Trevor Laffan: I pity the people of Belarus, where democracy is in peril

Trevor Laffan recalls visits to Belarus in the 80s and how people lived under oppression - something which doesn't seem to have changed much since
Trevor Laffan: I pity the people of Belarus, where democracy is in peril

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko casts his ballot in an election in Minsk in 2006. He has been accused of election fraud.

BELARUSSIAN people can’t travel outside their country easily. The borders are well marshalled, and the necessary documentation required for them to go abroad can be difficult to come by, which is why the recent movement of large groups of people from Belarus into Poland and Lithuania raised a few eyebrows.

The Belarussian authorities have been accused of sending migrants to Poland as ‘revenge’ for giving refuge to an Olympic sprinter who criticised her management team for forcing her to run a race she hadn’t trained for.

Lithuania has also reported a surge in illegal border crossings from Belarus, which they suspect is being orchestrated by Belsarus President Alexander Lukashenko. That doesn’t surprise me.

Back in the noughties, I spent a bit of time in Belarus while working for Chernobyl charities. The airport in Minsk in those days was a drab affair with no colour and little or no lighting. Everything was a variety of grey and images from old Cold War movies came to mind.

It felt oppressive too. Officials didn’t have much interest in small talk or niceties. On one occasion I was in the airport, returning home after taking a group on a familiarisation trip to areas of the country affected by the fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster. Some of the group had checked in overweight luggage so there were charges to be paid and I was quickly identified as the person responsible for finances.

Before you could say ‘Lukashenko’, two guys appeared next to me, one on either side. These burly men in leather jackets guided me down a long, dark corridor with old wood panelling and glass on both sides, like you would expect to find in a local authority building in Ireland back the fifties.

I was shown into a room where another man sat behind a desk. Nothing was said up to this point and the expressions on these characters’ faces made it clear we were not meeting for tea and scones. I was told how much to pay and readily handed over the cash before being sent back to my group.

I was an experienced police officer at that stage, but I still felt intimidated. While I wasn’t in any danger, I got a sense that you could easily land yourself in trouble in that country.

On another occasion, after spending two weeks eating from tins and cooking on the side of the road, a gang of us gathered the night before the flight home, for a well-deserved decent meal. Fifteen of us entered the restaurant, which was one of only a few that could accommodate a number like that at short notice. After the meal, I got the bill and, as I was the man with the kitty, went off to pay.

By the time I got to the kiosk, the bill had doubled. Annoyed, but not completely surprised, I argued the toss. It wasn’t my money, so I felt responsible for getting value. The discussion came to an abrupt end when, once again, a couple of rough- looking characters appeared beside me. My buddy, Simon Walsh, came to my assistance and it didn’t take us long to realise we were fighting a losing battle, so we quickly decided to pay up and suffer the loss.

That was typical of the atmosphere we operated under in Belarus. It felt as if our every move was being watched; it probably was.

It wasn’t unusual to see the KGB lurking in the shadows when we were in the middle of nowhere delivering aid to remote villages. We just had to tolerate that for a few weeks at a time, unlike the natives who lived permanently under that regime.

Despite their circumstances, we always found the local people to be welcoming, hospitable and friendly. Even though they didn’t have much, they were always willing to share what little they did have. Food and accommodation were always offered, even if it meant doing without themselves.

They don’t have an easy life, and many have accepted their fate because, as far as they’re concerned, nothing will change. They have little hope.

The people of Belarus have no reason to believe in democracy because for them it doesn’t exist.

I remember the first time I was in that country during an election, and I innocently asked our interpreter who he thought would win. A teacher by profession, I knew he would have a good handle on the political landscape, but he just laughed and said Lukashenko would win with 85% of the vote. I asked how he knew this, and he said: “Because he always does.”

There have been many allegations of voter fraud in Belarus since Lukashenko won power in 1994.

When I was there, election posters for him were everywhere, but there was no sign of the other candidates. International observers watched the polling stations for violations, but when the polling ended, the ballot papers were reportedly collected by Lukashenko’s army and taken away to be counted, far from prying eyes.

That was my experience of life under Lukashenko.

That was more than 20 years ago, and I remember telling many at the time that his reign would be short- lived. Pressure from the civilised world would force him out, I told them. The EU was spreading and would soon engulf Belarus.

How wrong was I? If anything, Lukashenko has become even more emboldened and continues his reign of terror without any interference.

The most recent incident he is suspected of being involved in concerns the disappearance of Vitaly Shishov, a 26-year-old Belarusian opposition activist living in the Ukraine.

Those close to Shishov said he was happy with life, and they can’t understand why he was recently found hanged in a forest. There were scratches on his face and opponents of Lukashenko are pointing the finger of suspicion at him.

That’s just one of many crimes Lukashenko has been linked to, but he seems to be untouchable.

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