When I last talked to Andrei Sannikov, on the night of Dec. 19, he was partly leading, partly being swept along, by a river of Belarussians who filled the largest avenue in Minsk, protesting yet another fraudulent presidential election.
Dressed in a business suit and tie, speaking English polished during a five year diplomatic stint in New York, he looked like the deputy foreign minister he once was. In a “normal country” (one of his favorite phrases), he would be part of the power elite, another urbane, but slightly forgettable 56-year-old Central European politician. (Quick, quick: Who is prime minister of Slovakia?).
But this is Belarus. And he had just lost an election to Alexander Lukashenko, the president for 17 years.
Two hours after our fleeting encounter on the avenue, riot police attacked the protesters. Wading into the crowd, they went for Sannikov. They broke his legs. They beat him unconscious. Later, as friends were taking him to a hospital, more police attacked the car. They beat his wife, Irina Khalip, as she was giving a live interview to a Moscow radio station. Then they dragged him off to a cell of the state security police, still called by its old Soviet initials, KGB.
During his booking at the prison, he was forced to stand for one hour, despite his injuries.
Only one day earlier, Sannikov and Vladimir Nekliayev, the other leading opposition candidate, were the toast of the foreign press, calmly addressing Europe and the world through a battery of 12 television cameras.
In coming days, as Sannikov and Khalip were held incommunicado in KGB cells, “social service” workers tried to take the couple’s three-year-old son, Daniil, away from his grandmother and put him into an orphanage.
Weeks turned into months. Sannikov turned 57 in the KGB prison. His lawyer was disbarred. His campaign spokesman, Alexander Otroschenkov, was sentenced to four years in jail for “organizing and taking part in a mass riot.”
On Wednesday, Sannikov reappeared in public after a four month absence. He was seated behind bars in metal cage in a Minsk courtroom facing a series of charges that could bring him 15 years in jail.
Remembering her Soviet childhood, his mother, Ala Sannikova, whispered to a foreign reporter that her son was being put through a “show trial.”
After the Soviet Union collapsed, some Soviet dissidents, when left to their devices, turned out to have rather odd views – nationalist bordering on fascist, religious bordering on fanatic.
But in a normal country, Sannikov’s views would be mainstream, bordering on boring.
Three years ago, he formed European Belarus, a group devoted to bringing this former Soviet republic into the European Union, following in the footsteps of two of its neighbors, Poland and Lithuania. In 1997, he co-founded Charter ’97, modeled on the Charter ’77 movement formed in then-Communist Czechoslovakia. In 2005, he was awarded in Vienna the Bruno Kreisky Prize, a prestigious human rights award.
Speaking four languages and the son of Minsk intellectuals, Sannikov represents the other Belarus – urbanized, democratic and Western looking.
This is the Belarus feared and despised by President Lukashenko, the hockey playing former border guard and agricultural school graduate. The first rung on his step ladder to power was service as director of a collective farm.
But Belarus is not moving Lukashenko’s way. As the nation urbanizes, his elderly, rural support dwindles. This spring, peace and prosperity, his justification for power, is vaporizing.
Outside the Minsk courthouse, Belarussians line up at exchange shops, fearing that last week’s 50 percent devaluation of the national currency is only the beginning. This week, according to the state statistics office, 15 percent of the nation’s workforce was put on leave because factories did not have access to hard currency to import materials.
No longer an “island of peace,” Minsk suffered a mysterious terrorist bombing in the capital’s subway system earlier this month. Exploding at rush hour, the bomb killed 14 and wounded 202.
Inside the courtroom, as diplomats from Sweden, Hungary, the United States and Russia watched on Wednesday, Sannikov defended the mass march last December as “entirely peaceful.” The vandalism that took place, he said, was carried out by government provocateurs.
During his four months in the hands of the KGB, Sannikov did not cut deals or recant his democratic ideals. As a result, human rights watchers fear, he could get a sentence of 10 years or more.
Sannikov will probably remain in jail as long as Belarus remains an “abnormal” nation.
From today’s vantage point, it is anybody’s guess how long that will be. All bets are off whether the Lukashenko regime will last 10 years, 10 months, or 10 days.