An anti-government march on Saturday, October 10, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
Maksim Piakarski, left, and Vadzim Zharomski, who were arrested for spraypainting graffiti and charged with hooliganism in the apartment they share with a third roommate, Nov. 23, 2015 in Minsk. Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
MINSK, Belarus — On a sweltering day in Minsk last summer, Maksim Piakarski and Vadzim Zharomski propped open the windows of the two-room apartment they shared on the outskirts of Minsk, Belarus’ capital, and tried to catch what little breeze they could in the August heat.
Within seconds, men in full body armor and helmets who had lowered themselves from the roof leaped through the open windows and ordered Piakarski, 24, and Zharomski, 26, to the floor. More masked men broke open the front door. Confusion and chaos ensued, as the masked men kicked and beat the two and shocked them with stun guns. The apartment was ransacked, and the officers took laptops, books and flash drives.
Across town, a similar scenario played out in the apartments of two other young men, who, like Piakarski and Zharomski, were avowed nonviolent social activists. All the young men were hauled off in unmarked cars to be interrogated by the Interior Ministry’s department of organized crime. Viachaslau Kasinerau, 27, said interrogators broke his jaw in two places as they beat him and accused him of being a fascist and neo-Nazi.
When it was over, they were charged with hooliganism, facing up to six years in prison if convicted.
Their crime: spray-painting “the Revolution of Consciousness is already happening” and “Belarus must be Belarusian” in Belarusian across walls of abandoned buildings in the city center.
“The whole thing was like something out of an American action movie, like the SWAT team coming to get us,” said Piakarski, a Web designer. “At one point there were 10 guys in this apartment, tearing the place apart like we were a group of terrorists.”
Such anti-regime phrases are not tolerated by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled this nation of 9 million people for the past 22 years. Pictures of the graffiti had gone viral on the Internet, drawing the praise of Belarus’ Western-leaning opposition groups. Human rights organizations immediately declared their case politically motivated.
This harsh crackdown on activists comes as Lukashenko’s isolated regime has come under new focus after a series of politically savvy moves by the man the Bush White House once called the “last dictator in Europe.”
Lukashenko hosted a series of peace talks on Ukraine and shook hands with Western leaders last year, including President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly. He has never recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. When Russia said it wanted to build an airbase in Belarus, Lukashenko remained noncommittal. This summer, he released six political prisoners after nearly five years of pressure from the West.
Election officials inside a polling station on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015 in Babruysk, Belarus. Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
But Belarus’ economy is faltering, and his recent pandering to the West has human rights groups there worried that the West, eager to pull Belarus out of Moscow’s orbit, may forsake a two-decade struggle for democratic reforms by rewarding his recent international public relations success.
“The economy is bad enough now that it’s necessary for Lukashenko to make friends with the West, and that means we are seeing less obvious political repressions,” said Nasta Loika, a lawyer for Viasna Human Rights Center in Minsk. The Belarusian government has refused to register the nongovernmental organization, and its activities are constantly under close surveillance by the state security agency, still known by its Soviet-era predecessor’s name, the KGB. “But we’ve seen no systematic changes in the laws here, and we’re not optimistic things will improve when it comes to democratic reforms and freedom of speech.”
A student stands among flags representing various oblasts, or administrative regions, of Belarus before a concert in support of President Lukashenko Oct. 9, 2015 in Minsk. Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
In November the United States and Europe lifted sanctions against Belarus after a series of steps the West saw as his softening his grip. The International Monetary Fund opened talks for a $3 billion loan package.
Since he took office in 1994, his opponents have been imprisoned, gone into exile or simply disappeared. The government denies registration for pro-Western political parties and independent media are all but silenced. Peaceful public protests often end with brutal clashes with the police, mass detentions and exorbitant fines for organizers, participants and even journalists who cover the events. In October he won a fifth term in an election that European monitors said “indicated that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting” its commitments for democratic elections.
Referring to the beating and imprisonment of the graffiti activists, Krassimir Yankov — a researcher for Amnesty International covering Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova — said, “Unfortunately, such violations of the freedom of expression are not an exception but are all too common. President Lukashenko is trying to show the world that he is open for dialogue, but such state pressure for only voicing a dissenting opinion [raises] the question, has the system really changed, or is it growing even more repressive?”
His political repression has meant that he has spent most of his time in power isolated from the West. In 2005, George W. Bush’s White House deemed him the “last dictator of Europe.”
On the surface, Belarus’ capital seems like a modern European city, albeit filled with Soviet-era relics. There is a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, on the capital’s central street. The state security agency is still known by the Soviet acronym, the KGB, and continues to practice many of the same methods of intimidation and interrogation as its predecessor.
Minsk’s streets are clean and well lit, dotted with hip cafes and restaurants. Public transportation and the country’s roads rival those of many other European cities. Belarusians enjoy a higher standard of living than most former Soviet republics, with the average salary hovering around $400 a month.
Commuters on a tram in Minsk, Belarus, photographed in the fall of 2015, when press restrictions were temporarily eased to let international media cover the country's presidential elections. Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
Multimedia gallery here: http://america.aljazeera.com/multimedia/photo-gallery/2016/1/a-rare-glim...
But the economy is heavily reliant on Russia, which sells Belarus gas and oil at discounted prices. Belarus refines the oil and sells it to Europe and uses the gas to keep its citizens warm in the winter and the state-owned factories operating. Russia’s generous subsidies have allowed Lukashenko to keep his Soviet-style economy afloat for two decades.
“Lukashenko doesn’t want large-scale privatization because it would lead to people losing jobs,” said Yarik Kryvoi, a London-based analyst with the independent Belarus Digest, an analytical website. Many of Belarus’ large industries and factories operate at a loss and are overstaffed. “And it’s easier to control people who work for state-owed enterprises.”
Russia’s faltering economy had a substantial impact on Belarus. Gross domestic product dropped by 3.7 percent in the first three quarters of 2015, and Belarusians saw their savings lose about a third of their value because of currency devaluation.
A man videotapes a rally organized by Mikalai Statkevich, a former opposition presidential candidate and political dissident. Attendees said they believed the man was an undercover police officer. Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
Men attend a rally by independent union workers for better pay and jobs, held in a park on the north end of the city out of view of most people, October 7, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
Lukashenko hopes Western lending agencies will step in to help. Most people expect the International Monetary Fund’s possible loan package to come with demands for reforms. On this, he has flip-flopped, at first saying he would not adopt any changes that would mean “smashing the political system, the entire government of Belarus.” He later seemed to indicate some changes were possible, telling the press in December after talks with the organization, “I didn’t say no to them on any point.”
He faces pressure from the east as well. “His choices are limited on [the air base] issue,” said David Marples, a distinguished professor at the University of Alberta. Saying no could cause the Kremlin to increase oil and gas prices. In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revival of Soviet nostalgia has greatly influenced Belarusians. Russian television news, which dominates the airwaves in Belarus, has convinced much of the population that protection from Russia is better than the chaos in Ukraine.
Most likely, Lukashenko will try “to put off making a decision on the air base for as long as he can,” Marples said.
For those in Belarus hoping the country will tilt west, toward European standards of democracy and rule of law, the struggle seems endless.
“We want to help people understand that we are living under a authoritative regime,” said Kasinerau, who is still waiting for his trial. “But there’s hardly anyone left in the opposition. They’ve all been imprisoned or left the country or prohibited from political activity. And the rest of society is just too scared of the regime to speak up. We want to change that.”