Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Lukashenko, Belarus and the mystery bomb

Belarus BombThe only thing currently clear about Monday’s terrorist attack in Minsk is its savagery. At the height of rush hour in one of the Belarusian capital’s busiest stations, the bomb packed with nails and ball-bearings for maximum damage, killed twelve and wounded some two hundred more. Amongst the shocked and devastated mourners two questions are now ringing out: who did this – and why?

The confusion is underscored by the fact that Belarus, Europe’s lastBelarus Police dictatorship, faces barely any active terrorist threat. The mainstream democratic opposition movement is almost invariably on the receiving end of political violence,facing beatings, imprisonment and torture in response to their peaceful protests. Islamic extremism, unlike in neighbouring Russia, is hardly on the radar. And domestic neo-fascism, though potentially a rising force, has yet to spawn any group capable of this kind of attack, which would nevertheless be out-of-keeping with such ideology considering that the majority of victims were inevitably white Belarusian commuters.

Belarus has seen previous bomb attacks, in 2005 and 2008, apparently the work of a fringe group opposed to dictator Alexander Lukashenko, calling itself the Belarusian National Liberation Army. However, between these two incidents there was no sign of the organisation and its very existence remains questionable. The fact that both occasions were followed by crackdowns on the mainstream opposition, has long led to murmurings of ‘false flag' operations ordered by Lukashenko himself. It is easy to see how such suspicions come about; after all this latest attack is certainly working in the dictator’s favour. The combination of international sympathy, domestic anger and widespread confusion will only help him to counter the growing external pressure and active democracy movement as well as the images of of Arab revolutions being broadcast in from European TV stations.

Within 48 hours of the blast, the KGB (as the state secret police is still known) had detained two suspects who have now admitted to the attack, something that means little in a country were confessions are obtained through breaking bones and leaving detainees in sub-zero temperatures. They were also quickly blamed for the 2005 and 2008 bombs, whilst Lukashenko publicly announced that a full scale ‘mop-up’ of opposition would take place, instructing his thugs to "bring in everyone and interrogate them, pay no attention to democracy or the groans and howls of the foreign martyrs." He also used the bombing as grounds to attack the continuation of EU sanctions on Belarus, in place since he extended his rule through a rigged election last year.

Of course, political gain from an incident does not imply guilt, as is obvious from numerous examples such as the Chinese government’s use of the post 9/11 climate to launch crackdowns in East Turkestan. It is also wise to be cautious of the kind of conspiracy theories that follow almost every major terrorist attack. Yet still, the overwhelming lack of knowledge or evidence regarding the Belarusian National Liberation Army- even within a police state, combined with the absence of any other likely culprit and the vast, immediate nature of political capitalisation Putin and Lukashenkoby Lukashenko, naturally leads to questions over his involvement – or at least his prior knowledge of this barbaric act. His strong links to Putin – a master of using apparent Chechen terrorism for political gain should also not be overlooked. It is now widely presumed, if not generally accepted, that the Russian PM had a hand in the 1999 apartment bombings that help catapult him to power; a theory reinforced by the murder of dissidents articulating it - including former spy Alexander Litvinenko. That Lukashenko may have taken a leaf out of Putin’s book may not be such a far-fetched idea.

For a man known to imprison and starve those opposing him, who maintains the legal mechanisms to execute dissidents and who detained hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators at the close of 2010 – would adding state terrorism to his repertoire really be that implausible?

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