Observers speculate the Lukashenka regime is clearing the stage for further action. From Naviny.by.
The crackdown on non-profit organizations in Belarus – groups which President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has called loathsome and accused of bringing terrorism to Belarus – is logically coupled with the attack on non-state media outlets.
The ruling regime is clearly seeking to set up a “day of silence” for some kind of political campaign.
New Wave of Searches
Police raided dozens of NGOs earlier this month. Many offices were sealed off and some activists were arrested.
On 14 July alone, police and KGB officers reportedly conducted 51 searches and arrests, which, in particular, targeted the unregistered Viasna Human Rights Center. Viasna director Ales Bialiacki – as well as the prominent activists Valiancin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, and Nina Labkovich – remain in custody. Four others were also detained, but they were eventually released after they pledged in writing not to flee.
Law enforcement officers also raided the offices of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and around a dozen other organizations, including the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Union of Belarusian Writers, the Belarusian PEN Center, the Belarusian Popular Front, and the United Civic Party, as well as the homes of their members.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists plans to appeal the Justice Ministry’s proposed closure of the organization.
In parallel, law enforcement agencies continued to search the offices of media organizations and arrest journalists. In the most visible operation, police raided the Minsk office of the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 16 July. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 33 Belarusian journalists remain behind bars.
The offices of several other organizations were also searched. Some civil society activists and journalists left Belarus for fear of being arrested.
It would not be quite correct to say that the authorities are purging only pro-Western and pro-European organizations because those targeted by the raids included Imena, a purely social project, and think tanks such as BEROC and SYMPA/BIPART.
As Tatsiana Chulitskaya, SYMPA’s academic director and a researcher with Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, said in an interview with RFE/RL, the culture of civic participation in Belarus is being destroyed, and this means that a wide range of organizations has been subject to repression, irrespective of whether or not they are involved in political activities.
Official Crackdown on ‘Terrorists’
Active work is underway in Belarus with regard to non-profit organizations and “so-called Western media outlets,” Lukashenka told Vladimir Putin at their meeting in St. Petersburg on 13 July.
“These are the ones that brought us democracy and, in fact, imposed it, this terror, on us,” he said.
As many as 1,500 “loathsome” NGOs “were funded from abroad,” Lukashenka said.
“You have to understand that we cannot act otherwise. It is understandable what they’ve been doing. They were financed from abroad. And we’ve been thinking all the time: that’s okay, it is democracy after all, let’s talk, let’s cooperate. So, we’ve got the corresponding results,” he also said.
With these words, a day before the new wave of searches and arrests of civil society activists began, Lukashenka alerted his Russian counterpart to the upcoming crackdown and even tried to justify it by alleging that the organizations were involved in terrorism and funded from foreign sources.
In order to substantiate their allegations, the authorities actively use the propaganda potential of the state media. In the last few weeks, Belarusian state-controlled television channels have reported arson attacks on a police station and the house of a member of parliament, Alieh Hajdukievich, and a physical assault on state television reporter Ryhor Azaronak.
However, none of the civil society activists targeted by the recent raids and arrests were charged in connection with those incidents.
Although some organizations do receive foreign funding, they did so only after obtaining approval from the presidential administration. Some funds were used for projects involving state organizations.
It is not that the ruling regime has just learned something new about the activities of NGOs and their sources of funding, and therefore clamped down on them. As far back as April, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei warned that Western sanctions might prompt Minsk to root out what the West called civil society.
Living in Fear
The authorities will not achieve the desired outcome and no one in any country will be able to fully destroy civil society, Aleh Aheyeu, deputy director of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said on 16 July during an online news conference.
What the authorities can do is make civil society activists suspend their activities. For instance, following the 14 July raids, a group of volunteers providing assistance to the families of those rounded up in recent raids announced they would stop their round-the-clock presence outside detention facilities in Minsk.
At the same news conference, Olga Salomatova, an international program coordinator with the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said Belarusian law enforcement and security agencies seek to ensure that people live in constant fear and do not understand what is going on and whether their personal security is under threat. The authorities’ seemingly chaotic actions are in fact deliberate: some of those arrested are released, whereas others not.
Aheyeu noted that the raid on the office of the Belarusian Association of Journalists made no sense at all, as the office had been searched and sealed off before.
All this can be viewed as part of a show of force.
The crackdown may paralyze civil society organizations and the media for about six months, Ihar Tyshkevich, a Belarusian-born expert with the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, told RFE/RL.
Pavlyuk Bykovsky is a journalist and political analyst with the Belarusian news site Naviny.by. This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Naviny.by. Translated in partnership with the Russian Language News Exchange.