Posts Tagged ‘Belarus’

Chavez and the Racism of Low Expectations

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International

If, as a local councillor, I was to spend my time consorting with street gangs who exercised authority without consent and packed the Council with political cronies selected on nepotism not merit, I would not expect to be celebrated by the Left. But Hugo Chavez was. No matter that he actively explored cooperation with the planet’s vilest dictators. He developed a “strategic partnership” with murderer Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Not as an accident of regional geopolitics – but an active embrace of tyranny. And in return, the government of Belarus has announced 3 days of mourning to mark his death.

It wasn’t just Lukashenko, he joked with President Ahmadinejad about building a “big atomic bomb”. He hailed Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin and was staunch in his support for blood-drenched tyrants staunch Col Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar.

His celebrated domestic record was patchy. A welcome attempt to alleviate poverty and establish healthcare was shackled by Tammany Hall politics that drove up prices, packed public services with inept political cronies and left the shelves of supermarkets empty for the poor.

The contrast with Brazil, a social democracy whose leadership has served it well, is stark. Brazilians are 3 times less likely to be murdered in the streets, the press is still free and civil society strong.

The finest piece on this social failure is “Slumlord” by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker. The Tower of David, in the centre of Caracus, is totemic of this failure:

Guillermo Barrios, the dean of architecture at the Universidad Central, says: “Every regime has its architectural imprimatur, its icon, and I have no doubt that the architectural icon of this regime is the Tower of David. It embodies the urban policy of this regime, which can be defined by confiscation, expropriation, governmental incapacity, and the use of violence.”

This isn’t a fringe issue. Labour MPs have praised Chavez’s handling of the last elections (I’ve heard silence on the last Brazilian elections), unions pay their members to go on fact-finding missions and Labour’s last Mayor of London built another “strategic partnership” with Chavez (how many did he need?). It is hard not to conclude that the Left suffers from the racism of low expectations.


In Belarus, the freedom of the internet is at stake

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

Europe’s last dictatorship is clamping down on online activism, with a new law effectively requiring everyone to be a state spy


As of this morning, the internet in Belarus got smaller. A draconian new law is in force that allows the authorities to prosecute internet cafes if their users visit any foreign sites without being “monitored” by the owner. All commercial activity online by businesses registered in Belarus is now illegal unless conducted via a .by (Belarusian) domain name. There are concerns that this gives Belarusian authorities the power to take the next step and criminalise Amazon and eBay’s operations unless they collaborate with the regime’s censorship and register there. The law effectively implements the privatisation of state censorship: everyone is required to be a state spy. Belarusians who allow friends to use their internet connection at home will be responsible for the sites they visit. Some have tried to defend the law, stating all countries regulate the internet in some form – but the Belarusian banned list of websites contains all the leading opposition websites. The fine for visiting these sites is half a month’s wages for a single view.

The Arab spring has been a wake-up call to the world’s remaining despots. The internet allowed images of open dissent to disseminate instantly. As Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak found out, once you reach a critical mass of public protest you haven’t got long to board your private jet. It’s a lesson learned by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and Europe’s last dictator, and also by the Belarusian opposition.

Lukashenko attempted to destroy the political opposition after the rigged 2010 presidential elections. Seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested alongside thousands of political activists. The will of those detained was tested: there are allegations that presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich have been tortured while in prison. The opposition is yet to recover; many of its leading figures have fled to Lithuania and Poland.

Within this vacuum of leadership, the internet helped spur a civil society backlash. After the sentencing of the presidential candidates, a movement inspired by the Arab spring “The Revolution Via Social Networks” mushroomed into a wave of protests that brought dissent to towns across Belarus usually loyal to Lukashenko. As the penal code had already criminalised spontaneous political protest with its requirements for pre-notification, the demonstrations were silent, with no slogans, no banners, no flags, no shouting, no swearing – just clapping.

