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Missing Father

A Belarusian leader disappears mysteriously. His daughter takes her mourning and commemoration public. Europe’s last dictator is faced with a blue jeans revolution.

“Dear friends, this is my father, Anatoly Krasovsky, this is his friend Viktor Gonchar. On the 16th of September 1999, their lives have probably...” I initiated my speech on the 7th anniversary of my father‘s disappearance with their pictures right behind me. 10.000 people were watching me. They gathered to commemorate the memory of my father and the other 3 “disappeared“ people of Belarus at this Big Jeans Fest on a sunny day in Minsk at Bangalor square. I saw sympathy in their eyes, support, solidarity; I felt somehow excited. Six years ago, my mother, me and only two others travelled here to Fabrichnaya street, to commemorate where my father had last been seen a year before.

During every commemoration of those who disappeared in Belarus , I asked myself: how many people would come today? I was afraid that I’d find myself alone on the street. The speech at the Big Jeans Fest was so exciting, because these people didn’t forget and attended regardless of the disfunctional public transportation , as usually happens when there is a demonstration or protest against Lukashenko. The students and school pupils attended regardless of their extra activities, such as a sudden cleaning of the campus. This was, to some extent, a happy day for me, if one may use this word in such a situation of uncertainty.

I remember the night my father did not come home as if it was yesterday. I woke up at four in the morning and saw my mother in the kitchen. She had not gone to bed yet. I asker her what had happened and whether Dad was home yet. She negated, and said that his and Viktor’s mobiles were off. She told me to go back to bed and that everything will be alright. It hasn’t been that since then. In the morning we called the police. They showed no eagerness to cooperate. I had to go to university My mother contacted some friends of my father and Viktor and went to the place they had an appointment the evening before: a public bath on Fabrichnaya street. Pieces of glass belonging to a Jeep Cherokee, the car my father was driving, were found at the place of incident, as well as traces of blood later identified as Viktor Gonchar´s.

It is hard to explain what I felt during those days. The complete understanding of what had happened came to me much later. I had not ever known that a human being could have disappeared without a trace; I could not comprehend it. My mother, my sister, and I were waiting for Dad to come back. We thought the strange situation would be resolved soon. Only after some years I started to doubt whether my father would come back.

We decided to transform the yearly commemoration to a monthly one in September 2005, the same month that youth leader Nikita Sasim waved his blue jeans shirt in the air. These jeans became a symbol of revolution that spread beyond pure commemoration. Sasim became so popular among young people that the government felt forced to take measures. Five days before the elections of March, 2006, Sasim was arrested and held for three months without trial. He was thus not able to organise young people. The first court hearing was planned for May 4th.

That the meeting on September 16th 2006 was not forbidden or prevented by the police must have been due to the negative attention heaped upon Lukashenko after the tent-protests in the March of 2006. These followed the flawed elections and, later in March, 1000 people were arrested during the Den Voli demonstration on independence day, the 25th. No one dared to forbid the commemoration. There were posters all over the city, banners in the internet, stickers on lampposts and so on. Permission or not, this was going to happen, as some must have feared repeated negative attention. At the moment, everyone in Belarus has heard of our marches on the 16th of each month. You can find grafitti with the number 16 in Minsk. We have organised events in other countries: in Poland and the United States also on a monthly basis, and other events in Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, France, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and others.

This Big Jeans Fest was also exceptional, as the police didn’t arrest anyone as they usually do. One month earlier, I was visiting Minsk on the 16th, the monthly day of solidarity. I arrived at the scene of a planned event across from the Russian embassy. Some people were standing there, among them a friend of mine. She said I had just missed it. Four buses with police had arrived a few minutes earlier and taken everyone along. She could not finish her story. Four further buses pulled up, full of men in camouflage, ready to arrest the rest of us holding our peaceful action. Everyone tried to run away, including me. But within a few seconds I realised I would not be able to escape. Those men were many times bigger and faster than me, and the hatred in their eyes was closing down. I decided to stop. As they didn’t expect this, they ran after the others without going after me. I had survived, this time at least. The entire evening, I received phone calls from worried friends who had heard from the media that I had been among the arrested.

