Archive for April, 2011

Terror and Trust

The act of terrorism in Minsk on 11 April is an attempt to destroy the myth that Belarus is an ‘island of stability and security,’ as the Belarusians describe it.

The country has neither religious nor nationalist internal conflicts and no external enemies. The explosion comes shortly after presidential elections in December, which saw law enforcement bodies hailed for preventing what they called a coup d’etat prepared by the opposition and Western countries. So how was the blast in the very centre of the capital possible?

The bomb attack occurred in the Minsk metro during Monday’s evening rush hour. Thirteen people are dead, 200 were injured. It’s a huge tragedy for a peaceful country of 10 million people which has not taken part in any wars since it gained independence in 1991. A far more striking loss than the disappearances of several opposition politicians and a journalist in 1999 and 2000.

On 13 April – the official day of mourning – President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that the case has been solved and the bombing suspects have confessed.

The main suspects are two ordinary 25-year-old men, a lathe operator and an electrician. They also confessed to two earlier bombings – in September 2005 in Vitsyebsk and on Independence Day in Minsk on 3 July 2008 – basically, the only other bomb attacks of note during Lukashenka’s rule. Nobody was killed in the earlier blasts, which had remained unsolved.

There has been a lot of speculation on who might have wanted to ‘destabilise the country’ at a time when it is already struggling with a complicated economic problem.

Moscow? But Minsk has pinned its hope on a loan from Russia and it will be hard for the Kremlin to seek tough conditions in the aftermath of the tragedy. In fact, the latest news from Moscow is that talks on a $1 billion loan could be completed within a month. Also, that a second anti-crisis loan of $2 billion will be considered in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Community.

The opposition? After the presidential elections opposition leaders and their aides are either in prison or under house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of organising or participating in mass protests.

Islamist groups? Organised crime? Could it be an internal power struggle between apparatchiks? The fight against Lukashenka?

For sure, the explosion has caused discomfort for the government: the first reactions on Belarusian websites blamed Lukashenka himself. He visited the site just two and a half hours after the attack with his seven-year-old son (!) and urged police to catch the bombers as soon as possible.

In theory, he could benefit from distracting people from the economic crisis and use the event as a pretext to strangle what remains of the opposition. But in practice? It doesn’t make much sense. How can you distract someone from his daily routine? And destroy what is already almost nonexistent? And more trials will follow anyway.

For its part, the UN Security Council condemned the explosion as an “apparent” act of terrorism on face value. It apparently saw “a more than even chance that the government was behind this”.

Meanwhile, Lukashenka is indignant over the suggestions he may have been involved. He said that peace and security are the “brand” of Belarus and that the case has been solved very quickly. He added: “Am I an idiot to be the one to claim the crime is cleared?” The terrorists loved chemistry and hated people.

The President has linked the post-election protests, the current economic problems and the bombing as a joint-up conspiracy to undermine the stability in the country, saying that the opposition is acting in collusion with Western governments and could be responsible.

Lukashenka promised to stabilise the economic situation in a matter of days, or a week. He asked people “not to be mad at him” and promised that the worst has already passed.

One of the Russian yellow newspapers published the names of the three suspects, all of whom are simple guys from Vitsyebsk who worked at the Vitsyebsk Tractor Parts Factory. An opposition activist who happened to serve in the army together with one of the suspects confirmed that the guy was a real fan of chemistry.

No formal charges have yet been brought against the men, but it’s pretty clear what awaits them: Belarus is the only country in Europe which still executes people. They could be trialed as quickly as they were arrested. The official discourse – that the country is in a state of war – is also alarming as for instance, the people spreading ‘slanderous accusations’ about the events could face criminal charges.

Unreal as it may seem, the situation in the country might soon stabilise: the government is likely to get the loans it needs and to privatise some of the biggest enterprises. Devaluation will be a tough but necessary step, foreign currency will flow back, those found guilty of the bombing will face capital punishment.

What will remain is a deep fissure in the fabric of society, recognised even by the President himself: between those who believe anything the authorities say or do and those who find it difficult to believe anything.

How many people believe that the hastily arrested are the terrorists? How many will trust the verdict?

How many will be happy with economic measures to curb the crisis? How many regret their vote in December?

The question is – can such a country be considered genuinely stable?

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Zealous Belarus

P.P: As the post was published, shocking news came. There was an explosion in the busiest Minsk underground station Oktyabrskaya, in the very centre of the city, near the Presidential Administration. 11 dead, 126 injured.. The explosion is classified as a terroristic act. The second one after the bombing in July’2008.. and the first one which took human lives.. Lukashenka personally examined the scene and urged to search the county and arrest anyone who has explosives.

The two main weapons of the Belarusian authorities are fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency… Well, the three weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and fanatical devotion to the social model of market economy… Anyhow, not the rule of law, but the law of their rules, which are not always logical.

The current economic and political self-portrait of Belarus is full of the brightest shades of the darkest colours. Since presidential elections in December 2010, the future of the country has been changing. On 12 April EU ministers will discuss potential economic sanctions against Belarusian authorities. No sweat: they already introduced economic sanctions against themselves.

The country faces a crisis in terms of hard currency: trading in foreign currency has been restricted and no flexibility in the exchange rate is allowed. It’s very difficult to buy dollars or euros, which makes foreign travel difficult, handicaps the private sector and could end-up bringing the biggest state factories to a standstill.

Belarusians have hurried to empty their bank accounts to buy foreign currency as well as anything that can be traded (gold) or might get a lot more expensive (sugar, buckwheat, sunflower oil).

Belarus lives beyond its means. Foreign debt skyrocketed from zero in 2006 to $10.6 billion dollars in March 2011. The government has ruled out a devaluation, which the IMF believes is a vital step.

It looks like Moscow is in control. It promised loans ($3 billion) but is in no hurry to pay them. First the Kremlin gave Minsk 10 days (!) to bring forward a plan for economic reforms. Now this document is being studied. Is Moscow expecting Belarus to give it carte blanche to buy the family silver (Belarusian chemical and machinery plants, oil refineries)? Russian businessmen have wanted this for a long time but could not get access.

Meanwhile, Russia is to raise its gas price for Belarus. It used to be $187 dollar per 1.000 cubic metres in 2010, $223 at the beginning of 2011 and will now be $244.7.

One sign that Belarusian authorities are once again putting their hope in the West is the release of a number of detainees from KGB detention centres considered by the EU to be political prisoners. Their charges have not been dropped but10 of them now face three instead of 15 years in jail. The official story is that this is the result of the investigations.

The two main sources of stability for Belarusian authorities have always been cheap Russian gas (for whatever reasons) and the trust of the wider public (for whatsoever reasons). The lack of the first asset shows the instability of the latter. And this at least is logical.

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