“The Revolution Via Social Networks” (RSN) helped co-ordinate these protests online via VKontakte (the biggest rival to Facebook in Russia and Belarus with more than 135 million registered users). RSN now has more than 32,000 supporters.

RSN splits its four administrators between Minsk and Krakow to keep the page active even when the state blocks access to the page, or the country’s secret police (hauntingly still called the KGB) intimidate them.

The protests were so effective at associating clapping with dissent that the traditional 3 July independence day military parade was held without applause with only the brass bands of the military puncturing the silence. As lines of soldiers, trucks, tanks and special forces paraded past Lukashenko and his six-year-old son dressed in military uniform, those gathered waved flags in a crowd packed with plain-clothed agents ready to arrest anyone who dared clap or boo.

The internet has kept the pressure on the regime in other ways. Protesters photograph the KGB and post their pictures online in readiness for future trials against those who commit human rights violations. A Facebook group “Wanted criminals in civilian clothes”, blogs and Posobniki.com all help to expose those complicit in the regime’s crimes. The web has also helped spread the stories of individuals who have faced brutality by the regime.

It’s this effectiveness that has made the internet a target for Lukashenko. The law enacted in July 2010 allowed the government to force Belarusian ISPs to block sites within 24 hours.

The new measures coming into force today merely build upon these restrictions. The official position of the Belarusian government from the operations and analysis centre of the presidential administration is: “The access of citizens to internet resources, including foreign ones, is not restricted in Belarus.” Yet, in reality the government blocks websites at will, especially during protests. Just after Christmas, the leading opposition website Charter 97 (which works closely with Index on Censorship) was hacked, its archive part-deleted and a defamatory post about jailed presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov published on the site. The site’s editor, Natalia Radzina, who has faced years of vile death and rape threats and escaped from Belarus after being placed in internal exile last year, says she has “no doubt” that the government was behind the hack. This is one of a series of attacks on Charter 97, which include co-ordinated DDOS (denial of service) attacks orchestrated by the KGB through an illegal botnet of up to 35,000 infected computers worldwide.

The regime has even darker methods of silencing its critics. In September 2010, I flew to Minsk to meet Belarusian civil society activists including the founder of the Charter 97 website, Oleg Bebenin. The day I landed he was found hung in his dacha, his leg broken, with his beloved son’s hammock wrapped around his neck. I spoke to his closest friends at his funeral including Andrei Sannikov and Natalia Radzina. No one believed he had committed suicide, all thought he had been killed by the state. Bebenin isn’t the only opposition figure to have died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances under Lukashenko’s rule, a chill on freedom of expression far more powerful than any changes in the law.

Today marks yet another low in Belarus’s miserable slide back to its Soviet past. Clapping in the street is now illegal. NGOs have been forced underground and their work criminalised.

Former presidential candidates languish in jail. The internet is the last free public space.

Lukashenko will do all he can to close down this freedom. In Europe, the battle has opened between the netizens of Belarus and its government. Who wins will be a matter of interest for us all.

This article was originally published in the Guardian on 6 January.

Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas stop selling Belarusian government bonds

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, International

Clegg-Koliada-Harris

Two more foreign banks halt cooperation with Belarus after German Chancellor Angela Merkel tells Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now that she would intervene to stop Deutsche Bank from selling government bonds to Europe’s last dictatorship.

Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now welcome the decision of banks BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank to stop selling the government bonds of Belarus, a country known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Deutsche Bank’s decision came after the launch of our international petition signed by the families of the political prisoners and NGOs as well as a series of protests. The campaign’s success is testimony to the success of the organisations in encouraging the high-level involvement of European politicians such as British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in condemning Belarus’s human rights violations.

