There’s a gaping black hole in the geographic centre of Europe that no one in European Union seems to notice or even care about.
This Soviet relic, with 9.5 million citizens, has its own KGB, a red Communist flag, GULAG, and a semi-planned economy left almost intact from the 1980s.
The entire family of Belarusian-Ukrainian independent journalist Dzmitry Halko faces GULAG-like treatment, not unlike what was doled by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Halko, a former fixer for the Times of London, freelancer for the Kyiv Post, and journalist for Belarusian opposition publications, was arrested by Belarusian authorities on April 22 after returning from Ukraine and now faces up to six years in jail on charges that he used violence against police officers – an accusation that he flatly denies.
The case stems from an incident that occurred last November when Halko was in Minsk to celebrate his son Yan’s birthday. Police officers later arrived at Halko’s apartment, claiming that they had received a complaint from a neighbour about noise. Halko and his son then got into an argument with the officers, after which an entire police squad broke into the apartment to arrest both Halko and his son. Several teenagers had to jump out of the apartment windows during the raid, causing one of them to break his leg and another, 18-year old Arseny, to break his spine.
Now, several months later and after spinal surgery, the police have opened a criminal case against Arseny, accusing him of marijuana possession. He later said he had been pressured to give false testimony on Halko and refused, which resulted in the police fabricating a drug charge against him, according to Halko’s ex-wife Olga Kravchuk.
Kravchuk still worked as the webmaster of the opposition publication Byelorussky Partizan (Belarusian Partisan) at the time of the raid on his apartment. The police were most likely hoping to gain access to the publication’s site from his apartment as part of a crackdown on the news site before it was shut down by local authorities in December.
The raid on Halko’s apartment was successful in that he and his son Yan were both arrested. Halko’s son was later released, but now faces the prospect of being sent to a juvenile detention facility if the authorities decide to press charges against him.
According to Yan’s mother, the pending charges come after the administration of her son’s school have constantly harassed him due to his opposition views, which also included another case brought against him by the authorities who accused Yan of spreading pornography. He was also beaten more than a month ago by unknown assailants.
The Belarusian authorities have threatened to take Yan from his family and send him to a state orphanage, Kravchuk said, who added that two friends of Yan’s, who used to live in her apartment, had already been forcibly taken from their parents and sent to one of Belarus’ notorious state orphanages.
Halko was initially released and fined for a misdemeanour but was arrested as part of a criminal investigation upon his arrival from Ukraine after he started talking about the incident to the media.
His elder son, Andrey, has since been extradited from Russia and will now be tried in a Belarusian court on exhibitionism charges.
Halko has always been an open and active participant in anti-government protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, including mass demonstrations against a rigged presidential vote in 2010, which resulted in a Stalin-style political case that saw more than 700 protesters, seven presidential candidates, and 25 journalists arrested in the post-2010 election crackdown.
Several of the presidential candidates and opposition activists were jailed for up to six years on charges of rioting.
Halko has been arrested on numerous occasions for his opposition activities – most recently in 2017 – as well as followed and surveilled by Belarusian police.
There is a widespread belief that the November police raid may have been linked to Halko’s work at the outspoken opposition publication, Belarusian Partisan, where he became an editor and journalist in 2016.
Not coincidentally, Belarusian Partisan was founded by Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian-born, Russian-Ukrainian journalist who was killed by a car bomb in Kyiv in 2016.
There are several versions of who could be involved in Sheremet’s murder: fingers have been pointed at the Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian authorities as well as their powerful security services – though none have been definitively tied to his murder.
Halko resigned from his position at the Belarusian Partisan in 2017 in what he described as a government crackdown on the country’s independent media.
Highly controlled state-run media completely dominates in Belarus, and the Internet is heavily censored. Independent news sites BelaPAN, naviny.by, onliner.by, and Khartia 97 have all been blocked by Belarusian authorities in recent years.
Meanwhile, many journalists have been arrested, jailed, or killed under Lukashenko’s rule.
North Korea lite
Belarus is a semi-totalitarian state without the rule of law. The country’s president-for-life, Lukashenko, has built a regime that makes any major case political by default because nothing even remotely resembling an independent judiciary exists in Europe’s own hermit kingdom as no indigenous institution is capable of establishing the truth during a fair and objective trial.
Since Lukashenko came to power in July 1994, Belarus has routinely imprisoned hundreds of people for political reasons, making it among the 30 most authoritarian countries in the world, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.
At least five opponents of Lukashenko’s dictatorship disappeared without a trace between 1999-2002, all of whom are long presumed dead.
Since the 2001 presidential vote, Lukashenko has always won heavily rigged elections, routinely and easily ending up with around 80% of the votes cast.
A mysterious terrorist attack in 2011 killed 15 people in the Minsk metro amid large-scale anti-Lukashenko protests and a deepening economic crisis. Two Belarusians were later convicted and executed for the attack, but in a country where Islamic extremism or any other type of terrorism is notably lacking, the metro bombing looked extremely bizarre.
Lukashenko even went down into the metro with his underage son right after the bombing.
One of the individuals who was convicted for the act subsequently retracted his confession, saying he had been tortured and forced to admit his guilt. Natalia Koliada, of the Belarus Free Theatre, believes that Lukashenko’s authorities planted the bomb and rigged a show trial to distract people from protests and the economic turmoil.
Belarus is Europe’s only country that has the death penalty. Given the total absence of the rule of law or the concept of a fair trial, executions of prisoners are essentially state-sanctioned murders.
What should be done?
If the European Union cares about its core Western values, it needs to pay attention to what has essentially become North Korea lite in its own backyard.
Europe would greatly benefit from a Belarus that transforms into a functioning democracy and joins Western Civilisation after a century of Soviet and quasi-Soviet rule, but Europe’s own complicity and reluctance to be tough on Lukashenko’s tyranny has both helped and allowed him to play hard to get while he wavers between Russia and the West.
It’s high time for Europe to stop with its ridiculous charade of pretending that Lukashenko’s regime has a “human face”. It’s clear now that the entrenched Lukashenko government has no intention of liberalising anything unless the West pushes back hard.
If Europe does apply tight sanctions to liberalise Belarus, the country may at least have some prospect of joining the broader European project sometime in the distant future. The only other option for Batska (as Lukashenko is known in Belarus, meaning ‘father’) would be to fully surrender his country to the Kremlin and become another subservient province of Russia, which he wouldn’t like to do because he wants to be the king of his own fiefdom rather than a governor who can be replaced at the whim of fellow autocrat – Vladimir Putin.
Until Lukashenko’s dictatorship frees Halko and other political prisoners, removes the censorship of the media, and stops rigging elections, the West must consider imposing much tougher sanctions on Belarus, enacting a trade embargo, and even consider the possibility of suspending diplomatic relations with Minsk.
The West should also set up a tribunal to investigate the disappearances of Lukashenko’s opponents, as well as the 2011 metro bombing, and the brazen assassination of Sheremet, who was killed in broad daylight on a crowded street in central Kyiv.
Otherwise, Europe’s version of Kim Jong-un will serve as an inspiration for other post-Communist kleptocrats and autocrats from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and beyond including Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Georgia’s Bidzina Ivanishvili.