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Belarus: where bad news gets worse

Opinion: Trying to imagine why an Islamic terrorist would bomb Minsk.

Belarus opposition supporters 2011 04 16Enlarge
Belarus opposition supporters mark the three-month anniversary of the Belarus presidential election in Minsk on March 19, 2011. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Jean MacKenzie lived in Belarus from January 2000 – January 2003. She wrote this essay from her current home, Kabul, Afghanistan.

When Belarus makes international headlines, it is seldom for good reasons. The latest news is no exception: At least 12 people were killed and more than 150 injured when a bomb exploded in a busy metro station at rush hour in Minsk on April 11.

Those who have never been to Belarus may not be able to comprehend just how disorienting this event must have been in a country that has gone to almost unheard-of lengths to avoid conflict since it became an independent nation 20 years ago.

The tiny country with a population under 10 million, squeezed between Poland and Russia, has changed little since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Of the 15 former Soviet republics, Belarus is the one that most resembles the parent nation; visitors have dubbed it a Soviet theme park.

Giant, empty squares surround massive government buildings; huge state department stores sell shoddy wares at rock-bottom prices; people still gather to drink tea and/or vodka in kitchens, and lower their voices when telling jokes about the oppressive, but often hilariously buffoonish, regime. After all, the security organ still retains the feared name “KGB” (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, or Committee for State Security).

Belarus is stuck somewhere in the 1960s; the thought of a serious terror attack has about as much relevance as a Martian invasion.

So the firm statement by Vladimir Lutsenko, a Russian colonel in the FSB (Federal’ny Sluzhba Bezopasnosti or Federal Security Service, Russia’s successor to the KGB), that he was “100 percent certain” that the bomb was the work of international Islamic terrorism must have struck the local population as somewhat novel.

But so far no one has come up with a more sensible explanation.

Belarus has a largely homogenous population: 80 percent are ethnically Belarusian, and non-Slavs are virtually non-existent. The widely reported remarks by the police that a man with a “non-Slavic appearance” was suspected of placing the bomb is curious โ€• if there was such a person, he would have been highly conspicuous.

Belarus has no issues with Muslims โ€• mostly because it has no Muslims to speak of. Belarus was not part of the Chechen war; it does not contribute troops to Afghanistan; it neither bans nor condones the hijab. This is a country of onion-domed Orthodox churches, where Catholics are a small minority.

One wonders how an Islamic terrorist would even find Minsk. The Belarusian capital is not a popular tourist destination, boasting few attractions that are not massively depressing: doleful war memorials, Chernobyl wastelands, the apartment that housed JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

What Belarus does have is a truly terrible president.

If, as the French philosopher said, “each nation has the government it deserves,” then Belarus must be atoning for some grievous offense in the distant past. Or else it is the price its citizens are paying for valuing stability above all else.

Every Belarusian over 65 remembers World War II, and their children grew up on the stories. One-quarter of the population was killed as the Germans marched eastward across what was then called Belorussia, only to retreat a few years later from Russia’s frozen steppes.

Now the population will tolerate almost anything, “so long as there is no war,” as the mantra goes. But they have a lot to put up with: a president who will not countenance dissent, is incapable of managing the economy, is largely isolated in the international community, and who cannot seem to open his mouth without making giant, if often humorous, gaffes.

Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, is a former collective farm chairman who sees no reason to allow Belarus to progress to the 21st century. He has been elected president four times, in highly dubious elections.

An avid hockey fan, he had an ice palace built where he played entire matches all by himself.

He also sponsored a cross-country ski race every year in Minsk to celebrate Belarusian Independence Day on July 3. The skis, unfortunately, had to be on rollers. And as the hale, hearty but aging president approached 50, it became harder and harder for his younger staff to hold back as they neared the finish line. Lukashenko wanted the appearance of competition, but everyone understood that beating out the president would not be good for one’s career.

But the fact remains that, with the older generation, who saw their cousins in Ukraine and Russia going through painful upheavals in the 1990s, Lukashenko is genuinely still popular.

There is a small but active group of dissidents who used to receive quite a bit of attention from European and American government groups. In 2001, “dump Lukashenko” campaigns were all the rage among Western diplomats, especially after the fall of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. Everyone wanted to be in on toppling Europe’s Last Dictator.

Lukashenko won his election by an overwhelming majority on Sept. 9, 2001. As he railed against the international community’s efforts to monitor the contest, Lukashenko let loose with my personal favorite among his frequent gaffes: “We do not need any imported systems for falsifying elections!” he shouted, waving his fist for the television cameras. “We are perfectly capable of developing our own!”

It is a measure of the solipsism of Belarus’ opposition activists that one of them suggested to me a few days later that Lukashenko may have organized 9/11 in order to distract international attention from the fraud of his campaign.

If so, it worked. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soaked up money and energy, Belarus receded from the scene, barely registering on the media’s radar for the past decade.