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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