Timothy Garton Ash: Belarus' Lukashenko Is Europe's Mugabe

[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His personal website is www.timothygartonash.com.]

Happy Christmas? Not for Belarus. Grandfather Frost, the Russosphere version of Santa Claus, came early to Minsk this year, and the presents he brought were election fraud, police beatings, mass arrests, Soviet-style lies and, for the European Union, a special Christmas card saying "screw you".

Natalia Koliada of the Belarus Free Theatre was among those rounded up last Sunday, after she and others protested against president Alexander Lukashenko's shameless stealing of yet another presidential election. She told Index on Censorship that she was held for 14 hours and not allowed water, food or sleep. Detainees of both sexes were kept in freezing prison corridors, abused by guards ("You are animals ... Our dream is to kill you"), and obliged to defecate in front of each other.

One of the opposition presidential candidates, Vladimir Neklyaev, was beaten senseless even before the protest demo began. Later he was hauled out of a hospital bed to be thrown into prison. More than 600 people, including leading figures in the independent media and the arts, have been detained by the KGB (as it's still called in Belarus). In some cases their families don't know where they are being held. Some face prosecution for "instigating mass disorder", an offence that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. A young aide to Neklyaev appeared on state television, looking worn and fearful, to make a partial recantation. President Lukashenko told a press conference there would be no more "senseless democracy".

There is a word for all this. That word is terror. Not full-dress, 1930s-style Stalinist terror, to be sure, but still something qualitatively different – let me anticipate the objections of a few Guardian readers – from police violence in a west European democracy. Unless, that is, you believe that British police batons in Parliament Square were being wielded to defend a criminal authoritarian regime.

There is also a puzzle here, though not an insoluble one...

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/29/2010

To have violence, coercion, and fraud win the other way around, as it happened in Ukraine, Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, Kosovo, etc. under heavy Western pressure or direct violence.

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