In response to Belarus’s state-sponsored air piracy, a bold move by the European Union, like, say, blocking Belarus’s connection to the SWIFT payments system in EU countries, would be shocking. But it appears even the EU’s tepid recommendation that airlines avoid Belarusian airspace has been effective. And Bloomberg estimates air transit fees are the source of $60-70 million a year for Belarus.
Have a look at my archive of Belarus posts for how Minsk felt when I visited in 2010 (Hint: pretty creepy).
The pace of events quickens as an air of crisis surrounds President Lukashenka, who was roundly booed while speaking in public yesterday, a previously unthinkable moment that recalls the final days of Nikolai Ceaucescu in Romania.
For English speakers, Meduza has opened a live blog this morning. The Moscow Times has a dedicated section, Unrest in Belarus. RFERL has one too, under the banner Crisis in Belarus. And the Baltic Times has a range of articles.
If you can speak Russian, try tut.by Belarusian portal, or if not, Google can roughly translate it for you.
Best laid predictions, well, sometimes they aren’t all that well laid. In spite of my last, curmudgeonly post, a video posted to RFERL today of protests in Minsk is just thrilling. It shows political engagement we’ve just never seen before in post-Soviet Belarus.
Please watch it. And this:
I’ll hold to my original thoughts for now. But it would be fun to be wrong.
With their breathless talk of crisis, protests and turning points in Belarus, pro-democracy pundits are making their most common mistake, namely, prematurely declaring victory over authoritarianism because they want it to be so. In the Belarusian protests it’s particularly important to consider the position of Vladimir Putin, for whom a functioning democracy on Russia’s border is utterly impermissible.
Note that after he took in the fleeing Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovich (tour Mezhyhirya, Yanukovich’s former residence outside Kyiv here), as he doubtless would Lukashenka, Putin found it necessary to seize Crimea and disrupt the Donbas, in order to be able to upend the larger Ukrainian political situation as he sees fit, at a moment’s notice, until further notice.
Kudos to the Belarusian people, credit to their bravery, and a paean to the heart’s indomitable spirit. And apologies for my cynicism. I may be wrong, and it would be nice if it turns out that way, but in this case it’s hard to imagine the Russian president permitting free elections, leading to something close to democratic rule, in his fellow Slavic, White Russian buffer state.
The campaign toward elections next weekend in Belarus is giving Aleksandr Lukashenko more fits than usual as he “competes” for a sixth term as president. After authorities jailed one of the main opposition candidates, vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, for “committing actions to incite social hatred and the assault of law enforcement officers,” his 37 year old wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was allowed to register as an opposition candidate.
RFERL has a report. If you’re looking for coverage as the election approaches this week, watch RFERL, and a leading Belarussian opposition website, from the group Charter 97, for more on the story. See also the Riga-based site Meduza. The screen grab above comes from Meduza’s coverage of a Tsikhanouskaya campaign rally, which Meduza estimates drew some 63,000 people.
Personally, the Belarussian capital of Minsk gave me the creeps.
At the time of the fall of the Soviet Union I travelled across Belarus by train, but we didn’t stop, didn’t get out. On my only other trip, to Minsk in 2010, I found a typically grandiose Soviet-style capital that felt deserted.
Finally, I’ve gotten a little insight into why.
Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.
But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”
Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.
Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.
Peer Savodnik writes in The Interloper that, in his quest to defect to the Soviet Union, Lee Harvey Oswald claimed to have secrets about the American U-2 spy plane, but that after a time Moscow officials decided Oswald wasn’t as valuable as he claimed and sent him off to Minsk. David Stern summarizes Oswald’s life there in Minsk’s fond memories of Lee Harvey Oswald on the BBC website. He writes:
“The KGB however wasn’t impressed and initially rejected his application, but on the day his tourist visa expired Oswald slashed one of his wrists. Fearing an international incident if he tried again, the Soviet authorities let him stay.
They sent him to Minsk, a distant provincial capital, which might as well have been Siberia. He was assigned a job at a radio and TV factory, and allocated a one-room apartment in the city centre.”
From a 2010 visit to Belarus, here is the apartment building in which Oswald lived. The lady who took me there said he lived on the right side of the building as we look at it, on the third floor.
Besides the monuments, the Communist Square, the Independence Square, the Freedom Square and so on, and Lee Harvey Oswald's former residence, the most obvious thing to see in Minsk (on a visit in August 2011) was the preparations for the 2014 ice hockey world championships.
There was a new stadium. A whole vast athlete's complex was sprouting on the edge of town.
Today the headlines read Former Leader Supports Moving Hockey Championships From Belarus. Sure, the former leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, has an agenda, having been barred from leaving the country last week.
But I can't say I blame him. Citizens of Belarus are veteran victims of fraudulent elections. It's kind of a thuggish, gangsta land, and you wouldn't mind seeing the leadership embarrassed.
Here's a photo of a tabletop in a common room in the nicest hotel in the capital, far as I know, the Crowne Plaza. Click it to be able to read it. Pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Feel bad for the good people of Belarus. It's run by thugs.
More Belarus photos here.