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Reality Check in Minsk

Belarus has opened up, but remnants of authoritarianism remain.

by Jeremy Druker 23 November 2018

I returned recently from a trip to Belarus. It sure doesn’t feel like the “last dictatorship in Europe” anymore. I attended a conference that included a panel openly promoting the benefits of investigative reporting; I visited a vibrant tech hub known for staging events on themes that might have attracted the ire of the KGB just a few years ago; and critics can speak openly, even about the president, without fearing a trip to prison.

 

Radio Free Europe reporters roam more or less freely; big companies that used to avoid the independent press like the plague – no matter its popularity – are now placing ads on their websites; and business is booming for Nasha Niva, Belarus’s oldest independent newspaper, which has long been repressed by the state, but recently took the decision to go online-only, buoyed by over 1.6 million monthly site visits.

 

Even some of those long engaged in the struggle against this regime are cautiously optimistic. Unbelievably, we can now have debates on whether Belarus might have dropped below Hungary on the list of places-where-I-wouldn’t-want-to-live-if-I-was-a-critical-thinker.

 

But then incidents can happen that take you back to reality.

 

On the occasion of my visit, it was the detention of a Ukrainian publisher, a fellow conference participant. Mykola Balaban and I arrived at about the same time at the airport in Minsk and took a long taxi ride together to the hotel that would serve as the venue the next day. Though he struggled with his English and my Ukrainian is non-existent, we managed to have an engaging conversation. He told me about the media franchise he co-owns in Kyiv, The Village Ukraine, a site covering the vibrant life of the capital city and flourishing through a mix of native advertising and traditional ads. He doesn’t write himself and seemingly has no ambitions to do so – his role is focused on generating more revenue for the site.

 

View of Minsk. Image via Александр Кузнецов/Flickr.

 

During our talk, Mykola was a big booster of Kyiv and Ukraine as a whole, believing life to be improving and corruption declining. But he probably grew most excited when talking about his clear passion in life: paragliding, and his yearly trips to South America to engage in the sport. I learned about the cost of the parachutes, the crazy heights from which people launch into flight, and that one of the best locations to paraglide was in southwest Macedonia, of all places.

 

When we arrived at the hotel, we parted and went off to our rooms, as it was already fairly late. It had been a pleasant way to lighten the tedium of traveling on Minsk’s endless ring road.

 

By breakfast the next day, Mykola was gone, hauled off by the police. They came for him at an ungodly hour, banging on his door loud enough to wake his neighbors. They gave no reason, and, he told me later, apparently weren’t sure themselves. After a morning spent in detention, he was released. He stayed long enough to lead his workshop, but then departed, clearly still shaken by the experience and too spooked to stay for the rest of the event.

 

Belarusian media did their job and published stories about Mykola, but also couldn’t get an official reason for the detention.

 

There was talk of a Russian blacklist of supposed security risks – terrorists and their ilk – but which also included Ukrainian activists and journalists supposedly unfriendly to Russia. But that seemed strange. Mykola wasn’t a journalist, and his publication, though popular, is not a bastion of investigative reporting designed to uncover Russian misdeeds in the near abroad. Reports also spread that it was a case of mistaken identity, that an activist or journalist with exactly the same name and date of birth had been on the list. That seemed far-fetched, but a day later, from the safe confines of home, Mykola said the police had given him the same explanation for taking him in.

 

That will be difficult to confirm. Nearly 100 people with the same name are registered on Vkontakte (the Russian version of Facebook). And the head of the citizenship and migration department at the Belarusian Interior Ministry avoided that excuse, eventually offering up his own Kafkaesque version of events to a Belarusian website: "Everything is normal. He did not violate anything. He was taken to the police station, checked, and released. He was not even detained." 

 

We will probably never know the truth. It might have just been a signal (for whom, it remains unclear) that the state apparatus can barge in and disrupt the lives of individuals without even giving an official reason, or possibly making one up. That happened a few months ago when the police raided the offices of several independent media, including TUT.by, Belarus’ largest news portal, and BelaPAN, the only independent news agency, claiming that they had been using the state news agency’s services illegally (not normally an excuse to deploy the security services in most countries). By confiscating both the companies’ and personal equipment, the authorities now have full access to data that can be potentially be used to persecute or prosecute the two most influential independent media companies in the country and their staff.

 

Dig a little deeper, and you also learn about efforts to silence some journalists through regular fines (less likely to draw international attention), quiet the most vocal political bloggers, and use the “fake news” excuse to force all authors of posts and comments in online forums to be identified (all the easier to hound them). And a couple of weeks ago, a young couple in Minsk was detained and fined for promoting extremism for the audacious but hardly criminal act of wearing hats with English-language slogans reading "Classwar" and "Terror Machine."

 

So, yes, life is undoubtedly different these days. But all of these incidents feed the fear that people can be arrested arbitrarily at any time of day or night. And even if mistakes are made (if that’s what really happened with Mykola), they certainly won’t be publicly admitted.

 

Despite the ostensible slackening of repression, the ultimate authority remains intact and ready to pounce.

Jeremy Druker is the editor in chief and executive director of Transitions.

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