9 min read

#16 Belarus

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1994. At the time of the first election, he was voted in with around 80 percent of the vote. Those elections were deemed free and fair.

But over the years, Lukashenka began to rule like an old-school Soviet leader. He established an economic system that resembled the Soviet one, with only faint glimpses of a market economy. He gradually turned up the dial on political repression and maintained close ties with Russia. Elections were stolen. People began to call Lukashenka Europe's last dictator.

The country was also notoriously difficult to visit.

In the Winter of 2013, I obtained a visa when a friend of a friend married a Belarussian woman, and I was invited to the wedding as a plus one. The bride's father wrote me an invitation letter, and I applied for my travel documents using my Spanish passport. Lukashenka claimed that he wanted to forge ties with Western leaders at the time. For a short while, it looked as though Belarus might open up.

I expected to find an austere country, like the images of North Korea, where the streets are empty except for a few minders and the military. I had heard numerous stories over the years of activists and journalists being beaten to death or imprisoned. I thought the country would be isolated from the rest of Europe.

Instead, I saw French music videos on the television and sat in chic cafes in the capital where people sat working on their laptops. Soviet imagery was everywhere, especially in the metro stations and on the streets. But I could roam around freely without being harassed by the security services, even if I knew that they knew we were there. The country felt much more normal than I expected.

When we were in public, the liberal-minded people I met spoke in hushed whispers about their political engagements. But they talked about them nonetheless. I was surprised at their willingness to take that risk.

In the years since things in Belarus have taken a turn for the worse. In 2020, fraudulent elections were followed by massive street protests. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was forced into exile. Today, there are over 1,300 political prisoners in Belarus.

Many activists have fled to nearby Poland or Lithuania. Belarus, meanwhile, is almost completely isolated, with the exception of its ever-closer relationship with Russia.

Inside a Minsk metro station, 2013.

This week's episode is about Belarus.

Welcome to the 195 series, where I take you on a mini-tour of every country (and maybe some places that want to be countries). Each week I'll feature a new location. Some you may have heard of, while others may be new to you. The point is to learn and nurture our curiosity about the wider world. Maybe you'll find a new artist or musician you like, too.

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Country Info:

Population: Roughly 9.3 million.

Current government: The authoritarian rule of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Freedom House gives Belarus an 8/100 in its freedom in the world index. They write:

Belarus is an authoritarian state in which elections are openly rigged and civil liberties are severely restricted. In 2020, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who maintains a firm grip over the military and security forces, cracked down on a massive prodemocracy protest movement, that was sparked by his reelection in a fraudulent presidential poll. Since then, security forces have violently assaulted and arbitrarily detained journalists and ordinary citizens who challenge the regime, whether by means of protesting, reporting on events, or posting opinions online. The judiciary and other institutions lack independence and provide no check on Lukashenka’s power.

Languages spoken: Russian and Belarussian. For years, Soviet authorities brutally suppressed the Belarussian language. Lukashenka is now continuing that tradition.

In this essay for Al Jazeera, documentary filmmaker Olga Logovina writes about the current and historical oppression of the language:

With limited access to Belarusian language education and media, it is through reading Belarusian literature or translations that countless Belarusians like me try to remember the forgotten lexicon and grammar of their mother tongue. So it is not surprising that Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, which has effectively turned Belarus into Russia’s vassal state, assaults Belarusian language bookstores and publishing houses.

Religion: the Belarusian Orthodox Church is the central religious body in the country, but there are also some practicing Catholics. The Jamestown Foundation writes:

Historically, no religious denomination has categorically or systematically promoted Belarusian nationalism. Rather, for centuries, an Orthodox-Catholic contest over which faith would play a dominant role in Belarusian lands ended up promoting the national causes of Russia and Poland, respectively, and not offering a niche for Belarus as such. Consequently, Belarus has long been effectively a cultural borderland. And the existence of a fuzzy and unstable border between two Christian denominations on this territory resulted in frequent, geopolitically triggered changes in religious allegiance on the part of the ancestors of today’s Belarusians.

Standout artist: I absolutely adore the work of Mikhail Savicki, whose paintings are haunting.

Standout film: Kupała/Купала is a 2020 biopic that portrays the life of Belarusian poet Janka Kupała.

A surprising thing: The country has one of the largest remaining parts of the primeval forest that previously covered the North European Plain. The Białowieża Forest is a Unesco World Heritage site.

Story of the week: Belarus plans to move military equipment and forces in a “counterterrorism” exercise, amid fears that Russia could attack Ukraine from the Belarussian border. Al Jazeera has the report.

What I'm writing:

• I wrote about Republican lawmakers' plans to launch a select committee to investigate China's malign activities. This story is free to read.