The attention reminded me of a lengthy article dedicated to the the disappearance of my father. It appeared five years ago in an extremely popular tabloid, “Komsomolskaya pravda.” A large photo of my mother and me was printed above the article. After its publication, I first experienced strangers approaching me on the street speaking words of sympathy and regret. They recognised my face and felt a need to express their solidarity. But there was also another kind of experience due to the article. Once, I entered the supermarket Centralny, eating an apple I had bought elsewhere. I was immediately confronted by a security guard, who claimed I had stolen the apple. Not listening to my explanations that my apple was obviously different from the ones they sold, he called the police. Together, he and policeman spent six hours threatening me and telling dirty “jokes”, such as: “now you’ll see what will happen to your smart face” or “we have the whole night to play with you.” They had recognised me from the article and used whatever means they had to show who was in power. I knew they would not dare to do anything to me except talking. What made me really sad was the knowledge they would never be punished for depriving me of my freedom for those long hours.

Back to the Jeans Fest. After I and other opposition leaders, including opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, spoke, a big rock concert took place. Musicians are usually deprived of performance possibilities in Belarusian locations due to a perceived lack of loyalty to the regime. Many people were there who I hadn’t seen in an age, among them a highschool classmate of mine, Denis. He had been arrested and sentenced to a 15 day imprisonment for taking part in the tent-protests following the March 2006 elections. He used to be such a calm person, few really knew him; then suddenly I see his name in the media. He had been arrested on the square like so many others. He had gone into hunger strike during his imprisonment. It dawned on me: this quiet classmate was one of us!

At the festival he, told me stories of his imprisonment, the way people there would tell jokes all the time. A few days after his release, he even received a bill for his stay in prison. We laughed at their refusal of his wish for a discount, as he hadn’t touched their food. He later told me he paid the fee to not get into further trouble. Foreign human rights organisations reimbursed some of the 1000 arrested, but, unluckily, he was not among them. The 40 dollars he paid is a lot here in Belarus. Denis lost 15 kilos during his hunger strike and had to be treated by a doctor afterward. He didn’t think it safe to tell the reason for his weight loss. He told his doctor he had starting dieting, but that he had decided to go off the diet again.

Most of the participants of the Big Jeans Fest were dressed in jeans. Jeans shirts were waved in the air like freedom flags. An hour before the end of the Fest, the electricity was shut off. The official story was that an accident had happened, but I know the police had meant to annoy us. People continued to sing together in the dark, they lit candles and even lit fireworks. At the end, the musicians, among others Krama, Neiro Dubel, and Tovarish Mauzer, appeared on stage and sang popular hits through megaphones. One song commemorated to my father ended with the words “There are people in camouflage in our city but Belarus will soon be free!” I couldn’t have said it better.

Author: Valeriya Krasovskaya

Photos: Charter97.org

1990-2007

1990

Belarus declares its national sovereignty on July, 27th.

1991

Soviet Union becomes Commonwealth of Independent States Lukashenko claims to be the only one in the Supreme Soviet to vote against it

1993

Lukashenko elected as chair of anti-corruption committee of parliament

1994

Lukashenko wins the first presidential elections and becomes president on July 20th

1996

70 of 199 members of the Belarusian parliament sign a petition to impeach Lukashenko on charges of violating the Constitution Lukashenko organises a referendum for new constitution. United States and European Union refuse to accept it‘s legitimacy.

1999

During Kosovo War, Lukashenko proposes a Slavic Union consisting of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia. The plan doesn't last. May 7th, Opposition activist and former Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko disappears. September 16th, Opposition leader Victor Gonchar and his associate Anatoly Krasov disappear

2000

July 7th, Television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky working for Russian Public Television ORT, 1994-1997 personal photographer of Lukashenko, disappears

2001

Lukashenko is re-elected on September 9th, Western states criticise the elections, Russia accepts them.

2003

Iraqi officials not welcome in the United States after the first Iraq war are given Belarusian passports for travelling around the world.

2004

Lukashenko holds referendum that allows unlimited re elections and wins. Western states criticise, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) say no significant violations took place

2006

March 19th, Lukashenko wins elections. The OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co operation in Europe) doesn't accept them, CIS talk about open and transparent elections. The following days, 10.000 demonstrants protest against the elections. Young people camp in overnight on October square. Pro tests stopped by authorities. March 25th, Dan Voli, liberation day. Thousands of people demonstrate where opposition leaders Milinkevich and Kozulin give speeches. More than 1000 demonstrators are arrested. July 13th, opposition leader Alexander Kozulin is convicted for 5,5 years. September 16th, 10.000 people gather on October square to commemorate the disappeared people. The authorities do nothing.

