WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange preaches openness. But in Belarus, Europe’s last dictator is using once-secret U.S. cables to go after dissidents.
“If I am not arrested tomorrow, we can talk,” Sergey told me from his home in Minsk via Skype. We agreed to meet the next morning at Yakub Kolas Square, named for the famous Belarusian poet, where a protest against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ president, was planned for 11 a.m. Public assembly is a crime in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, and challenging Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet state since 1994, can result in anything from detention in the country’s fetid prison cells to torture at the hands of its secret police, which still goes by its old Soviet name: the KGB.
Despite these risks, Belarusians gather regularly to protest their dictator. Sergey, a 22-year-old student at the Belarusian State University, is one of the members of this opposition movement. Using closed Internet networks, he and his friends—young, educated, and technologically savvy—post details for protests, which they try to hold every Wednesday in a different part of Minsk. When they pull it off, landmarks like October Square and Independence Avenue, near Lukashenko’s office, transform into theaters of political dissidence.
Embarrassed by its failure to prevent the opposition from gathering, the KGB is vicious in its handling of the protesters. At these protests, tracksuited thugs often tackle the protesters to the ground and drag them by their necks to waiting buses. The crowd winnows as others run away. Those that remain are left screaming, like farm animals being transported to the abattoir.
Yakub Kolas Square was empty when I arrived that July morning. Plain-clothed KGB officers stood in the corners of the square and on the steps of the subway station, peering at passersby and whispering into black handsets. The Internet empowers, but it does not discriminate. It’s vital for the opposition, but the regime, at least sometimes, is able to harness it for its own purposes. On this particular morning, the government had some success: The protest never materialized. Men and women, most in their 20s, emerged from the subway, looked around furtively, and then walked away. Two hours later, Sergey approached me at a kiosk close to the square.
The KGB had cleared out by then, but we decided to walk toward the older quarter of Minsk. Over a lunch of vegetables and rice at a restaurant on the banks of the Svisloch River, Sergey was despondent. The regime had just proven that it could corner him at his own game—the Internet, the opposition’s only refuge—and he was still absorbing the full implications of what that meant. “For 17 years, Lukashenko is the only president our country has known. Why does Europe ignore us? Fuck realpolitik,” he told me. This is a familiar reproach. Virtually everyone in the opposition—from the members of Belarus Free Theatre to graffiti artists in Minsk—openly scorns the West for not intervening in Belarus.
Sergey’s parents are academics, but in Lukashenko’s artificial economy the value of their earnings drops every day. Things worsened dramatically over the summer. A number of people Sergey knew, including his parents and some members of the university faculty, were receiving regular threats from the KGB. They were told that the regime had plans to expose them as foreign agents and parade them on live television.
“This is my country, I want to stay here, but I don’t want to die,” Sergey said as he explained that his parents were now looking for work in Ukraine and Poland. “I really hate WikiLeaks. How can they do this?” What did WikiLeaks have to do with the situation, I asked. Sergey replied: “The KGB is telling these people, ‘Your name is in the American cables and you are a traitor, an American agent, and you will be treated like an enemy of the country.’ ”
In December 2010, Israel Shamir, a WikiLeaks content aggregator in Russia, traveled to Belarus with a cache of unredacted American diplomatic cables concerning Belarus. (At the time, these unredacted cables were not available online.) He met Lukashenko’s chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, handed over the documents to the government, and stayed in the country to observe the presidential elections. Lukashenko pronounced himself the winner on Dec. 19, 2010, with nearly 80 percent of the vote. His nearest opponent, the leading dissident Andrei Sannikov, is now serving out a five-year prison sentence and is reportedly being tortured.
The same month that Shamir was in Minsk on behalf of WikiLeaks, the American left-wing journal Counterpunch published an article by Shamir in which he extolled Lukashenko (“The president of Belarus … walks freely among his people”), derided the dictator’s opponents (“The pro-Western ‘Gucci’ crowd,” Shamir called them), and credited WikiLeaks with exposing America’s “agents” in Belarus (“WikiLeaks has now revealed how … undeclared cash flows from the U.S. coffers to the Belarus ‘opposition’ ”).
