What Happens When You Provoke Putin’s Strongman in Belarus

Andrey was working at a bar in downtown Minsk when he stumbled into the dangerous world of politics in a country where protest comes with a prison sentence, or worse.

At OK16, a former factory hall turned culture hub in the Belarusian capital, Andrey would often see Viktor Babariko, the chief executive of a bank that owned the venue, in line for a coffee and a chat. When he unexpectedly announced his bid to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in August’s election, Andrey thought: Why not join Babariko’s campaign?

But rather than herald a new era, the dream of wresting power from Lukashenko landed Andrey in a jail cell for more than six months followed by a one-year term in a low-security prison that’s still pending. Babariko and his son, along with a number of other top team members and hundreds of other political activists, had already been incarcerated.

“Sometimes I think there’s no way this madness can go on forever,” Andrey, 35, said this week in a telephone interview. Bloomberg withheld his real name to protect his identity. “But in other moments I start to be very worried for my family and myself, especially as the reality of serving my time looms nearer.”

What Happens When You Provoke Putin’s Strongman in Belarus

As governments move to sanction Belarus over May 23’s shocking diversion of a Ryanair plane, Andrey encapsulates how hope of change among some Belarusians has been gradually yet fiercely snuffed out. His experience helps explain how after the brutal crushing of street protests last year, the authoritarian regime would then come to ground a commercial flight and arrest a dissident journalist on board.

It’s just one person’s story in a country of 9 million where the sprawling post-Soviet state apparatus remains largely loyal to the president, even if his electoral win with 80% of the vote was widely discredited abroad and challenged by unprecedented demonstrations at home.

But it’s also a place where Amnesty International says the most egregious crackdown on freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association in the country’s history took place while opposition activists were arrested on false charges or forcibly exiled.

The mood of many citizens inside the increasingly isolated country veers between chinks of light and utter darkness, Andrey said. Lukashenko is growing even more dependent on Russian President Vladimir Putin as the European Union weighs escalating sanctions and points the finger at Moscow for its support of the former Soviet collective farm boss.

What Happens When You Provoke Putin’s Strongman in Belarus

A year ago, it looked different. At OK16, with its art exhibitions, theater shows and tech conferences, Andrey said he was absorbed by the air of freedom. He was attracted to Babariko’s idealism, a promise to build a modern country where everyone would be free to pursue their dreams.

Andrey recalled feeling like there was an opportunity for Belarus to choose a different path. “If you imagine Belarus as a pie with many layers, it was the first time when such different and big slices of it realized there was a chance to change something about their country.” At opposition rallies, he saw people who were “stunned” to see that there was an alternative.

The summer unraveled quickly, though. Lukashenko was declared the winner of the Aug. 9 election, extending his 26-year rule.

Even as protests held on for months afterwards, the crackdown gradually brought them to a near halt with more than 30,000 arrests. Through February, nearly 250 people received sentences in the context of the 2020 presidential vote, according to the United Nations. Belarusian investigators have started more than 2,400 criminal probes into “extremism” since August.

What Happens When You Provoke Putin’s Strongman in Belarus

As well as Babariko and some of his team, video blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski was jailed during his election campaign along with some of his associates.

Andrey was arrested two days after the vote and then charged with taking part in group actions that “grossly violated public order.” And he remembers that Tuesday all too well.

It was Aug. 11, near lunchtime, when he headed out from his apartment in Minsk to Babariko’s campaign office. Before he even left his courtyard, people in civil clothes grabbed him, tied up his hands and briefly flashed a police ID before his eyes.

They took him downtown to the headquarters of the notorious unit taking part in post-election arrests. There, he was forced to stand, with his face against the wall as he heard curses and shouts that he was a “goner.”

He asked for a lawyer, he said, but this only resulted in more beating and demands that he unlock his phone. He eventually gave up his password. From there, he was taken to a remand prison where he was treated much better.

As jailings multiplied, women picked up the cause. Babariko’s place in the rallies was taken by Maria Kalesnikava, a flute player who oversaw the culture program at OK16. Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of a former official who was also prevented from running in the election, joined her.

The main political stage was taken by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was allowed to register as a candidate to run instead of her arrested husband. She fled to Lithuania with her children shortly after protests erupted.

It was against that backdrop that the unexpected came last month, when Lukashenko’s security forces intervened in Ryanair’s flight from Greece to Lithuania because of an alleged bomb scare. Belarusian security services took journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, off the jet and into detention. They could face up to 15 years in prison on accusations of inciting mass unrest.

On Thursday, Belarusian state media aired a video in which Pratasevich, seated at a table in an undisclosed location and smoking, mulled how he could have ended up in Minsk. It wasn't clear from the brief clip under what conditions it was shot and if he was being coerced. The footage sought to shift blame for the bomb threat away from the government and ONT TV announced an interview with Pratasevich would be aired this evening.

Andrey has been relatively lucky. He was temporarily freed in February after a court trial in Minsk and can spend time with his family. But at any time, he may be summoned to serve his sentence, he said.

After his release, it took him some time to get used to the renewed climate of fear in a country where people can get punished for wearing socks in opposition colors or laying a flower near a place where a protester was shot.

Unlike many opponents of the regime, he agreed to be interviewed as he faces what he described as inevitable.

“While in prison, you are not afraid of getting imprisoned,” he said with a chuckle of gallows humor. “You fear other things, what may happen to you, but at least the fear of losing one’s freedom is not there.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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