perestroika period (literally meaning ‘openness’ and ‘restructuring’): the lamenting days of the USSR, Gorbachev’s last gasp as leader. The consistent denial and cover up of years of food shortages, endless queues, base living conditions and the ultimate stain on the last years of the regime – the rise of the hypocritical and the corrupt throughout all levels of the Soviet state bureaucracy – was finally being grasped by the world. The last years were perhaps the worst; with no Communist utopia waiting in the wings, and no real objectives of what to do next, the state was rapidly crumbling under condescension and corruption. Yet, describing these years, Oleg spoke to us of the intense hope that he felt throughout those years. Hope that change was finally going to come. This lasted until 1996 when President Alexander Lukashenko dissolved the acting parliament, forcing the MPs out of the door via the militia. During the last 16 years there have been no opposition parties in the Belarusian ‘parliament’, which is like no other parliament be sure of that, and all MPs must vote unanimously on all issues. It was also in 1996 that Belarus became a ‘legal dictatorship’; Lukashenko passed the law which ended maximum presidential terms.
Lukashenko and his cronies now own most resources: the banks, the media, even down to the main GUM department store, a relic still in existence from the Soviet days, complete with hammer and sickle light fixtures. In Belarus the Soviet state was never dismantled, it was just built upon with a hefty dose of corruption and repression.
One of the first things that Oleg brought to our attention was the small flag on the left hand side of his car’s number plate. In 1995 the national flag of Belarus – a red stripe bordered by two white stripes – was neutralised. Now a symbol of opposition to Lukashenko, it has been replaced by the former Soviet flag of Belarus, bare of its hammer and sickle logo. Now, all car number plates are required to have the new national flag embellished, and indeed, apart from Oleg’s car, I never saw one car – beaten up 1970s Lada or flashy party Range Rover – in Belarus that didn’t hold the new flag. Oleg mentioned that his MOT each year was a torturous process – many mechanics not willing to pass his vehicle just for this tiny discrepancy. Yet, that is the Lukashenko way: the age old, and well practiced method of control through fear.
Spending time with Oleg, I question him about why he doesn’t leave. He doesn’t seem to have an answer. He says he doesn’t recognise himself physically anymore. The stress put on him, on his friends and colleagues over the last 16 years has been difficult, but he stays whilst watching his family and friends being pushed out of business: not through the militia or violent means but through sly reforms, slowing passing laws that make it increasingly difficult to conduct small scale business out with the government.
For the youth of the country, there’s nothing in Belarus for them. Intelligent and starry eyed, I met two students in Minsk. These two girls are typical of a generation that stands watching, eyes wide open, staring into a Lukashenko constructed abyss. It’s a similar situation to that faced by the youth in Albania. An Albanian friend once regaled me with the story of his attempted escape to Italy – commandeering a boat – but being caught by Italian officials half way across the Adriatic. For Albania, entering into the EU would see a hasty flight of the youth from the country.
Yet as the ultimate lifetime gift, Poland and Lithuania are offering free visas for Belarusians wanting to leave, which I’m sure many young people will take advantage of.
I mentioned in my previous post that there is a national pride in Belarus that outstrips the repression, the dubious human rights issues and the all watching, ever powerful force of the militia and the KGB – the title which only serves to highlight the audacity of the Belarusian government at confidently keeping the old Communist name for the secret police. Yet I ask myself, on the question of leaving the country: what would I do? I’ve often questioned this in light of the current Scotland question. Would I wish to stay in a country where the government doesn’t speak for me? I can understand the Scottish support for the SNP and their bulldog leader Alex Salmond when thought about in these terms. I’ve often spoken about this to family and friends, whether I would get out before the Tories get into power election after election; not speaking for me and my area. Yet, my sister once told me that she would never leave. She said she would never leave Middlesbrough and the north east of England because it’s home. Maybe it’s a case of staying and fighting, or, in Oleg’s case staying and waiting. Leaving may be like cruelly abandoning a sinking ship, watching while your family drown, still aboard. And so, for Oleg and the underground opposition group that I met with – Tell the Truth – it’s a waiting game. There will be no Belarusian Spring, no revolution, no hasty destruction of Lukashenko’s phony ‘parliament’, just a slow trudge to the death of the party chief. Oleg is right, and so is the activist I met from Tell the Truth, Sasha, there is no hope, there is no shining star, no light at the end of the tunnel, whatever metaphor you want to use for it. These people are in it for the long haul, patient and pious, watching the clock tick ever closer to the unknown.
 Name changed to protect the person’s identity