He has a Jewish-sounding name, but Shamir is a dangerous anti-Semite. Will Yakowicz, who interviewed Shamir in Moscow for a Tablet Magazine profile, concluded that he is an anti-Semitic Holocaust-doubter. An exhaustive investigation carried out by the Norwegian anti-racist magazine Monitor found that Shamir has a long history of association with European fascist parties. He has changed his name several times, published anti-Semitic articles, and falsely claimed to be a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Shamir was also in the habit of offering himself as a speaker at white-supremacist conventions in return for a small fee, daily expenses, flight tickets, and hotel accommodations for him and his wife. (WikiLeaks has since tried to distance itself from Shamir, but recent revelations by a former WikiLeaks staffer suggest that he was an influential part of the organization.)
In January 2011, Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper, began serializing what it claimed to be extracts from the cables gifted to Lukashenko by Shamir. Among the figures “exposed” as recipients of foreign cash were Sannikov, the defeated opposition presidential candidate; Oleg Bebenin, Sannikov’s press secretary, who was found dead in suspicious circumstances months before the elections; and Vladimir Neklyayev, the writer and former president of Belarus PEN, who also ran against Lukashenko and is now under house arrest. Because virtually every opposition leader was already under arrest at the time Shamir leaked the cables, the publication of these documents served to bolster, rather than prompt, the regime’s crackdown in the immediate aftermath of the presidential elections.
But the damage inflicted by Shamir’s WikiLeaks cache didn’t end last year. As I learned from Sergey and other opposition figures, the leaked cables have harmed the lower rungs of the opposition movement. Having targeted the leadership of the opposition, Lukashenko is now going after dissident intellectuals. The hope? By the time Sannikov and his colleagues serve out their sentences, their base will have been decimated.
Other than what the regime printed in its newspapers, it isn’t clear what the cables contain. But the fear that Lukashenko may know something about the opposition figures that they do not know about themselves has bred paranoia among the opposition. That fear yields submission—which is happy news for Lukashenko.
As I was paying the lunch bill, one of Sergey’s professors joined us. Sergey had messaged him earlier. The professor told me that he was teaching as many as 12 students privately in order to survive. “Tell WikiLeaks I am not an American agent,” he said. “I am a Belarusian democrat.”
This professor said he worked briefly with the International Exchanges and Research Board, an educational initiative funded by the United States that operates in more than 50 countries, including India, Israel, Brazil, and Turkey. The “undeclared cash” that Shamir claimed the United States was pouring into the coffers of the Belarusian opposition was a deliberate mischaracterization of this legitimate educational funding. The professor told me the board played absolutely no role in subverting the regime—as if he had something to prove. Unlike Sergey, the professor spoke very little English, and his dress and demeanor could not have been further from the Gucci-clad caricature invented by Shamir for Counterpunch.
Later, Sergey and his professor dropped me off at Yama, an immense pit in the middle of Minsk. It was dug up in March 1942 by Jewish workers acting on the orders of occupying Nazi forces. On the Jewish holiday of Purim that year, 5,000 Jews were brought to the pit and shot dead.
Today, Yama stands as a memorial to evil. But the prejudices that culminated there have clearly not abated. An organization sustained and celebrated by many in the West dispatches a Holocaust-denying bigot to arm a dictatorship that extols Adolf Hitler. An American journal that claims to be progressive offers its pages to a fascist shilling for a dictator. And an anarchist named Julian Assange cheerfully peddles theories of “Jewish conspiracy” as he leaks documents that endanger other peoples’ lives.
I wanted to ask Sergey if he had a message for WikiLeaks and its Western supporters before I left Belarus. But I couldn’t reach him. A diplomatic source suggested that he might have been detained, and it seemed plausible. Every Wednesday, the day of the protest, hundreds of parents queue up outside the city’s prisons, searching through registries and pleading for information about their children. The extent to which WikiLeaks and Israel Shamir have endangered the lives of pro-democracy activists in Belarus will become chillingly clear as innocent men and women continue to disappear.
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