2007

Russia halts its deliveries to Belarus of energy for prices under market value. March 25th, Dan Voli, liberation day. Large demonstrations are announced.

What happened to Anatoly Krasovsky and Victor Gonchar?

1999 was a year of bitter confrontation between the government of Alexander Lukashenko and his opponents, as a considerable number of Lukashenko‘s opponents closed ranks.. Three years before, Lukashenko held a referendum to modify the Belarusian constitution. He intended to increase his power over the country and to extend the length of his term in office to seven years. International observers stated that the referendum did not conform to international standards and the opposition did not recognise the outcome.

According to the old constitution, presidential elections should have taken place in 1999. The former parliament had been planning to hold presidential elections, ignoring the dictates of new version of the constitution. New presidential elections after fi ve instead of seven years would not only threaten the position of president Lukashenko, but also would prove the new Constitution illegal. Viktor Gonchar, deputy chairman of the former parliament, and his friend, prominent publisher Anatoly Krasovsky, who partially financed the opposition movement, were put under surveillance and their telephones bugged. This surveillance and telephone bugging officially ended on September 16, 1999 – hours before Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky disappeared.

The law enforcement agencies started an investigation into the case; however, all known evidence has been collected by volunteers. This includes windscreen fragments of Mr. Krasovsky‘s car used that day found on Fabrichnaya Street in Minsk, Traces of blood were also discovered, identified as Mr. Gonchar’s by an independent expert examination.

From the year 2000 onward, the United Nations has issued several resolutions ordering Belarus to investigate the disappearences, the last one on November 2nd, 2006. As of yet, nothing has happened.

"Lukashenko has never kept a promise"

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert is a member of the European parliament for the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats in Europe (ALDE). She’s worried about the position of the European Union towards Belarus. Indigo asked her to describe the situation, and what actions the European Union should take.

„Until recently, the situation concerning Belarus was quite clear. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko has a firm grip over the country and enough power to keep the weak and divided opposition under control. He managed to suppress the protests in March, 2006 after the clearly falsified elections. He kept a strong position within his own political elite and manages to frustrate opposition leaders. Non-state newspapers cannot be distributed, parties are repressed, and opposition activists sit in jail.”

„With massive economic support coming from the direction of Russian president Putin, the Belarusian economy was more or less stable. Alexander Lukashenko considered himself to be the best friend of Putin. And, although the West firmly rejected Lukashenko as a ‘negotiation partner,’ it was divided on the approach to be taken towards Belarus as its energy supplies and (much more) are at stake..”

Wrong horse

„Things have changed due to the oil- and gas conflict between Putin and Lukashenko. Moscow is less and less willing to subsidise Belarus through, for example, extremely low gas prices. The fixed roles have therefore changed and all players are now taking up new positions. Lukashenko is suddenly of the opinion that Putin gives him too little respect and is therefore not longer striving for a Union of Russia and Belarus. Lukashenko, on his own conditions of course, is now even ‘flirting’ with the EU. In an interview, he said: ‚I learn quickly. I backed the wrong horse.‘ These recent developments awakened hope amongst some European leaders that perhaps now Lukashenko will become reasonable. In my view this is, however, a dangerous thought. Lukashenko has never kept a promise and will never do so. The only motive behind his actions is to secure his own position.”

Increased pressure needed

„It is therefore extremely important not to be fooled by his supposedly ‘good intentions.’ It must be clear that activists, opposition organisations, journalists, representatives of trade unions etc. are still repressed and/or in jail. Freedom of speech does not exist in Belarus. Following the logic of Lukashenko, the West should recognise him as a full partner without insisting on conditions such as freedom and democracy. If the West were to be seduced to do so, we would in fact support Lukashenko in maintaining his personal power. As a start, the European Union should increase pressure on Lukashenko to release political prisoners, following the lead of the Council of Europe. For now, Belarus denies holding any political prisoner. The Council of Europe has proposed an investigation. The outcome of the investigation shall be binding for Belarus. However, the Council of Europe is still awaiting the answer to this proposal from the Belarusian government. It would be beneficial if the European Union would be much louder and stand side by side in its support with those fighting Lukashenko’s evil regime. However, at this very moment the EU already encounters difficulties speaking with one voice. National interests are undermining a coherent and decisive approach against dictator Lukashenko.”

Interview: Joeri Oudshoorn


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