When a massive bomb goes off in a police state, one can only ask: where were the police?
Belarus is the Cuba of Central Europe — a police state.
Type “List of countries by size of police forces” into Wikipedia and you will find that Belarus is the champion, with 1,442 policemen for every 100,000 people. Vladimir Putin’s Russia lags far behind, with only 976. Belarus’ other two neighbors on the 65-nation list lag even further – 327 in Lithuania, and 264 in Poland.
The rush hour bomb in the central Minsk metro station killed 13 and wounded 203. Filled with shrapnel, the bomb went off at the busiest hour in the city’s busiest station – the only transfer station in the system.
The last time a major bomb went off in Minsk, in 2008, police fingerprinted 1.3 million men. This time, police say, their all-seeing circuit TV camera network allowed them to capture the culprit. At first he was identified as a lone madman. Then we heard that five Belarussian men under the age of 30 had been detained.
Belarussians are in deep shock as they struggle with the biggest attack in their capital since World War II. Roses and candles have turned Oktyabrskaya station into a shrine.
As the shock wears off, some Belarussians are asking: who benefits from such an attack?
Not the opposition. As expected, President Alexander Lukashenko unleashed his police again on what remains of the opposition, seizing computers, blocking web sites, and interrogating the few opposition members who are not in jail or in exile following the Dec. 19 elections.
Thursday night, Stanislaw Shushkevich, Belarus’ first post-Soviet leader, was on Russian television, on the prime time debate show of Vladimir Solovyev. (Shushkevich is banned from Belarus television).
Shushkevich, now 77, looked back on the last 17 years of Lukashenko rule of Belarus, and noted: “Whenever our regime falls into a difficult spot, something happens that makes people pay attention to something else.”
Let’s look at what is happening off camera in Minsk these days.
Faced with lines of people waiting hours to change their Belarussian rubles into hard currencies, Belarus banks announced limits last week on foreign exchange transactions. On Friday, the nation’s central bank suspended gold sales. Two weeks ago, the bank authorized a de facto 10 percent devaluation of the currency.
As shortages spread through shops, economists for foreign banks in Belarus predict the government will be forced to devalue by another 20 percent.
Belarus is running out of money.
In the run up to the December 19 elections, President Lukashenko raised pension payments and state salaries by 30 percent. In the last two years, he doubled the national debt. With Russian oil and gas subsidies drying up, the nation’s trade deficit has quadrupled. Since October, Belarus’ foreign exchange reserves have dropped by 60 percent.
Belarus’ current account deficit is 15.6 percent of GDP. When Greece turned to the European Union for a bailout, its deficit was 13.6 percent.
But no one wants to bail out Alexander Lukashenko.
After the elections, widely derided outside the country as fraudulent, the U.S. and E.U. placed travel bans on President Lukashenko and 157 other high officials involved in the elections or the subsequent repression. In recent weeks, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator John Kerry have sharply criticized the Lukashenko government. The EU is debating whether to add another 19 names to its blacklist.
In short, Washington and Brussels will block any attempt by Belarus to get an IMF loan.
So, Lukashenko has turned east, asking Moscow for $3 billion.
But, that was six months ago, and Moscow is playing hard to get.
In March, Prime Minister Putin was in Minsk. Asked about the loan request, he complained that Russian oil and gas subsidies still add up to $4.3 billion a year.
Then, the Belarus President tried a charm campaign with the Russian press, saying he would like to join Russia in a political union. He complained that the Russian media suffers from “Lukashenko syndrome.”
Two weeks later, Moscow’s Izvestia newspaper, close to the Kremlin, came out with an (unfounded) story alleging that the Moscow embassies of Belarus and North Korea pay their bills by running clandestine gambling casinos on their premises.
With friends like these…
Economists say Russia is holding out to get low prices for Belarus’s ‘crown jewels’ – the state companies that Lukashenko will be forced to sell this summer. When a Russian reporter asked the Belarus president if he would sell his government’s controlling stake in a local mobile telephone company, he shot back: “We are not against this: just pay $1 billion.”
Meanwhile, officials of what is still called the KGB in Minsk, say the investigation of the bombing will take months. As one police official said, they have 200 victims to interrogate.