Irina Bogdanova, sister of jailed Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov raised Deutsche Bank’s involvement in two bonds sales directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel told Bogdanova that she would call Deutsche Bank and raise the issue with them directly. Bogdanova said:

“It’s outrageous that a bank used by German families has sold the government bonds of the dictatorship that has imprisoned my brother for no other crime than standing in an election. Chancellor Merkel promised me she would speak to Deutsche Bank. I’m delighted that Deutsche Bank will no longer work for Europe’s last dictatorship after our campaign.”

Deutsche Bank were involved in a syndicate alongside British bank Royal Bank of Scotland, Russian bank Sberbank and French bank BNP Paribas that sold $1bn Belarusian government bonds at 8.75 per cent (due August 2015) in August 2010, followed by a further issue of $850m of bonds in January 2011 (due January 2016) at a higher rate of 8.95 per cent.

Experts calculated these interest rates were twice the rate that would have been levied by the IMF, but the IMF would have required structural reforms. Governments including the British government have opposed IMF involvement until the country releases political prisoners jailed after the last presidential election.

Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now were particularly concerned that even after the oppressive post-election crackdown in which seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested and 43 political prisoners were held, the bond sale by Deutsche Bank continued.

Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship, said:

“Belarus’s financial crisis is so severe last week the Central Bank was forced to auction government property including TVs and cardboard boxes. Deutsche Bank and RBS who sold Belarusian government bonds in January were propping up a dictatorship. We’re delighted they have both pulled out leaving Lukashenko with few options other than to release his political prisoners.”

He added: “Only Sberbank is left from the original consortium of four banks. We will keep campaigning until they commit to not doing business with Lukashenko.”

Index on Censorship was the first NGO to report allegations of torture in Belarus on 20 December last year. The campaign by Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now is continuing to place pressure on Sberbank, the last remaining bank involved in the bond sale.

For more information please contact Mike Harris at Index on Censorship mikeindexoncensorshiporg or +44 207 324 2534 / +44 7974 838 468

The Politicization of Chernobyl in Belarus

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, International

chernobyl

Originally published by anti-totalitarian journal Dissent Magazine on 31 May 2011

WHEN THE reactor at Unit 4 of the V. I. Lenin Atomic Power Station, Chernobyl, exploded twenty-five years ago, the people of Belarus were sacrificed by a secretive political system. Pilots such as Major Aleksei Grushin were sent into the air above Belarus to seed clouds with silver iodine so they would rain down what had spewed from the inner core of the reactor onto the fields below. That political decision kept Muscovites safe—but as a result, 60 percent of the disaster’s radiation fell on the hapless people of Belarus.

It was a national catastrophe. As author Svetlana Alexievich points out in her masterful Voices from Chernobyl, the Nazis took three years to destroy 619 Belarusian villages during the Second World War; Chernobyl made 485 villages uninhabitable in hours. Today, 2,000,000 Belarussians, including 800,000 children, live in contaminated areas. To give an idea as to how contaminated this land is, 100,000 people live on land with a radiation level 1,480 times greater than the level typically found on a nuclear bomb test site. Between 1990 and 2000, the incidence of thyroid cancer in adolescents in the region increased by 1,600 percent.

To begin with, the Soviet Union said almost nothing to its people about the catastrophe. But after the contamination spread across the Iron Curtain to Sweden, setting off radiation level alarms, there was an admission of an accident. Even so, stories in Pravda Ukrainy and Sovetskaya Belorussia parroted the official party line that Western propaganda was making the accident out to be worse than the “contained” incident it supposedly was. The long-term effects were said to be a few hundred additional cancer deaths over a generation. Farmers were told that afflicted land could soon be returned to productive use (a statement backed by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in Vienna, a certain Hans Blix).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, little changed in Belarus: one authoritarian regime was replaced by another. The country’s dictator since 1996, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective-farm boss, is keen to get people back onto the land. He has personally intervened to support studies that show this land is safe to bring back into agricultural use. In 2004 he declared that it was time to build new homes and villages in the contaminated regions, stating triumphantly, “land should work for the country.”

