Saturday, 16 April 2011

Europe’s Last Dictatorship

On Monday evening, the BBC News Website announced that there had been an explosion in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, on the Metro at Oktyabrskaya Station. As the week progressed, we found out that twelve people were killed, hundreds injured and that it was a terrorist attack. President Alexander Lukashenko promised to leave 'no stone unturned' in finding the terrorists who carried the attack out. Two days later, the KGB (Yes, they still exist) arrested two men, an electrician and a lathe operator, who 'admitted' to the bombing eight hours later. They also admitted to responsibility for a bombing in Minsk in 2008, as well as a previous attack in the eastern Belarusian town of Vitebsk in 2005. There was a day of mourning on Wednesday. Case closed.

You most likely didn't read this story, as it was at first one of the minor stories on the page. Then it was the third most important story in the 'Europe' sub-category. Now it's hidden among the other stories in the Europe category, the graveyard slot on the website. I understand that events in Libya and Syria fit the popular news narrative of the 'Arab Spring' right now, but still this is surely highly offensive to those from Belarus, whose suffering goes unnoticed in much of the world’s media.

Admittedly, I wouldn't have noticed it if it wasn't for the fact I live with a Belarusian. The project likes to have English and Russian mother-tongue volunteers, and we have worked together in the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site for almost eight months now. Her view of history is very different to mine. A third of the population of Belarus, which lies between Poland and Russia, was wiped out during World War II, and this war on the Eastern Front from 1941-1945 is still known by the title 'The Great Patriotic War'. She concerns herself not only with this history, but the history of what we call 'the former East', all that lies beyond Germany.

On Monday night she returned home from work, where she had been helping co-ordinate the visit of a number of survivors from Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine for the Liberation Day memorial ceremonies. I asked her how she was, and whether she had seen the news. She said she was fine, and no, what was up? I picked up my laptop and showed her the screen, the BBC News report on the explosion in Minsk. I didn’t want to be the one to tell her. What followed were an evening's nervous Skype chats and phone calls to check that friends and family were not affected. Minsk is her home. Oktyabrskaya Station is one of the most central, where the two lines cross over (like Termini in Rome), and thousands of people must pass through during the rush hour every day.

However unlike the news, her mind saw the bombing in perspective.

On December 19th 2010 President Lukashenko was re-elected in a landslide victory, in a election that regulators say had ‘serious irregularities’. There were a number of opposition candidates, seven of whom are now in prison along with over six hundred protestors. Many of them are still waiting to be charged. President since 1994, some support Lukashenko for giving the country stability. Others echo Condaleeza Rice's sentiments and have named him 'Europe's last dictator'.

Brings back memories doesn't it!

This is the story we know in the West so far. What hasn't been reported are the empty shelves in the shops. The new laws that make it impossible for citizens to change their Belarusian Roubles for Dollars, and harder for overseas money transactions to take place. The ways in which President Lukashenko is, bit by bit, buckling down for a war of attrition against the West, in which it will be the people of Belarus who will suffer the most. Some even wonder whether the terrorist attack on Monday wasn't a little...convenient for the President. Lukashenko has good diplomatic relations with Libya and Cub,a among other similarly authoritarian regimes. As one citizen pointed out, "Who could have carried this out? We are friends with all the regimes that fund the terrorists!"

I cannot claim to know if this is more than suspicion, however it is very challenging to me as a ‘Westerner’ to know that we have already forgotten this story. It might be that Belarus does not fit our idea of how Europe looks, especially given how much money the EU has pumped into programmes on ‘Tolerance’ and ‘Solidarity’ in the past twenty years since the end of the Cold War. Equally it might be that we have forgotten a European neighbour at the expense of the 'Arab Spring' and other nations where the poverty and oppression is admittedly more obvious. I can't see many Beard-and-Sandals PEACE activists leaving the Middle East for a while and making their way to Belarus any time soon, or any Bring-and-Buy sales sending proceeds their way. The word 'Solidarity with the poor' has come to envision helping somewhere far off and exotic, where we can send our money and our middle class Gap Yah students to rebuild a school and take endless photos of gorgeous smiling kids. No Gap Yah student wants to go to Belarus, where it’s both foreign and disconcertingly familiar.

I'm not painting myself any better; I only know more about the situation because I have friends affected. I am as bad as the rest when it comes to political apathy. Yet what is going on is not unconnected to my work here in Dachau. My friend has pointed out how she cannot stop linking the arrest of people in Belarus with the Nazi policy of 'protective custody', a euphemism for those interred in Dachau. This is no longer just about history; for her, and in turn for me as her friend, it is painful reality. Next time you see Libya, Syria, Egypt or any other of the 'Arab Spring' nations on the news, remember Belarus as well. Just because their government isn't weak enough to topple with a few protests and well placed air raids doesn't mean their situation isn't newsworthy. If anything, they are our neighbours and if we truly believe in European solidarity, they deserve more than just the support of EU diplomats.

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