Is Belarus Russia’s North Korea?

Posted January 22nd, 2011 at 9:52 am (UTC+0)

US and EU diplomats stayed as far away as possible from Friday’s inauguration of President Lukashenko.

But in Moscow, Vladimir Putin posed Thursday with his visiting counterpart from Belarus. Turning to the microphones, he announced $4 billion in energy subsidies to Belarus, plus a brand new $6 billion nuclear power plant.

Is Belarus, Russia’s North Korea?

As a reporter, I have visited Belarus three times and North Korea three times. Compared to North Korea, a nation run by the Kim family like an 1830s American cotton plantation, Belarus is a land of milk and honey.

For decades, China has propped up North Korea, repeatedly facilitating the prolongation of the Kim dynasty rule. A collapse of Kim family control of North Korea, the Chinese reason, would mean two things: millions of impoverished northern Koreans flooding into a Chinese border area that is already dominated by ethnic Koreans. (Some Korean maps of “greater Korea” include Chinese territory.) More importantly, Chinese fears a North Korean collapse would mean American troops again on the Yalu River. The arrival of American troops on China’s river border in 1950, triggered the Chinese invasion and the restoration of North Korea as a buffer state.

In Russia’s case, Belarus stands between NATO expansion east to the Russian border. Although there may be a maximum of 100 American tanks left in Europe, Russian generals still play war games based on an armored threat rolling in from the west.

The threat is never far from people’s minds.

In Fortress Brest, a blockbuster movie that played across the Russian world during the Christmas holidays, a heroic band of Red Army soldiers hold out against the Nazi onslaught during the first days of World War II.
Brest, then on the western border of the Soviet Union, is now on the western border of Belarus. At one point in the film, a captured German soldier is interrogated about the Nazi invasion plans. The movie German’s answer drew an audible gasp from Saturday night patrons sitting around me in a theater in Minsk. “In one week,” he said, “we will be in Minsk.”

For the Kremlin, Belarus buys time.

This does not mean that the leaders in Moscow or Beijings like the leaders of their buffer neighbors. Both find them irritating, demanding, hard to control, and generally untrustworthy. But as foreign ministers have said for centuries: countries don’t have friends, they have interests.

That said, buffer states are inhabited by real people.

Twenty years ago, the peoples of Central Europe unexpectedly rose up.

Moscow lost a wide belt of buffer states it had nurtured for almost half a century. Vladimir Putin knows this from experience. As the Berlin Wall fell, he was barricaded in the KGB’s office in Dresden, East Germany while colleagues feverishly burned files.

In Belarus, the length and depth of the Lukashenko crackdown indicates that he believes he can only keep power through fear, by bullying the people. How long Belarussians will put up with him is anyone’s guess.

Two days before the election, I interviewed Andrei Sannikov. He said he was tired of living in a buffer state, and wanted to live in a normal country. Belarus Sannikov Buffer

Two days later, after Sannikov placed second in the election, riot police broke his legs and detained him incommunicado. Police then turned on his wife, Irina Khalip, yanking her out of a car while she was conducting a radio interview. She also is detained incommunicado. Child welfare officials then threatened to take their 3 year old son away from his grandmother and put him in an orphanage.

Thanks to Warsaw’s Belsat television, Washington’s Radio Liberty, and the internet, most Belarussians are believed to know this story. Maybe that is why the streets of Minsk were oddly empty Friday afternoon when President Lukashenko was driven to his fourth inauguration.

For a man who enjoys winter sports, it is appropriate that President Lukashenko has bought a large ski chalet in Krasnaya Polana — a ski resort in southern Russia.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

My Sons’ Road To Russia Passed Through A Harlem AIDS Clinic

Posted January 13th, 2011 at 11:11 am (UTC+0)
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Red Square Skating

Brooke boys and Russian friends Polina and Julia pause from skating on Red Square on Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve

Kremlin leaders regularly say they want to increase tourism in order to diversify a Russian economy that is overly dependent on oil and gas. Tourism is labor intensive, geographically dispersed, and carries the potential to promote trade and investment.

That may sound like a good plan, but Russia’s bureaucracy doesn’t always cooperate.

As an accredited foreign correspondent, I was told that my three sons could come and go as they pleased. In reality, that meant paying $140 for each son’s single entry, eight-day work visa. The fact that my sons are college students and had no intention of working during their week in Moscow was ignored. Then there was the visa form with questions that seem designed give visitors second thoughts about visiting Russia.
Question 30: “Do you have any specialized skills, training or experience related to firearms and explosives or to nuclear matters, biological or chemical substance? If yes, please specify.”

Forms filled out, money orders purchased, the boys — James, 20, William, 18, and Alexander, 18 — encountered a new obstacle at the Russian Consulate in New York.

Alexander said on a phone call: “To get the Russian visa, they say we have to get AIDS tests.”

I checked around. Mike, an American executive here who shares my stinginess, had a suggestion: “No sweat, just send them uptown to get a free AIDS test. Just don’t tell them it’s for a visa or they won’t do it.”
Three AIDS tests at a Harlem clinic later, $420 paid to the Russian consulate, and the boys were winging their way toward Moscow.

