Connect to share and comment

Belarus: where bad news gets worse

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

Last December, following yet another badly flawed election, Lukashenko cracked down on his dissidents ― there were brutal reprisals against protesters, and many of the more prominent activists, including his main rival in the campaign, ended up in jail.

There is no reason to think that things will be any different this time around.

While it beggars the imagination that Belarusian activists would target the civilian population in an effort to destabilize the regime, this is doubtless a version of events that will gain traction as time goes on. Lukashenko has already tied the latest bombing to an explosion in July 2008, in which 40 people were injured but no one was killed. That act was thought to be the work of radical anti-Lukashenko elements, targeting the president at a Belarusian Independence Day celebration.

Now Lukashenko will most likely order the arrest of many of his more irritating opponents (those still free after December’s crackdown, anyway), some of whom may eventually be found guilty of one thing or another.

Meanwhile, the dissidents will almost certainly start circulating rumors, attached to “highly credible sources,” that Lukashenko himself had the bomb planted in order to switch the country’s focus from the failing economy to something a bit less mundane.

The economy has not been strong since it was divorced from Russia; the giant auto, radio and refrigerator factories have little market for their once-famous products.

The ruble is not quite at the low point it was when I arrived in January 2000; at the time we were getting over a million “zaichiki” to the dollar (the Belarusian ruble then had pictures of animals rather than state monuments; “zaichik” is the word for “rabbit.”)

Now the ruble trades at over 3,000 to the dollar, but it has been steadily declining. Hardy Minsk dwellers have reportedly been lining up to buy gold, gemstones and consumer goods, in an attempt to convert their eroding currency into something a bit more durable.

(Read more about Belarus' economic quandary.)

Now, on top of everything else, they have to try and piece together what happened on April 11. If all else fails, perhaps Belarusians will finally subscribe to the “Islamic terrorist” explanation ― it is better than no answer.

Lukashenko visited the site of the bombing on Tuesday, in the company of his young son, Kolya.

Kolya is a public figure at the age of 6 ― and something of a mystery, since his mother has never been publicly named. Kolya, which is short for “Nikolai,” is certainly not the product of Lukashenko’s marriage; his wife, the long-suffering Galina Rodionovna, has long been consigned to a dairy farm in the small town of Shklov. His two sons from that marriage, Viktor and Dmitry, have been given minor jobs in the government, but neither has shown great potential.

The president seems to dote on the little boy, and has been taking him everywhere, including to high-level international meetings, since Kolya was a toddler.

Some think that Lukashenko wants to hold onto power until his protege is able to assume command ― a prospect that fills many Belarusians with horror.

Should another Lukashenko take control, it will just strengthen the younger generation’s determination to get out. There are not that many young people left in Belarus these days. Of those I worked with 10 years ago, 90 percent are now gone. I visit them in London, Paris, Washington, Toronto, but their talent and enthusiasm are lost to their native land.

The bombing may bring people together, at least for a time; tragedy does tend to put other considerations in the background. But I am afraid it will not be long before the dead and injured become mere pawns in Belarus’ murky political games.

In the meantime, Al Qaeda & co. are probably scratching their collective head, trying to figure out how they are being blamed for a bomb in a country they may not be able find on a map.

Perhaps some semblance of the truth will come out eventually. Perhaps it will remain an unsolved mystery for years. Either way, it means more bad news for long-suffering Belarus.