TCS Daily

Kingdom of Fear

By Anna Volk - December 19, 2005 12:00 AM

There is a popular view that life is cyclical. History repeats itself. Frames change over time, but the content remains the same. Who would predict that in the 21st century, in the heart of Europe, totalitarian repression might again rear its ugly head as it did half a century ago in the Soviet Union?

On December 8, 2005, the upper chamber of the Belarusian Parliament unanimously approved amendments to the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, which had already been passed by the "chamber of representatives" of Belarus (97 deputies voted "for" this law, and 3 -- "against"). The new measures increase penalties for "actions aimed against a person and public security". This bill was submitted to the parliament marked "urgent" by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on November 23.

The president's decrees in Belarus have always been quite "original" (read: "bold power-grabs"), but legislators have tried hard to couch them in more palatable terms. The authors of the new amendments, however, don't even try to hide their undemocratic character.

Under this new legislation, the Criminal Code will include a number of new articles, one of the most striking of which is "Discrediting the Republic of Belarus." In the proposed law, "discrediting" suggests "fraudulent representation of the political, economic, social, military or international situation of the Republic of Belarus, the legal status of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus or its government agencies." If the law were applied universally, Lukashenko himself and his pack of liars would all end up in jail. But the practical application of the law will be different: any citizen of Belarus who speaks negatively about the authorities could be arrested and jailed for up to two years.

No less important is the amendment on "appeals to foreign states, or international or foreign organizations, to perform actions damaging to the external security of Belarus, its sovereignty and territorial integrity." Such actions are to be punished by arrest and prison terms ranging from six months up to three years. If the "appeals" are disseminated by the mass media, the punishment is stricter: deprivation of liberty for a period of two to five years.

The changes of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus accord neither with the Constitution, nor with international law in the field of human rights (which was ratified by the Republic of Belarus), the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Human Rights Declaration, nor the main principles of the OSCE. These changes violate the fundamental principles of human rights, such as freedom of opinion and belief, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of association, etc.

Branislau Kamarouski, the former minister of defense of Poland and now a member of its parliament, compares the changes to the criminal code of Belarus with Communist times:

In my opinion, for us Poles, Belarusians and other peoples who lived under the Communists, these proposals by Lukashenko do not contain anything new. The courts in the People's Republic of Poland tried those who had distributed information from Radio Free Europe. They said, just as they now do in Belarus, that this information discredited the authorities. It is pure totalitarianism when you cannot exchange thoughts, including exchange opinions with people of other countries, when you are not allowed to want change. Lukashenko is proceeding further and further, because he is afraid. He is afraid, and so he is attacking, trying to intimidate the people of Belarus.

In an interview with BBC radio, the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich, turned attention to the simultaneous adoption of the amendments to the Criminal Code and a law "On Order and Conditions of Persons In Prison." According to the latter law as amended, a person under investigation, who is to undergo a medical or psychiatric examination, can be sent immediately to a labor colony or prison if pre-trial detention facilities are deficient.

"Even now the detention facilities are overcrowded. Prisoners charged for political reasons and other prisoners are kept together," Shushkevich says. "The present regime really lacks only Siberia for the scope of its activities."

The older generation in Belarus still remembers the time when they were not even allowed to "think" badly of the authorities. There were spies all around who just waited for the moment someone said something negative about the authorities and then reported the Thought Crime. All family members of the person who "discredited" Soviet Authorities were immediately expelled from The Party (which created problems getting a job), and were often sent to the Siberia. History is repeating itself. Belarus is the only ex-Soviet country in which the KGB still exists and Special Forces collaborators are allowed to infiltrate private enterprises under cover of ordinary employment.

Belarus is turning into a kingdom of fear. On one side, the authorities fear losing their power. On the other side, the people are afraid to oppose the authorities. Some of them, thanks to extensive manipulation, actually believe that everything in the country is going well. Others understand what is going on, but are afraid to speak or act.

"There are two problems blocking the development of democracy in Belarus," says Alexander Milinkevich, an opposition candidate for the presidential elections in Belarus. "These are a level of fear that is the same as people experienced when Stalin ruled, and a lack of information provided by an independent press."

Because of the Belarusian government's oppression, the number of independent newspapers is decreasing dramatically. Four years ago, there were 60 independent newspapers. By next year, there will only be only four left.

Speaking about the legal responsibility for "fraudulent representations of the situation in the Republic of Belarus" in reference to foreign mass media in the country, the head of the KGB (State Security Committee) of Belarus, Stsyapan Sukharenko, said that in this case "foreign mass media would be deprived of accreditation and expelled from the country." As for Belarusian journalists, contributing to the foreign mass media, Sukharenka stated: "They should read the law and think it over."

"Being the president, I sometimes have to make unpopular decisions," says Lukashenko on his official web-site. "I know that I will not be liked because of that. But my objective is to urge everybody to love the country where we live and respect the authorities which have never abandoned the people in grief. To protect people is my main job. It is to serve this purpose that I've been hired by the nation."

However, experience shows that the state is doing everything to protect itself -- from its people. People are given false information in the state-controlled media. They are not allowed to speak their minds and have become ideological zombies. Of course, those who do not submit to zombification are imprisoned.

The human rights situation in Belarus is becoming worse every day. People are afraid to act, partly because they don't understand what an alternative life might be like. They simply haven't seen it. However, the US and the EU are passing resolutions and making it more and more difficult for Belarusians to get visas. Such is hardly the best way to help oppose a dictatorship. The EU should allow normal Belarusians to see what life on the other side of the fence is like. Then they will form their own opinions (and they certainly won't be the opinions the authorities thrust upon them). When they get a taste of freedom, they will realize it's worth fighting for.

Anna Volk is a writer living in Belarus.


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