Brooke Boys Snow

Alex, William and James Brooke enjoy Moscow's January Snow outside Russia's Air and Space Museum

Once here, they briefly joined a community of about 5,000 Americans registered with the American embassy as living in Russia.

On the flip side of the coin, there are an estimated 5-million Russian speakers now living in the United States.

Echoes of this 1,000 to one ratio can be seen in Europe.

Eager for tourism, France last year gave visas to about 300,000 Russians and Spain gave visas to 445,000. Finland stamped a record 1-million visas for Russians. To pep up the economy of Northern Norway, Oslo has started a visa-free regime for residents of neighboring Russian regions. Last year, 140,000 Russians crossed the border. During Russia’s recently completed 10-day New Year holiday, 25,000 Russians swarmed into Arctic Norway and Finland.

But while the Finnish and Spanish consular officials stamp Russian passports like whirling dervishes, tourist traffic going the other way is barely a trickle. Carlos, a Spanish television correspondent here, says the Russian visa process in Madrid takes three weeks and 200 Euros. He guesses that at best 20,000 Spaniards visited Russia last year.

Once here, there is a lot to see and do. My sons skated on Red Square, sat in the captain’s chair of a submarine moored in the Moscow River, walked through the snow covered grounds of the Tsaritsyno estate, visited the modern art exhibitions at Garazh, and watched men with chainsaws shape sculptures from ice.

It was fun. But given the inertia of Russian bureaucracy, I’m not holding my breath for the visa process here to get any easier.

Four Brookes

James Brooke and three sons pause on tour of snowbound Tsaritsyno Estate Moscow

For the next family reunion, we can meet in Helsinki or Kiev, which also have direct flights from New York. American tourists don’t need visas for Ukraine or Finland. For that matter, American tourists don’t need visas for most of Russia’s neighbors, including Japan, Mongolia, Georgia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Norway. Instead of spending $420 on Russian visas, I’ll put that money into hotels, restaurants and museums somewhere else. That way, Moscow’s bureaucratic inertia can help diversify another country’s economy.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Belarus’ Lukashenko: Term Limited by Biology?

Posted January 7th, 2011 at 8:17 am (UTC+0)
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By James Brooke

Next week, Belarus will be back in the spotlight as European Union officials meet to impose visa sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko and the top leaders of the government. Several EU foreign ministers have charged that Lukashenko stole the Dec. 19 presidential election. Seeing the Belarus leader as illegitimate, they want to keep him from visiting their countries.

Poland is making it clear that visa sanctions should not target all 10 million people of Belarus. Last week, Warsaw waived visa fees for normal Belarussians. Instead, the proposed sanctions target the man called by critics, “the last dictator in Europe.”

Three weeks after the Belarus elections, most of the politicians who dared to run against the president remain in jail. Police beat the two most popular candidates, Andrei Sannikov and Andrei Neklayev, so badly that they cannot be presented before photographers.

The day before the election, these two candidates gave the best attended press conference of the campaign, speaking before a dozen cameras from international television networks. On the election night, policemen attacked Neklayev, beating him unconscious in front of reporters. Later that evening, I walked with Sannikov, conducting an interview as he headed a peaceful march down the central avenue of Minsk. About 90 minutes later, police attacked this well known leader, a former diplomat, breaking his leg and bloodying his head.

Officially, Lukashenko won 80 percent of the vote, and Sannikov came in second, with 2.5 percent. If the vote tally is true, what is the president afraid of?

Western officials say that independent exit polls show that Lukashenko did not win enough votes to avoid a second round — 50 percent plus one vote.

Whatever the real numbers might be, some are saying he has cracked down hard on dissident politicians and journalists, because hard economic times loom this spring. This year, Russia is slashing the subsidies that long underwrote the “Belarus miracle:” virtually unchanged living standards since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There is an additional element: Lukashenko is now being Lukashenko.

After reluctantly posing as a democrat last fall, the real Lukashenko jumped out of the closet on election night. This is the well known hockey playing, former state farm manager who sees politics as a hard contact sport. The next day, in his post-election press conference, the president said that politicians who whine about being hit over the head are sissies.

In fact, none of his opponents have complained publicly about being attacked by police. They are being held incommunicado, locked up in “isolator” cells of a secret police force that in Belarus still is called the KGB.

The two hour press conference, televised live, gave the world a good portrait of the man who believes he now has a mandate to run his Central European nation through 2015, making a total of 21 years in power.

I watched the press conference as I packed my bags in my Minsk hotel room, the hours on my 4-day journalist visa draining away. Soon, it occurred to me that I was watching a Slavic version of Hugo Chavez.

This was not the charismatic Venezuelan army officer I followed on the presidential campaign trail in 1994. But the contemporary, bloated version, man who keeps a firm grip on all levers of power, convinced that he is the “salvador de la patria” — the savior of the nation.

In Minsk, the Belarussian version referred to his political rivals as “enemies of the people.” While the phrase is Stalinist, the thought is Louis IV. France’s Sun King liked to say “l’etat c’est moi” – the state is me.

