Belarus: Europe’s last dictatorship

W – based article –

In October 2015 a presidential election was held in Belarus.

It wasn’t a convincing contest and few thought that victory would go to anyone other than the man who had ruled the country for the past two decades. With an economy in tatters and a chilling charge list of human rights violations against his name, Alexander Lukashenko has long presided over Europe’s closest equivalent to North Korea.

That said, the president many accuse of being a dictator eschews a personality cult. There’s little need, say his opponents; Lukashenko rules through fear.

Today, time-warped Belarus provides a glimpse into what life was like before the collapse of the Soviet Union, where the secret police are still called the KGB and the success of the economy is measured in tractor sales.

Belarus has been ruled by the same moustachioed autocrat, Alexander Ryhoravich Lukashenko, for the past 21 years and the 61 year-old, often dubbed Europe’s last dictator, appears to have no immediate retirement plans.

But while this landlocked nation has remained frozen in time, the world around it has been in the throws of a geopolitical earthquake. Both Ukraine’s revolution and Russia’s violent response to it had rattled the regime here, adding tension to the forthcoming vote.  

n the aftermath of the previous election, roundly criticised by international critics as fraudulent and rigged, massive street protests in Belarus had been followed by a brutal security crackdown.

Thousands were arrested, some tortured, and a number of political prisoners were put on trial.

These trials began receiving wide coverage abroad and, for a brief moment, Lukashenko’s grip on power looked shaky. Then, out of nowhere, a bomb went off in the Minsk Metro, killing 15 and injuring 195.

It was supposedly the work of terrorists. Vladislav Kovalev was picked up – seemingly arbitrarily – then was charged, denied legal representation, and badly beaten and tortured, before signing a confession to the crime.

The guilty verdict and Kovalev’s subsequent execution were condemned by human rights groups and governments around the world (including the Kremlin).

In fact, most observers believe both the bombing and subsequent trial were merely a convenient smokescreen to divert attention from the increasingly controversial trials of Lukashenka’s political opponents.

That’s certainly the view of Lyubov, Vladislav’s mother. “They had to find someone to convict and punish in order to distract the focus of people from the problems that existed then. It was when Lukashenko’s opponents were arrested, when thousands of people were imprisoned. That moment the trials of the political prisoners started.”

She was in the capital to campaign against the death penalty with the national human rights NGO, Viasna. “We collect signatures for the abolishment of the death penalty in Belarus. The death penalty here only serves as an instrument to keep people in fear. And we have the elections again and it’s not clear what is going to happen. Maybe there will be new political prisoners. It is impossible to foresee the situation. That is why we are trying to give the people information about what happened to us, to show people the weakness of the investigative and judicial system, when here they are following instructions to arrest, convict and punish innocent people.”

Why Do Belarusians Commit Suicide?

On 10 September, the world marked suicide prevention day. Belarus ranks sixth in the world with regard to the number of total suicides that occur annually.

Last year, about two thousand Belarusians committed suicide –  higher than the number of road accident victims. Belarusian men, like elsewhere in the world, tend to commit suicide more than women, though the large number of suicides in rural areas sets Belarus apart from other countries. 

Every year, about a million people all over the world commit suicide. Scientists and scholars consider those countries that have a rate of 20 suicides per 100 thousand people to be states with a high level of social behaviour. Since it gained its independence, Belarus has never dropped down to this level.

World statistics on suicides are not regularly updated, which sometimes makes it impossible to properly assess and highlight Belarus’ place with regard to the number of suicides that take place in the country annually. 

In 2012, 1,949 Belarusians committed suicide. In the 1990s, the number was even larger – about 3,500 Belarusians killed themselves every year. Before the economic crisis and default happened in Russia in 1998, the number of suicides decreased while after the default it once again began to grow.

Belarus often parallels Lithuania in such ratings – a country with which it shares a long common history.

Although the countries picked different paths of development, they remained similar to one another in the number of suicides committed in each. This is perhaps due to the fact that both countries are agriculture-based as a considerable number of people could not adapt to the capitalist reforms and fell into despair.

Lithuanians often tie the large number of suicides to the overall depression of the nation, which could also be said about Belarusians as well. The problem lies also in the fact that many people in both Lithuania and Belarus lost any possibility of earning a living in the countryside and at the same time were not able to adapt to working in the private sector with industry or services.

The number of suicides in Belarus coincides with the same tendencies in many other post-Soviet countries that built their independence on the foundations of their great Soviet heritage — one that left them with an empty state budget and destroyed connections and trust between people.

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        Getty image.

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