Many international organizations, including the IAEA, backed Lukashenko’s aspirations. But Belarus isn’t a place to question the wisdom of the authorities. It is one of the least free places on earth, ranked below Zimbabwe and Iran for press freedom. And so the Soviet silencing of dissent continues.

A scientific expert on the effects of Chernobyl, Yuri Bandazhevsky, openly criticized the policy of bringing contaminated land into use a decade ago, suggesting that the government was knowingly exporting radioactive food. For this he was jailed on anti-terror charges. In 2001, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on “corruption charges.” He was released in 2005 and now lives in exile in France, unable to research the disaster’s effects on the people remaining in the evacuation zone.

Lukashenko is unfazed by such criticism. Since his reelection in December (deemed “unfair” by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election observers) he has ruthlessly clamped down on any opposition to his rule. Over 600 arrests were made in the days that followed the election result. Seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates were jailed, five of whom have now been sentenced to multi-year prison terms. The bombing of the Minsk metro on April 11, in which twelve civilians died, has been blamed by Lukashenko on his rule being overly liberal. He told his crony Parliament, “There was so much democracy, it was just nauseating.” As in Soviet times, fear stalks the country: mysterious terrorist acts, the near-total jailing of the opposition, KGB arrests in the dead of night, and allegations of torture abound.

In the absence of open politics, the remembrance of Chernobyl’s victims has become an intensely political act. Protests demanding justice for the victims until recently have been led by the opposition. In 2006, 5,000 protesters shouted anti-government chants declaring a cover-up on the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition leader, led the crowds.

For those living in the affected areas, political fear is compounded by a vacuum of information about the disaster. Detailed maps of the land contaminated in the Ukraine are readily available; not so in Belarus. The vacuum is filled with hysteria and fear. According to Richard Wilson, professor of physics at Harvard University, “The truth is that the fear of Chernobyl has done much more damage than Chernobyl itself.” To this day this fear infects daily life. A fear of deformities means there are more abortions than live child births in Belarus. One psychiatrist, Dr. Havenaar, studied the people of Gomel, one of the worst-affected areas. He found that local people said they were five times as sick as people in similar towns not affected by Chernobyl’s radiation. But after physical examinations, the level of illness among those towns was broadly similar. It was the psychological distress in Gomel that was far, far greater. Fear is literally making people sick.

Political decisions in Moscow made Belarus the dumping ground for over 100 times the radiation released by the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Now the aftermath of Chernobyl itself is intensely political. Prior to its post-election suppression, the opposition demanded answers from a secretive regime about the health effects of the disaster. Now Lukashenko is committed to building a new nuclear power plant bordering Lithuania (to the horror of Lithuanians)—on one of the country’s tiny patches of uncontaminated land—and to opening up the contaminated land for human inhabitation. Last month, Lukashenko visited the village of Dernovichi in the evacuation zone and delivered a speech on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. His intentions for the area were quite clear:

In Narovlya district milk is produced which is used for the production of children’s food. The re-specialization of agriculture gives farmers work again. In the Gomel Region—there are 34,000 hectares from which it is possible to receive clean products. Besides, tourists are ready to come to this zone.
As for Major Aleksei Grushin, he was awarded a medal by Vladimir Putin at a state ceremony. This is a state secret in Belarus. In countries where dissenters are silenced, disasters like Chernobyl are magnified. The tragedy is twenty-five years on, and Belarusians are no more free.

Europe’s shame: the dictatorship of Belarus

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Articles, International

Cllr Mike Harris in the Independent on the death of Bebehin

A very slightly edited version of this article was originally published in The Independent newspaper on 8 September 2010.