Facing rows of sycophants in the press conference hall, Belarus’ president basked before a sea of sympathetic faces. They chuckled at every witticism, earnestly soaked up every morsel of wisdom, and clucked in agreement at every paternal scolding from a leader who calls himself “severe, but fair.”

Presumably, the audience was stacked with state employees and business people whose personal fortunes depend on presidential whim.

One journalist was so nervous with excitement at being picked to ask the first question, that she flubbed her lines. President Lukashenko indulgently allowed her to repeat the question.

“Mr. President,” she asked again, still trembling with excitement before national television. “When will the inauguration be?”

A better question might have been: how long will this go on?

With all levers of power in his control, Lukashenko exit may be decided by biology.

He could die of a heart attack tomorrow afternoon. But that is unlikely for a physically vigorous 56-year-old who presumably gets the best medical care in his nation. Good health could mean the Fidel Castro option. Sixteen years in power could stretch to 60.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

In the Streets of Minsk

Posted December 22nd, 2010 at 10:10 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

MINSK — Over and over again, Belarus state television broadcasts video of demonstrators smashing glass as they tried to break into the Central Election Commission Sunday night here.

I was there. Those narrowly cropped shots miss the big picture.

Alexander Lukashenko has run Belarus since 1994. Depending on your point of view, he is Europe’s longest serving president — or Europe’s last dictator.  A key to Lukashenko’s holding on to power for 16 years has been his control over the election machinery.  Facing the voters to win a fourth term, he made sure that over 99 percent of voting station employees and monitors were his people — appointed by the government.

Opposition candidates, convinced that vote fraud was underway, played their last card to keep Lukashenko from going for 21 years in office. They called an illegal protest. In Belarus, a former Soviet republic, virtually all protests are illegal.

Lukashenko responded by predicting on national television that no one would show up. Coming from the burly former collective farm manager, it sounded more like a warning.

Cabs are hard to find in Minsk, a city where most of the economy remains in government hands. So Sunday night, I walked from my hotel to the demonstration site two kilometers away. The outdoor skating rinks were crowded. Families strolled on snowy sidewalks to restaurants. I began to suspect that maybe Lukashenko’s prediction might be right – that the planned demonstration would only bring out 100 hard core activists at best.

Then, walking over a viaduct, about a half kilometer from October square, I started to see it: lines of people walking with quick steps toward the demonstration site.

Within an hour, the Associated Press was estimating the turnout at 40,000.

As a veteran of many protests, I noticed that the crowd was heavily male. This often indicates that the populace senses a physical risk.

To limit the protest, the city had flooded most of the square to create an outdoor skating rink. Old Soviet folk tunes played loudly from speakers mounted on lampposts. The crowd was wedged on one end of the square. Then it filled a nearby park, allowing traffic to flow up and down Independence Avenue.

At best, 10 percent of the protesters could hear their leaders shouting into little portable bull horns. But no one cut the wires to the street lamp speakers.

Belarusian and European Union flags waved in the night. People chanted “Freedom,” and “Long Live Belarus.” Referring to their 56-year-old president with thinning hair, people chanted “Time to changing the bald tire!”

After an hour, opposition leaders moved toward the avenue.

The crowd hesitated, confused. Who was going to take the first step? Who was going to move off the sidewalk into the street and violate traffic laws?

Temperatures were subfreezing, but there was a real sense of euphoria when the first protesters broke the ice. Within minutes, a human river of 40,000 or so people was flowing through the heart of Minsk, their chants echoing off the flat facades of the post-war Soviet buildings.

Not a window was broken. Not a smear of graffiti was sprayed. A few motorists cautiously beeped horns in solidarity. Cell phones glowed in the dark as protesters took videos and snapped photos of what people told me was a historic moment.

Some people noticed their cell phones were not working. Mysteriously, they could not send SMS messages, or photos to friends.

Also mysteriously, traffic police had melted away into side streets.

For anyone who wandered off the main streets, a big surprise waited in the shadows: lines of large green metal boxes on wheels. Manned by riot police, these paddy wagons were soon to fill with protesters.

The end point of the march was a massive Soviet-era government administration building.  I had interviewed Belarus’ first post-Soviet leader, Stanislaw Shushkevich, there in the fall of 1991. The soaring black statue of Lenin still stood out front — oddly unchanged, but cleaner than two decades earlier.

For an hour, people milled, chanted slogans, tried to listen to their leaders, and took souvenir photos of their presence at this moment in national history.

Three hours after the demonstration started, the crowd was thinning, and I slipped away. Despite the chill, I walked away feeling cheered about the future of Belarus.

Until I saw the lines of prisoner transportation trucks.

As to what happened next, were the men who attacked the building government provocateurs? Impressionable young men who had watched too much TV last month of protests in London and Paris? Or radicals who think freedom does not come free?

On this point, take your pick of videos: the 25 men breaking windows; the sea of humanity flowing peacefully down the largest avenue in Minsk; or the YouTube videos that have gone viral, featuring black helmeted riot policemen clubbing one and all in their path — from presidential candidates to television cameramen to a teenage girl in a white parka.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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