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Europe's Last Dictator

10/06/2013 17:58 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

"You've never been to Minsk!?" said the girl from the World Bank, as though I was saying I had never made my own bed. It was 1992 and I'd just arrived as the Daily Mail stringer in Ukraine, the country next to Belarus, whose capital Minsk was being bandied in such appalled tones. I explained that where I came from - Notting Hill, via Oxford and a stint covering the Romanian Revolution - not having been to Minsk was entirely normal. She looked a little taken aback. An American economist who had been working in the former Soviet Union for three years, Minsk was, for her and her kind, a must-go destination. She did laugh, but I don't think she really meant it. Not having been to Minsk was, to her, a serious shortfall in one's education.

21 years later and still, to my shame, I have never been to Minsk - despite, in my year covering the emerging republics of the CIS, working in countries as widely spread as Moldova and Kyrgyztan, before I forsook the former Soviet empire for the blood letting in the Balkans. Somehow, amidst the chaos of Georgia, the wars in Chechenya and Tadjikistan, and Transdniestria, the oil-fuelled supermarket trolley race for Azerbaijan, Minsk's terrifying stability never beckoned.

On Thursday a little part of Minsk came to me. For yesterday morning there was a demonstration by Belarussian dissidents in London. A few dozen people lay in body bags, outside the Houses of Parliament, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and in the hectic buzz of Piccadilly Circus, until they were moved on by the police after an hour. The whole affair was quiet and dignified.

Their message was simple - Belarus, Europe's Last Dictatorship, run by President Alexander Lukashenko, is also the last European country to have the death penalty - and used reasonably discriminately. Were I to have gone to Soviet Belarus and returned today, I would find very little had changed in this flat little country of 9.5 million people, sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia , whose main claim to fame is having been 75% irradiated by the nuclear blow out at Chernobyl, which wasn't even on it's own territory. It's also half way between Berlin and Moscow, which is not a good look, architecturally, having been largely rebuilt after 1945 in the best Soviet brutalist style.

A Russian friend said that going to Belarus was very nostalgic, like being beamed back in time thirty years to the USSR - fewer cars on the street, little in the shops, and Soviet-style job and pension security. The state security system is even still called the KGB.

But the Soviet Union came at a price and that price is still being paid in Belarus. Dissidents and criminals both are executed, sometimes without trial. Blatant miscarriages of justice happen; and, guilty or innocent, the families of the sentenced are not told when their loved ones will be killed. They are denied even the small comfort of a body to mourn, for the bodies of the executed are never released. The first the family even know of the execution is that a death certificate arrives. Some of the activists involved in Thursday's protest, including the co-founder and producer of the Belarus Free theatre, Natalia Kaliada, had been imprisoned in Belarus themselves for demonstrating against the government. "I was in prison for 24 hours," said Natalia. "It was one of the worst experiences of my life." The guards threatened to rape her with a chair leg.

Last July year John Sweeney, the investigative BBC journalist, did go to Minsk. He went secretly, to interview Lyubov Kovalyova, the mother of 25 year old Vladislav Kovalyov, who had been executed in March 2012. Kovalyov and his childhood friend Dmitry Konovalov, also 25, were both shot with a bullet in the back of the head for apparently carrying out a bombing on the Minsk Metro the year before. 15 people had been killed and over 200 injured when the nail bomb went off under a bench on the platforms during the rush hour, at 17.55 on 11th April 2011 in Minsk's busy Oktyabrskaya station. The two boys were arrested 48 hours later - a triumph for the KGB. The boys even confessed, yet Sweeney found that many people in the country thought that the two boys were innocent. Certainly their motive was never clear. Even the government's CCTV footage seemed to exonerate them, showing a strange man carrying a brown bag at the scene of the crime. The general consensus from the terrified population was that the Belarussian government had probably arranged the bombing in order to encourage its own people into submission. The confessions were assumed to have been beaten out of the two young men by the police. Vladislav and Dmitry's bodies still have not been released to their families, over a year after their death.

Don't get me wrong - the EU does know this isn't right. We've had sanctions against Belarus for the last few years. But the irony is that the sanctions aren't working - not just on Belarus, but on our own companies. The EU is currently the second largest importer of goods from Belarus, after Russia, and the UK is one of the worst offenders. Something surely is wrong with a sanction system that allows that. The EU claim that stronger sanctions would harm the citizens of Belarus, but for people like Natalia Kaliada that seems irrelevant. And for Vladislav Kovalyov, and Dmitry Konovalov it is too late.

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