Belarus bombing ­ a Soviet myth exploded

Map of Belarus and Neighboring AreasThis week's metro bombing in Minsk is profoundly shocking for two reasons: the number of victims and the fact that nothing like this has happened in the Belarussian capital since World War II.

The only even vaguely similar incident took place in June 2008: a jerry-rigged bomb in a 2-litre orange juice carton went off during the Independence Day concert in downtown Minsk. Then, 47 people were injured but none were killed. The republic's authorities, who claimed Belarus was a terrorism-free "part of the Soviet Union", investigated the blast under charges of "malicious hooliganism".

The April 11 metro blast was not hooliganism but an act of terrorism clearly designed for political effect. President Alexander Lukashenko laid flowers at the site later that evening. The authorities will now, most likely, order sweeping police raids, searches and investigations.

After the June 2008 explosion, they fingerprinted 1.3 million people out of the country's population of 10 million, and Lukashenko said he would keep the situation under close scrutiny. "I cannot allow terrorism in the country," was his constant refrain for months after the 2008 blast.

The Belarussian authorities must now surely be sorely tempted to use the April 11 explosion as a pretext to clamp down on members of the "legal" opposition by claiming they are possible suspects. But this would be bad for Belarus, Russia and the rest of Europe.

The legal opposition in Belarus has many weaknesses, but violence and terrorism are not among them. Those who today are opposition leaders in fact started their political careers alongside Lukashenko during the perestroika period of the late 1980s. They are largely famous for being rather inept and for relying heavily on crude populism and cheap propaganda. They would be most unlikely to turn to terrorism, even as a last resort.

Thousands of individuals were scrutinised after the 2008 explosion, but the investigation focused on a 23-year-old man from the town of Molodechno who had previously lost three fingers when mixing explosives for a home-made firecracker. Despite a very thorough and wideranging investigation, it came to the wholly predictable conclusion that he was just an idiotic pyromaniac with a penchant for making firecrackers that keep people awake all night during New Year's Eve celebrations.

But this time there will be a much broader group of suspects. Some of the rioters detained after the presidential elections last December are still in prison and others are being tried.

Lukashenko likes to talk about plots and intrigues against the peace that reigns in Belarus, and so local police and investigators may well go the whole way this time, especially since the president ordered the KGB "to turn the country upside down" to find the guilty parties.

Apart from killing and wounding people, the metro blast also exploded Lukashenko's myth of Belarus as an island of peace in the stormy post- Soviet ocean of crime.

He may continue to heap blame on Russia or, if the Kremlin refuses to take it, on the West. But President Dmitry Medvedev showed last year that Russia can tire of such an attitude, while the West has recently expressed its disappointment in Lukashenko yet again and is unlikely to want to resume dialogue with him for a few more years.

As for the Belarussian opposition and people, they have their own complaints to lay at Lukashenko's door.

According to Belarussian political analyst Valery Karbalevich, the legal opposition has ceased to be any kind of real political force due to recent arrests, criminal proceedings and intimidation.

But even the experience of the totalitarian Soviet Union shows that when a market niche is not taken up legally, it will inevitably be filled illegally. Was it the illegal opposition who staged the explosion in Minsk in an attempt to fill that vacant niche?

During the Soviet period, people shot each other over things that now do not seem worth a fight, such as an illegal vodka and caviar delivery business, access to expensive fish on the black market, and even theatre tickets and books. In today's Belarus, where people have virtually no opportunity to influence the authorities, some hotheads may well think that spilling blood will give them what they want.

Such people must be isolated, but the legal opposition needs to be involved in this task rather than being further excluded. However, Lukashenko may deem that approach too intricate and order that the KGB find another plausible fall guy, perhaps another 23-year-old idiot with homemade firecrackers and "connections" to a former presidential candidate.

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