Underground, but Not Buried
This essay was originally published by Transitions Online. It can be read here in its original form.
When Charter ’97, one of the premier independent sources of information in Belarus, opened its new office in Warsaw on 14 September, it marked yet another twist in an incredible odyssey that has had many of them.
What their home country’s autocratic ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, had in store for this committed team of human rights activists, democrats, and journalists over the last two years is nothing less than a political thriller from the darkest days of the Soviet Union. At the same time, it is a lesson in how many Belarusians, direct neighbors of the European Union, continue their struggle for a Europe whole and free and deserve all the support the democratic West can muster. Such assistance, however, remains insufficient.
The history of Charter ’97 spans almost the entire 18 years of Lukashenka’s reign. The organization was founded in 1997, a year after a controversial referendum neutered democracy and installed what is now known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Originally a declaration signed by some 100,000 people, Charter ’97 called for “devotion to the principles of independence, freedom, and democracy; respect for human rights; [and] solidarity with everyone who stands for the elimination of the dictatorial regime and the restoration of democracy in Belarus.” As an offshoot, the charter97.org website was established and has since become a centerpiece of the independent media in Belarus, with more than 100,000 daily visitors.
Naturally, that popularity and the group’s criticism of the regime drew the ire of official Belarus, which forced Charter ’97 underground. Its journalists were harassed, staff arrested, offices raided, equipment confiscated, and website hacked repeatedly.
However, worse was to come. Pressure mounted when, in early 2010, the group’s co-founder and former Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Sannikov announced his candidacy in the presidential elections that were to take place later that year. In an instant, Charter ’97’s offices were raided and some 20 computers confiscated. Belarus’ notorious KGB launched full surveillance of the group’s online and telephone communications (judging by the questions and evidence later presented to its activists during KGB interrogations). Most horrifying, another co-founder and Charter ’97 journalist, Oleg Bebenin, was found hanged in his cottage, and despite obvious indications to the contrary, the official investigation labeled his death a suicide.
MORE TROUBLE ON THE WAY
Yet few had expected the full-out state terror that ensued on election day, 19 December 2010. When tens of thousands peacefully protested an obviously rigged poll, the Lukashenka regime struck with brute force. Among the hundreds beaten and arrested that night were almost all Charter ’97 journalists, who covered the drama until their office's doors were smashed by riot police at 4 a.m. Only a lucky few escaped the onslaught and made for neighboring Lithuania where, miraculously with a single laptop, they rebooted the site within days and provided crucial coverage as the witch hunt against democrats in Belarus wore on.
Less fortunately, editor in chief Natallia Radzina ended up in the ill-reputed “Amerikanka,” the KGB prison in Minsk, where she spent six weeks in isolation. Eventually placed under house arrest, she jumped train on her way to a KGB hearing and fled to Moscow. During her four months in hiding there, and under constant threat of discovery and extradition to Belarus, Radzina retook responsibility for the Charter ’97 website but also lodged desperate calls for international help. The Netherlands finally granted her political refugee status and placed her with other asylum seekers in the Dutch provinces. Unable to continue her important work from there, Radzina took to the road again and made her way, by land and without valid papers, to finally rejoin her team in Vilnius, Lithuania, after some eight months.
This seemingly safe haven soon showed disadvantages, however. The prime destination for Belarusian émigrés, Lithuania was stretched to the limits of absorption. The government, torn between human rights and economic interests in Belarus, sent mixed signals. Belarusian intelligence services zoomed in on the political diaspora and launched a debilitating cyber-attack on the site.
Charter ’97 was forced to look for a more sustainable alternative, and it found it with the generous support of the Polish government. A new head office opened in Warsaw last week – a home away from home until a safe return to Belarus is possible.
This story of resilience, with its many twists and turns, is representative of many of Belarus' dissidents and offers lessons for Western support to this beleaguered democratic movement. Firstly, stories like that of Charter ’97 defy the image of a Belarusian opposition that is divided and indecisive, isolated from ordinary people, and kept alive only by foreign aid – all allegations launched by Lukashenka's propaganda machine and all-too-readily accepted by many Western observers. Instead, years of harsh repressions have not silenced those striving for a democratic and European Belarus, who have only become more determined to galvanize the growing discontent among ordinary citizens.
DUPED BY LUKASHENKA
Secondly, both Europe and the United States readily pledge assistance to Belarusian democrats, a staggering 87 million euros ($115 million) annually, according to a recent donor conference. Yet that support seems unable to reach those who struggle hardest. Emergency aid launched after the recent post-election crackdown took months to materialize and largely failed to help hundreds exiled by political persecution. Opposition parties, human rights initiatives, local groups, and independent media have little to no access to Western funding, which instead supports a few visible “beacons,” pursues lofty, long-term visions of societal change, or, at worst, runs through the governmental channels of a dictatorial regime. Understandably, then, many democrats in Belarus are frustrated with those allegedly helping them in the West.
Finally, the nightmare that Charter ’97 and others in Belarus went through also resulted from misguided Western, and especially European, policy. When in 2008, Lukashenka pretended openness to political liberalization, policymakers readily turned to engagement, hoping that closer ties would nudge Belarus toward reform and dismissing warnings from Belarusian democrats.
By late 2010, however, Lukashenka had abandoned his reformist façade and struck even more brutally, leaving his Western interlocutors flabbergasted and making his opponents pay a bloody bill. Now, after some time of near-full isolation and modest pressure, many in Europe are again advocating to reach out to Lukashenka. Yet another naïve attempt at cooperation with the treacherous regime in Minsk will only set in motion another spiral of violence against democrats.
Instead, the West should draw the right lessons from the story of Charter ’97 and so many others in Belarus. It must show confidence in the will and capacity of Belarusian democrats to topple Lukashenka’s dictatorship just as their neighbors in Poland and Lithuania once did. It must commit generous and effective help to all those pursuing political change, with a focus on those fighting hardest and with most resonance among Belarusians at large. And it must remain steadfast in its principal rejection of Lukashenka’s dictatorship, place the values of human rights and democracy firmly above those of geopolitics and trade, and make full use of the considerable political and economic leverage that especially Europe has over Belarus.
Only then will the odyssey of Charter ’97 finally end in a democratic and European Belarus.
Joerg Forbrig directs the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. In this capacity, he has cooperated with Charter ’97 for the last decade.