Fear and confusion in Belarus

Map of Belarus and Neighboring AreasMINSK, BELARUS ­ As Minsk recoiled in shock from Monday's unprecedented metro bombing, which killed 12 and injured hundreds, political activists and journalists were bracing themselves for a harsh crackdown by the country's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Fears over the authorities' reaction to the bombing are centred on the brutal suppression that followed Lukashenko's contested re-election in December. Then, hundreds of oppositionists and journalists were arrested for taking part in street protests.

With little official information to go on, many in the opposition in Minsk this week had initially pointed the finger at the government over the blast. By Wednesday, when Lukashenko lauded his security team for "solving" the case and arresting five people it connected to bombings in 2005 and 2008, activists were getting visibly more nervous.

The five people were not identified, but two of them were described as being an electrician and factory worker, respectively. Some sources were reporting that the suspects came from the city of Vitebsk.

"Ever since December we've been in a state of such degrading stress that whatever this blast really was, it seems part of a series of insults," said Natalia Babina, a writer and a journalist at Minsk's oldest independent weekly, Nasha Niva. "And it feels like there's more insults to follow."

She was at home when KGB officials (Belarus' security agency still uses the Soviet-era acronym) visited their offices on Tuesday, but the paper's editor, Andrei Skurko, insists the check was to get information from the newspaper about the blast, which it was one of the first to report on.

Not that the paper hasn't been searched before ­ in December, KGB officers had come to collect staff computers, and searched Skurko's apartment over their links to the opposition.

"One of their main aims was probably to paralyse our work, to make it difficult for independent media to work," Skurko said, speaking out of a small office in a rented central Minsk flat. The interview was disrupted several times by calls made to technicians over a one of a series of DDOS attacks on the newspaper's web server.

"They were also hoping to find materials relating to the Dec. 19 protests."

"Everyone questioned"

President Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed by Western media as "the last dictator in Europe", has been quietly steering his country towards a political thaw in the last three years, activists and journalists in Minsk say.

But then, towards the end of last year's election campaign, something snapped, some argue.

December's election campaign was arguably the least controlled since Lukashenko amended the country's constitution to give him greater powers in 1996, activists say.

During the campaign, the nine opposition candidates were given equal air time on state television, and Russian media staged a series of attacks against Lukashenko. Independent newspapers such as Nasha Niva were left alone more to work and write. There was talk of perestroika.

But whether it was the media attacks from abroad or the liberalisation drive spinning out of control, on the day of his victory Lukashenko suddenly turned on other candidates and their supporters.

Some 700 protesters were arrested over the Dec. 19 rally, when tens of thousands marched to the main government building in Minsk. Seven of the candidates were arrested for organising mass unrest, some facing prison terms of up to 15 years. Vladimir Neklyaev, one of the most promising alternatives to Lukashenko, was hospitalised after being severely beaten on his way to an election day protest rally. While in the hospital, plain-clothed security officials dragged him away again. He was only released from prison over a month later.

And when a remote control detonated a bomb hidden in a bag on the platform at Oktyabrskaya metro station ­ just underneath the city's main square, where protesters had gathered last year ­ Lukashenko's wrath targeted the culprits and the opposition in seemingly equal proportions.

In a televised speech on Wednesday afternoon, after announcing that the KGB had effectively solved the crime in 24 hours, Lukashenko lashed out at critics who had speculated someone in the government may have been behind the attack.

"[I want] everyone questioned, regardless of the wails from foreign [sympathisers]," he ordered, shifting his ire to what he called a "fifth column".

"We need to investigate all these statements from political activists, who implicated everyone. Maybe these activists from the 'fifth column' will show their cards and say who actually did it."

Belarus' prosecutor general, Grigory Vasilyevich, warned that mass media would be investigated for making such allegations.


In the days since Monday's bombing, an improvised shrine of flowers and candles has grown up on both sides of the metro entrance. On Wednesday evening, dozens of mostly young people stood huddled, some holding hands, some crying, amid a scent of roses and melting wax.

Just last December, the same square held upwards of 30,000 people protesting Lukashenko's contested victory.

But on Wednesday's day of mourning, most sounded too stunned to make sense of who had set off the explosives and why.

"We still don't believe that something like this could have happened here," said Denis Romanchuk, 26, a leader of the Vozrozhdeniye youth organisation. "This tragedy hasn't destabilised us, it has united us."

And while it wasn't clear where its group stood politically (some reports had Vozrozhdeniye taking part in anti-government rallies), Romanchuk called himself a patriot and said he agreed with Lukashenko's policies.

Political motives?

As Belarus has no separatist movement or external military involvements, and hardly any internal extremism, the consensus among Minsk's democratic intelligentsia was that politics were behind the blast.

But the question remained ­ who was behind the politics?

"I have to rule out that the government was involved. I look at who could have benefitted. And I see that the government could not have benefited from this. It loses out," said Alexander Feduta, a senior member of opposition candidate Neklyayev's campaign staff, speaking in a Minsk caf?.

"Alexander Lukashenko is not a maniac," he said, but added that the caf? "may or may not be bugged".

Fedutov, a former campaign chief for Lukashenko who got out of the political limelight in the 1990s after noticing emergent totalitarian proclivities in his boss, was enjoying his fifth day out of prison, where he had spend three and a half months after being swept up in December's mass arrests.

He also ruled out the opposition as being behind the bombing.

"I really doubt that anyone in these groups has the ability to construct and set off a bomb," he said. "I have no idea how the opposition could create that kind of monster."

Political activists in Minsk also ruled out any involvement in the bombing from Russia, who they agreed had nothing to gain from destabilising its neighbour.

"Russia isn't interested in destabilising the political situation in Belarus. It just got its Customs Union deal," Fedutov said.

That state of fear had certainly been exacerbated by December's repressions. But were the two events in any way connected?

"Time will show if there's any connection," Alexander Milinkevich, a former presidential candidate in 2006, who chose not to run last year, said in his party office, also in a rented-out flat.

"It's clear that the government's reaction to the events of Dec. 19 and the terrorist blast are the same."

After Monday's blast, Milinkevich had been quoted as saying that he believed that the government was somehow linked to the blast. Prosecutors warned him on Tuesday against repeating such allegations.

"I was told that my remarks could harm the investigation, and I was told to avoid such interviews," he said on Wednesday.

So who could have done it?

"I don't have the facts, but I have a right to offer my version," Milinkevich said. "I'm certain that it's not some fire-obsessed loner. It was clearly a political terror attack. Who could have benefited? I'm sure there are people in the Belarus government who do not want democracy. It could have been someone in the government. There could be a foreign connection."

But given air-tight secrecy with which government structures operated ­ and the climate of fear that had been effectively installed through Lukashenko's rule ­ there was little left but speculation, Milinkevich said.

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