On Friday, Aleh Byabenin, one of Belarus’s leading journalists and human rights activist, was found hanged in his country home. His beloved 5 year old son’s hammock was around his neck, hung so low that his feet touched the ground. Andrei Sannikov, the leader of Charter97, the organisation Byabenin co-founded, was one of the first at the scene. He has grave doubts about the coroner’s official verdict that Byabenin hanged himself: “No suicide note was found, and his last SMS to friends showed they planned to go to the cinema”. I landed in Minsk on Friday to meet Byabenin and other civil society activists. On Monday I will attend his funeral. People are in no doubt as to what really happened – and talk through tears about a man who had devoted 15 years of his life to fighting against President Lukashenko’s dictatorship and was in no mood to quit. In hushed tones everyone fears a return to the period between 1997 – 99 when suddenly activists, business and journalists ‘disappeared’ without trace.

In the last year, human rights activists have faced continual intimidation from the authorities. On 6 December 2009, Yahen Afnagel, a youth leader, was kidnapped in broad daylight on the streets of Minsk and taken by van to a forest just outside Minsk. His hands were bound together and a bag placed over his head. He told me he was subject to a mock execution and men screamed at him it would be carried out for real if he continued to question the authorities. In just two months, 6 youth leaders faced mock executions.

The death of Oleg Bebenin in Europe, today

All of this is happening, today, on European soil. When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Minsk last November he told the country’s dictator President Lukashenko, that his people “love you, which is shown by the elections”. Never mind that the OSCE, which Italy is a member of, declared that the “presidential election failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” Realpolitik is order of the day, and the opening up of markets by the IMF and World Bank are paying dividends for businessmen and their political cronies in capitals across Europe. Britain is no better. Lukashenko has hired Lord Chadlington, one of David Cameron’s closest allies (he bankrolled his leadership bid), on a public relations contract to improve his country’s image. Lord Chadlington clearly has no qualms about taking money from a nation ranked 188 out of 195 countries for press freedom; where every single gay club has been shut down and gay websites are blocked, and where Lukashenko has personally approved the turning of Jewish holy sites in Belarus into multi-storey car parks as part of a vicious national campaign of anti-Semitism, according to the World Association of Belarusian Jewry.

Culturally too, Western artists are helping to soften the image of Belarus. This month Sting will perform a concert in the Minsk Arena. His rider is for potted trees in his dressing room. If he looks beyond them, across the road is Lukashenko’s private residence built in the area of town that during the Nazi occupation hosted the mass killing of military prisoners. Whilst Sting performs, in an abandoned house on the other side of Minsk the banned Belarus Free Theatre will perform ‘Discover Love’, their play about the abduction and disappearance of businessman, democrat, and foe of Lukashenko, Anatoly Krasovski and his friend. Unlike the audience at the approved Sting concert, those attending performances of the Belarus Free Theatre are subject to harassment by the KGB.

Whilst Europe ignores the plight of the Belarussian people, the dictatorship is intensifying its efforts to stifle dissent prior to the Presidential election to be held at latest by February 2011. The KGB and intelligence forces are developing new, more subtle ways to target opponents. Accusations of scientology (illegal in France and Germany) and criminal libel abound. The short-term arrest and detention of political activists is now so routine that one youth leader told me he ‘couldn’t possible count’ how many times he had been arrested. Yet, the old methods are still the most effective. Yesterday an anonymous comment on the Charter97 website simply read: “We will wipe all of you off the face of the earth. None of your relatives will ever produce the like of you again.” The site’s moderator, Natalia Radzina has recently been sent emails and SMS messages that say, “We will rape you”, followed by her address. Yesterday she told me: “Lukashenko cannot frighten the IMF and other international investors by obviously murdering journalists and activists so my worry is, over the coming months up to the election, we will see a spate of mysterious suicides, road accidents and poisonings.”

The case of Aleh Byabenin ought to ring alarm bells across Europe, yet it has barely been reported outside Russia. We cannot let Europe’s politicians sleep walk into a cozy accommodation with a tyrant. Natalia Koliada from the Belarus Free Theatre, a close friend of Aleh asked me, how many more people must disappear or commit suicide until we take notice? Belarus is Europe’s shame.

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