Repression still rules despite thaw towards EU

When Pavel Kuryanovich first attended political demonstrations three years ago he was still at school. Now aged 19, he is an opposition veteran with four prison sentences to his name.

But the 60 days he has spent in jail for public order offences have not dulled his determination to challenge president Alexander Lukashenko. He says: “Why struggle? – because we must. People understand things must change in Belarus but they don’t understand they must be active.”

His 20-year-old sister Polina Kuryanovich feels the same. She has spent about 30 days in prison on charges related to political protests including five days for carrying in her handbag a European Union flag she planned to unfurl at a state-sponsored concert. As well as suffering detention, the two students have had their studies interrupted – Mr Kuryanovich has been expelled from state university while Ms Kuryanovich has been suspended.

Opposition activists have paid a high price for their commitment in terms of studies, careers, and freedom. The big question is whether the recent modest rapprochement between Minsk and the west will make much difference.

President Lukashenko has released all political prisoners, including Alexander Kozulin, an ex-presidential election candidate, freed in August after serving part of a five-and-a-half year term for hooliganism. The authorities also liberalised campaigning rules in the September parliamentary election. But the result was still a total victory for the president’s supporters with the opposition winning no seats. International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that “despite some minor improvements” the poll “fell short” of democratic standards.

Vitali Silitski, director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank, says: “The pressure is less than two years ago. Partly, it is because we are in the middle of the presidential election cycle [the last poll was in 2006, the next is in 2011]. The opposition is decimated. And there is an EU deal in prospect. But fundamentally, nothing has changed at all.”

Mr Lukashenko says the opposition is tiny – “the size of a statistical error” – and grossly exaggerates its difficulties. But human rights groups say the opposition is weak because the state is so repressive. Freedom House, the US-based think tank, ranks Belarus among the worst countries in the former Soviet Union in terms of political and human rights. In December, Belarus was one of four countries censured for their human rights records by the United Nations General Assembly.

Since he was first elected in 2004, Mr Lukashenko has steadily tightened his grip on power. The regime went through a brutal phase in 1999-2000 with the disappearance of three opposition figures and television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky. Subsequently, the authorities seem to have been more careful but the non-violent pressure on the opposition has remained intense.

Alexander Milinkevich, leader of the Freedom Movement, an opposition alliance, says: “I can’t speak on TV or radio, we have almost no coverage in the press. If I have to travel somewhere and want to rent a hall, there is no way. If I call a meeting then the people who come are under threat of arrest . . . This system exists on fear.”

Opposition leaders have plenty of evidence to support such arguments.

While opposition parties are legal, practicalities such as registration are complicated. Long excluded from parliament, opposition parties were last year almost eliminated from local councils, with the number of opposition members reduced from 227 out of 22,670 to just 20. Demonstrations are allowed but only with prior permission, which is usually denied.

About two-thirds of 1,200 newspapers and journals are non-state publications, but most are non-political small-circulation media. Narodnaya Volya, the largest independent paper, sells only 20,000 copies against 500,000 for Belarus Segodnaya, the government daily. All four Belarusian television channels are state-run.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008