Shaun Walker: Democratic opposition live in fear of arrest – or worse

The opposition is watched by the KGB - the security services have not bothered to change their name
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Walking the streets of Minsk, it's hard to believe that you're inside a vicious dictatorship. There are plenty of nice cafes and restaurants, people are chatty and in the evenings the capital's bars and nightclubs fill up. While much of the countryside is poor, it's nowhere near as depressing as some of the more run-down parts of provincial Russia, and nobody starves to death from poverty here. Belarus is not North Korea.

Scratch the surface, however, and it becomes clear that it's also not the harmonious paradise the Belarusian authorities and their Western PR agencies insist it is.

"Life is fine here, as long as you don't decide to go into business or politics," one university graduate in Minsk told me. "You can have a perfectly good time in Minsk, make a half-decent salary, get drunk and do whatever you want. But if you have ambitions; if you want to travel, or to set up your own company, or to oppose the authorities, then the problems start."

Political activism is the most dangerous of all. The democratic opposition, working out of small offices in central Minsk, live in constant fear of arrest or worse. They are all watched by the KGB – unlike in neighbouring Russia, the security services haven't even bothered to change their name.

At the top of the power pyramid is Alexander Lukashenko, the moustachioed former collective farm manager who has run the country since 1994. This canny political operator has played off the West and Russia during his time in power. He has infuriated both but owing to his country's location on vital gas transit routes, and the lack of credible alternatives, he has managed to hold on to power.

Recently, his fearsome rule has veered into farce, with his six-year-old son Nikolai, accompanying him to meetings with other world leaders. There were overtones of Dr Evil and Mini-me as generals of the country's army were forced at military parades to salute both the father and the child, dressed in his own miniature military fatigues.

Due to apathy, and the more or less acceptable standard of living, Belarusians have acquiesced to, or supported, Mr Lukashenko's rule. But among the business and intellectual classes there is disquiet. Whether a critical mass will be achieved remains to be seen. The death of Oleg Bebenin will come as a chilling reminder of the benefits of keeping quiet.