• My colleague Philip Athey and I wrote a deep dive into the race to diversify the semiconductor-chip industry and how the U.S. and EU are trying to avoid a subsidies war. This story is unlocked and free to read.

• If you want to hear my voice! 📻 I spoke to Julie Mason on Sirius XM about the plans for a China select committee in the House of Representatives, and transatlantic tensions over semiconductor chip manufacturing, among other topics.

What I'm reading:

• Lavish birthday trips to Michelin-star restaurants in France, skiing in Austria, and sunbathing in Italy — leaked flight data show how the family of ruthless Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka lived la dolce vita in Europe. EU Observer has the report.

Chris Miller has a shocking report on the fighting in the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk province for the Financial Times.

• The U.S. is not encouraging Ukraine to attack targets inside Russia, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. However, he stopped short of condemning such attacks, instead emphasizing U.S. support for operations inside Ukraine, the New York Times reports. There were three strikes on air bases in Russian territory in two days.

• Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov, who oversaw atrocities in Syria, led cluster bomb attacks on civilians in Ukraine, CNN discovered.

• Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin was found guilty of spreading “fake information” about the Russian army, Reuters reports. Yashin was tried over a Youtube video in which he discussed evidence uncovered by Western journalists of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

• Hungary  –currently in a standoff with the European Union over the rule of law – blocked an EU plan to provide Ukraine with an $18.93 billion financial aid package, the Wall Street Journal reports. Hungary’s decision hampered efforts to secure the package through common EU debt issuance, meaning that the bloc will probably fall billions of euros short of its promised assistance to Ukraine.

• This seems to have worked for Hungary because European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is now reconsidering whether to withhold €7.5 billion in EU funds over Viktor Orbán's corruption so he'll stop vetoing key bills. Politico Europe explains:

The Commission is unlikely to touch the €7.5 billion — that would really look too much like horse-trading, which it will leave to the Council — instead, the Commission may report that Hungary has started some reforms that seem to go in the right direction. That will allow the Council to justify cutting the fine for Hungary — essentially using the Commission’s new assessment as a fig leaf to justify a new compromise with Orbán.

• The International Crisis Group has a great photo essay called Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line.

• Latvian authorities revoked the broadcast license of exiled Russian TV station Dozhd, Meduza reports.

• Plans to extend Europe’s free-travel zone known as the Schengen Area hit a roadblock after Austria threatened to block Bulgaria and Romania from joining the club, Politico Europe reports.

• Turkey expects more extraditions from Sweden if it is to approve the country’s NATO membership, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said. He made the comments after Sweden deported Turkish citizen Mahmut Tat, who had sought asylum in Sweden in 2015 after being sentenced in Turkey for alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Reuters has the report.

• The U.S. is preparing to resume full ground operations alongside Kurdish partners in Northern Syria, the Washington Post reports. The decision risks inflaming relations with NATO ally Turkey, which blames the Kurds for a recent bomb attack in Istanbul.

• Special Forces in Germany arrested 25 people suspected of supporting a domestic terrorist organization. The organization – described as being influenced by the ideologies of the conspiracy group QAnon and a right-wing German group Citizens of the Reich – planned to overthrow the government and form its own state, the New York Times reports.

• Environmental activists were physically removed after occupying tables at an upmarket steakhouse in central London, the BBC reports. Animal Rebellion protesters entered Nusr-Er, a restaurant that serves gold-plated steaks costing up to £1,450.

• Exploited migrant workers in the Irish fishing sector are being "failed" and "ignored," according to JournalismFund.EU.

• Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri was quoted saying Iran’s morality police have been “abolished.” However, Iranian state media firmly pushed back on this, CNN reports.

• Iran announced the first execution of a protester convicted over the recent anti-government unrest, the BBC reports. Mohsen Shekari was hanged after being found guilty by a Revolutionary Court of "enmity against God." He was only 23 years old and worked in a cafe.

• Media outlet Al Jazeera filed a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court against Israeli forces over the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Reuters reports.

• A court in Argentina sentenced the country’s vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to six years in prison and disqualified her from public office after finding her guilty of corruption, CNN reports.

• Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was ousted after he attempted to dissolve Congress and install an emergency government, the New York Times reports. The attempt came ahead of a planned impeachment vote against Castillo on corruption charges.

• China has set up more than 100 so-called overseas police stations across the globe to monitor, harass, and in some cases, repatriate Chinese citizens living in exile, CNN reports.

• Sudan’s military and political parties signed a framework deal to end a political standoff created by a military coup in October 2021. The agreement provides for a two-year civilian-led transition toward elections and would limit the military’s formal role to a security and defense council led by a prime minister, Reuters reports.

• 83 Tigrayan soldiers detained at a prison camp near Mirab Abaya were massacred in 2021 by Ethiopian guards and villagers, the Washington Post reveals.

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