In Belarus, Looking Outward for Change

The last time Walter Stankievich visited his native country of Belarus was nearly ten years ago. “It was unpleasant to be there, and the uniformed police forces everywhere made things very unbearable,” he said. “It was a throwback to Soviet times when Russian was the dominant language.”

Stankievich immigrated to the United States in 1949, five years after Aleksandr Lukashenko took power in what many consider to be “the last dictatorship in Europe.”

Today, the Kansas-sized country is crumbling economically and civil society remains under attack. Many Belarusians, like Stankievich, who has found a community in BAZA, a non-profit Belarusian-American organization headquartered in New York, are committed to bringing Belarus into the international discussion.

“Where press is free, Belarus needs to be at the forefront in order for change to occur,” said Stankievich, a retired Belarus broadcast service director for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Freedom House, an NGO dedicated to democratic reform, ranks Belarus among the “10 worst-rated countries” for press freedom. Independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, and any opposition to the government is stifled through imprisonment, torture and other forms of repression.

With no access to objective information, Belarusians are seeking external help.

“I think history to date has provided enough proof that current dictatorships are afraid of international response,” said Piotr Kuzniatzo, chair of the Gomel branch of the Movement for Freedom in Belarus. “We saw in Libya that before European nations began to provide military support, the Libyan people were helpless fighting Qaddafi forces.”

Outside broadcasts can’t be controlled by the Belarusian government, but their reach in Belarus is limited. Unbiased reporting through external radio and television networks, like Poland-based BelSat exist, but they compete with larger, Russian broadcasts for transmission in Belarus.

Since Belarusian newspapers are pro-government and subsidized by the state, readership is limited, and many people have turned to alternative media online. Kuzniato created Strong News, a regional Internet newspaper, and also runs a blog designed to interact with young audiences and promote civil society. Where accessible, the Internet has proven to be the most trusted outlet, and after last year’s disputed presidential election, it has also been an organizing tool for protests.

In December 2010, a government crackdown detained more than 800 Belarusians who were protesting the election results. Dozens of them were journalists and seven of those jailed were presidential candidates.

Ales Mikhalevich, a longtime civic and political activist, was one of the nine opposition candidates to run in the election. After two months of imprisonment in a KGB jail, he ignored the confidentiality restrictions of his detention and went public about the acts of torture and abuse which he and many others suffered.

Belarusian youths reacted to these events, and have since become the new face of protesters. Through online forums, blogs, and social media like Twitter, the power of the Internet has weakened the government’s grasp on the spread of information, and enabled dissidents to organize the silent “hand-clapping” demonstrations, which last year drew international notice.

But the student activists risk expulsion from their state-controlled universities. The KGB’s harsh vigilance of anti-government activity has cast a repressive atmosphere over the country.

“In Belarus, without free media, freedom of speech, there can be no democracy,” said Stankievich.