The Reign of Terror That Sustains the Leader of Belarus
Despite protesting against him for months, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko was able to stick to power due to an all-pervasive defense apparatus.
MINSK, Belarus — Shocked by savage police brutality at the beginning of Belarus's planned revolution, the presenter of a popular morning show on state television left his job in protest and announced that his country's veteran king, no matter how cruel, would never "force Belarusians back into the box they had in those 26 years."
The broadcaster, Denis Dudinsky, reappeared a few days later—this time with a video message calling on President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko's critics to stop protesting.
Asked what made him change his mind, Mr. Dudinsky refused to go into depth, simply remarking obliquely that these people know how to formulate their demands so you can't say no."
After nearly three months of demonstrations that started with intense outrage over a rigged referendum, Mr. Lukashenko appears to survive his power struggle. He has done this not only through brutal policing methods, empty policy commitments, or over time. Rather, he relied on a more insidious and sometimes unseen machinery of manipulation, intimidation and repression: a little-changed internal intelligence agency from the Soviet period that still uses the old Soviet name, K.G.B.
"Over the past 26 years, Lukashenko has developed a regime of crushing opposition in Belarus that instills people's feelings of animal terror," said Pavel P. Latushko, former Minister of Culture and former Ambassador to France, Poland and Spain.
It controls a network of spies and monitors—known as "curators"—who oversee any institution in the world, from colleges, companies, to the presidential government. Its agents compile derogatory materials on just about everyone accused of disloyalty and eavesdrop on senior government officials' communications to make sure they're on party line.
Staff at factories and other state-run operations, recruiting more than 40% of the country's population, fear losing their jobs if accused of disloyalty, one of the reasons Mr. Lukashenko retains a quasi-Soviet economic model.
"If you share your point of view, you will be held accountable," Mr. Latushko said. "You may be reprimanded or face disciplinary or criminal charges. You will be physically killed in the worst case."
Any arrested fail to respond to persistent physical threat. Recently, when Mr. Lukashenko visited a number of high-profile political prisoners on a visit to a K.G.B. prison, one of the inmates—Sergei Tikhanovsky, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's husband, the opposition leader who ran in his behalf in the presidential election after he was incarcerated, screamed.
"Release me now! "He shrieked.
Yet others' line was softer. After two months in the K.G.B.'s possession, Yuri Voskresensky told Mr. Lukashenko he was finding consensus and ready to serve as mediator.
Rapidly released from a jail he described as "hell," Mr. Voskresensky started hailing Mr. Lukashenko as a "good man" and a "open guy," saying the K.G.B. saw a great ability" in him. Mr. Voskresensky, who suffers from debilitating illnesses and had to undergo daily medication while in jail, advised opposition supporters to stop demonstrating.
Mr. Voskresensky's transition demonstrated how Belarus's judicial system, fed by various law enforcement officials, has only one goal—to hold Mr. Lukashenko in control forever.
"We have two nation law systems, one for normal crimes like murder or robbery," said Andrei V. Sytko, a former high-ranking prosecutor. "Politics push the second parallel structure. The whole vertical force from a police officer to the solicitor general and the Supreme Court functions to protect the new constitutional system."
And while Mr. Lukashenko does not run the structure from day to day, people inside it follow their duties with zealotry born of the president's terror.
"Officials dislike his righteous indignation and are eager to volunteer disciplinary acts," Mr. Sytko said. "Better punishing than overdoing them."
Security officials get steady, if not generous, incomes and subsidized apartments and mortgages to cement their allegiance.
So it's a catch. Police officers and prosecutors who leave forfeit their benefits and are required to repay the incentive they earned at their last extension and tuition fees if they graduated recently.
An Interior Ministry Academy graduate owes about $10,000 a year of study, an amount written off for every year of service, said Andrei I. Ostapovich, a former senior researcher and academy graduate.
"It's hard to get there but it's much harder to leave," said Mr. Ostapovich, 27, referring to law enforcement.
Following a brutal crackdown on demonstrations following Election Day in August, Mr. Ostapovich wrote a resignation letter claiming that riot police representatives "were the only ones who provoked violence" and followed "criminal orders." Shortly afterwards, he fled to Russia but was warned that he could be detained there as well.
He decided to escape to Latvia but was arrested and driven back to Belarus in handcuffs with a dumbbell tied, he said. Once in Belarus, he avoided custody and for days traveled through trees and marshes to reach Poland.
Law enforcement members are also brainwashed, said Yevgeny I. Babak, Minsk's former assistant prosecutor. He says he had to attend "national information" classes every week where he had to sit through state-run propaganda news shows and fill a "ideology notebook" with key takeaways.
Despite brainwashing, many law enforcement officers also faced a tough choice: whether to engage in August's harsh crackdown on demonstrations, or stand down and face risks. In June, retired senior prosecutor Yevgeny M. Yushkevich initiated an initiative to help reduce these threats, providing financial help and training to law enforcement officers who decided to leave.
When working as a prosecutor, Mr. Yushkevich, 31, was asked to conduct criminal investigations against (he claims he refused) political activists and journalists. One of the more common techniques was to find a connection in a target's phone to a pornographic website and charge the individual with its dissemination, a criminal offense in Belarus, he said.
Judges regularly rule politically-motivated. Aleksei V. Pasko, a judge in the west Pinsk district, left his position after learning how many "partisan" cases he would have to hear after thousands of demonstrators were arrested.
"I was tired of all this," said Mr. Pasko, 32. "I never decided my moral compass wouldn't let me do it under those circumstances."
Lawyers, the only players in the scheme with a semblance of freedom, are routinely intimidated and insulted, even revoking their licenses. Maria Kolesava-Hudzilina, an esteemed prosecutor representing inmate protestors, says she was frequently warned with her clients during visits that she would not be able to leave the house."
"If we take the 20th century in Europe, we're living with one of the cruelest regimes that existed," Sergei Chaly said who worked with Mr. Lukashenko at the beginning of his career and is now a Belarusian affairs analyst. "This sort of evil Europe hasn't seen for decades."
As of this article, weekly demonstrations against Mr. Lukashenko continue, with more than 1,000 people arrested at a Minsk demonstration last Sunday. For others like Anatoly A. Kotov, who served in the presidential affairs office until late August, the opposition raised its eyes.
The party line "has come down to a very clear understanding we're not serving the Belarusian army, we're serving Lukashenko directly."
However several members of what he called the "semi-military government" established by Mr. Lukashenko also cannot afford to take protestors' side.
"When you leave this scheme, you have nowhere else to go," said Mr. Kotov, 40, from Poland, where he was forced to escape.