Late last month Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist in Belarus, was indicted on a charge of libel against the country’s president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, after publishing a series of articles that questioned the execution of two men convicted of bombing a Minsk subway station.
This latest news may seem a setback from April, when the European Union pressured Mr. Lukashenko into freeing a prominent dissident, Andrei Sannikov. And yet anyone who took hope from Mr. Sannikov’s release was deluded: both cases, and dozens of others, are all part of the system by which Mr. Lukashenko maintains his 17-year-old regime.
Belarus remains Europe’s last dictatorship, as the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it in 2006. Years pass, but little changes in this landlocked country of 9.5 million people. While its neighbors Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have joined the European Union, and while Ukraine struggles to follow them, Belarus has become the champion of “Eurasian integration,” a leading member of the club of post-Soviet autocracies, along with the likes of Russia and Kazakhstan.
Belarussian society, however, resists. At least 2,200 people have been detained for opposition activities over just the last two years. Thirteen remain in prison under harsh conditions as “showcase prisoners.”
Unlike under the Soviets of the Brezhnev era, political prisoners in Mr. Lukashenko’s Belarus are not held in special camps, but in regular prisons, among criminals, isolated from fellow political prisoners. Just like under Stalin, the government uses criminals as a tool of psychological pressure against them.
In Belarus there are, informally, two kinds of prisons: “red” and “black.” The former operate with some modicum of control, but in the latter, “prison law” dominates. One of the peculiarities of this set of rules is that it divides prisoners into castes, where the lowest of the low are the so-called sunken ones: untouchables used as objects of sexual violence and assigned a sleeping place next to the latrine. Simply by shaking the hand of this kind of person, a prisoner automatically turns into a sunken one himself.
To break political prisoners, the Lukashenko regime places them in black prisons, in the same cells as sunken ones. Right away, they are on the very edge of survival, where philosophy gives way to physiological instinct.
Imagine: you’re sharing a cell with inveterate murderers, outcasts who may or may not be “billy-goats,” the nickname for violent convicts who work for the secret service in exchange for more lenient treatment. You’re facing them 1 on 1, or 1 on 3, or 1 on 10. And the only thing that protects you is the faint hope that it’s not in Mr. Lukashenko’s interest to let you die in prison. “They tried to drive me to suicide,” Mr. Sannikov said, refusing to go into details. “I don’t have the right to speak because my family is still a hostage of the system.”
He is not alone. Other prominent political prisoners include Nikolai Avtukhovich, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan turned businessman, who declared war on local corruption — and went to jail, for the second time, when he took on the wrong people.
They include Nikolai Statkevich, also serving his second term, a former Army officer turned leader of the Social Democrats and Mr. Lukashenko’s most radical critic in the 2010 election. A recent addition to his cell is a former special commando and convicted murderer. Independent researchers believe this thug may have belonged to a death squad responsible for “disappearing” opposition members.
And they include Aleksandr Beletski, an intellectual and human rights defender who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by dozens of people around the world.
While they sit in prison, Mr. Lukashenko has steadily turned Belarus into something akin to a prison colony. The possibility of ending up in prison is a constant risk for millions, and a check on even their most mundane daily routines.
That is why Mr. Lukashenko had no problem releasing Mr. Sannikov, who wrote a statement requesting clemency, demanded by Mr. Lukashenko, which closes off the possibility of appeal. He could just as easily end up back there tomorrow.
The release of political prisoners does not constitute a sign of change. Instead, the degree of change can be measured by the amount of dignity restored to the people, starting with former political prisoners. These people must be rehabilitated, their records expunged, their lives returned to them. This is precisely what signaled irreversible changes in Eastern Europe during the cold war, starting with the debunking of Stalinism.
None of this will happen without Moscow’s approval, of course, or the end of Moscow’s influence. Mr. Lukashenko’s regime will receive more than $4 billion in oil and gas subsidies from Moscow in 2012. And for good reason: Belarus is the last vestige of Russia’s colonial influence westward. Former Communist bloc countries couldn’t gain their freedom until the Soviet Union collapsed. The failure of President Vladimir V. Putin’s model might be the only thing that could pave the way to a “Eurasian Spring.”
Yet there are people willing to sacrifice their lives in the hopeless quest for freedom in Mr. Putin’s icy shadow. If you want to understand why Mr. Beletski, Mr. Statkevich and Mr. Avtukhovich are living heroes of our time, just try to imagine yourself in their shoes. That is to say, in their cells.
Andrej Dynko is the editor in chief of Nasha Niva, a weekly newspaper in Belarus. This essay was translated by Julia Sherwood from the Russian.