Belarus: At the Heart of Europe's Last Dictatorship

Belarus: At the Heart of Europe's Last Dictatorship

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They will soon be in Ukraine. The Belarusians heat up their tank engines. Apart from this one. Although it may look threatening, it's actually reserved for tourists like us.

In Belarus, journalists are not welcomed. So to avoid being spotted, we pretended to be tourists to understand why this country has become a strategic ally of Russia. The nostalgia of the former USSR can be seen throughout the country, particularly the Stalin Line, a bit like the Maginot Line from the Second World War of the Soviet Empire.

Yes, because 20 soldiers crossed back 10 days, they couldn't leave, they slept and shot from there. Please come inside. In order not to arouse suspicion, we filmed with our phones and inconspicuous cameras. However, if our guide doubts us even slightly, he's obliged to denounce us.

This ammunition cannot shoot. -Yes, it's very heavy. Yes, its time speed is 12 shots per minute. You push this hook inside. Outside, we witness a shooting session with live ammunition this time.

Today, some extras are also rehearsing a battle. The image sends shivers down our spine as at the same time, the sound of marching resounds from the border, which separates Belarus and Ukraine. Over there, it's no longer a mere rehearsal. President Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin have reached a decision. In three days, the 30,000 men of the Russian army stationed in Belarus will invade Ukraine.

[Russian spoken audio] We have infiltrated one of the most secret and isolated countries in the world at the worst time. We began rather relaxed, but our smiles from those first days quickly gave way to anxiety. Our trip did not go as planned.

Belarus is very often labeled as the last dictatorship in Europe. Its president, the almighty Alexander Lukashenko, is determined to defy the world. In his country, international law does not exist. To arrest an opponent, he hijacks an airliner. Europe imposes sanctions on him.

He punishes them by sending hundreds of thousands of refugees to its borders. [Russian spoken audio] Demonstrators demand his resignation. Lukashenko orders his police to shoot them. Why is he not afraid of anyone? Because he has pledged his allegiance to the Russian Goliath. Vladimir Putin protects him. Ally and accomplice, the two men used the same methods.

Today, like North Korea, this totalitarian state is completely closed to the Western world. However, we managed to spend almost two weeks here pretending to be tourists, in which we were able to meet his opponents who live on the edge. [Russian spoken audio] A permanent surveillance which oppresses the Belarusian youth and forces them to live in fear. We don't trust anyone these days, we don't trust you. Okay, no problem.

I don't know whether or not you're a fucking agent or something like that? What? Many flee the country to avoid prison. Yesterday, I received letter, with a threat to decapitate me. [Russian spoken audio] Even four year old children are not safe from the barbarity of the KGB, the Belarusian secret police. They sent to every kindergarten a video and asked the director if they find the kid to contact them. At a that time when Vladimir Putin is doing everything in his power to get his hands on Ukraine, we will explore a world that we thought had disappeared, a frightening taste of what could await Ukraine in case of defeat. [French spoken audio] For one year, Europe has forbidden all planes to land in Belarus.

So the first stop of our trip is Istanbul. Why such a sanction? President Alexander Lukashenko has hijacked a plane before, a case worthy of James Bond. In May 2021, he sent a jet fighter to intercept a Ryanair plane passing over Belarus.

He hijacks it and forces it to land in Minsk. The official reason, there's a bomb on board. Once the plane landed, instead of the police searching for explosives they arrest a passenger. The journalist, Roman Protasevich, an opponent of the regime who had taken refuge abroad.

After his arrest, as if by chance on national television, he confesses to being a dangerous agitator. [Russian spoken audio] Lukashenko acts outside of international law, we are warned, even before arriving in Belarus. We land in Minsk at the end of the day. The post-Soviet capital of 2 million inhabitants, has all the qualities of a modern city.

In order to remain as secret as possible, we book a guest room. Since the Ryanair affair, friendly greetings to Europeans are rare. The owner is very surprised to see French people. Perfect, it's beautiful here.

Are there a lot of tourists in Minsk these days? Now, they are few because it's very difficult to come here. I will need your passport to confirm your identity. You need a picture? -Yes. No problem. As in any police state, the owner is obliged to pass on our passports so that they can be checked.

Do you have Internet here? -Yes. Is there limitation of... -No. Like in France, we stay in separate rooms? We are surprised, the internet is free but it's impossible to know if the network is monitored. We are wary of it.

The next morning we leave to explore Minsk. The best way to evaluate the purchasing power of a Belarusian is to go shopping. Even if the cost of living is almost three times lower than in France most people avoid entering supermarkets like this one.

In the capital, the average salary does not exceed €450. and in the countryside it's limited to €200. The supermarket has been designed for the upper-middle classes, like those who work in the country's growth sectors. Farms, oil refineries and fertilizers.

There is a question on our minds. As a foreign tourist, can we walk in the streets of the capital without being followed by a plain clothed policeman, as in the times of the former USSR? We made an appointment with a local guide. In order to pass unnoticed, we will film everything with our phones like real tourists. I will be your guide. So this is the oldest city standing like old lady, but looking like a young woman. Of course, it looks so modern as it was devastated to ashes It was devastated and burned 17 times as you mentioned.

There are still some Grand Orthodox churches and especially vestiges of its Soviet past. As with this monument erected to the glory of the comrades, or this one dedicated to the soldiers of the Red Army, fallen on the battlefield at the time of the sickle and hammer. This is where we commemorate our guys who participated in the Afghanistan war. We came to Afghanistan from the Soviet Union back in 1979. While walking we look discreetly around us, but in our two hour visit there is no sign of surveillance or forced order.

We only see one soldier and one police car. We tell the guide about our realisation, but her answer quickly brings us back to reality. You will not see lots of people or lots of soldiers but they are everywhere. It's normal not to have them. It's so peaceful in the city because of the past years that they took people... People no longer make any trouble in the city center because they will be in trouble.

We were imagining cops will be everywhere but no. You will not see them. They are here. -They are here. For our guide, it's a good marketing strategy.

Belarus has become the ideal place to spend safe vacations. For now, Belarus is really safe. I mean, in terms of visiting, if you are a foreigner, if you are a tourist, you will come.

There are no restrictions. There is nothing, you can no go everywhere. Everything looks very normal. Not completely. The actions of its president, who constantly flouts human rights, doesn't provide much reassurance. I had two reservations in March but people cancelled, because of the restrictions to come.

If the political situation changes, maybe the tourists will come back. It will never change. Her low register says a lot about the terror that Alexander Lukashenko has on the whole country. So who is this man that some describe as the last European dictator? Alexander Lukashenko was born in 1954, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Belarus.

He grew up in a peasant family, but the man was ambitious. After the army, he quickly climbed the ladder. The party entrusted him with the management of a state farm, and then the reins of a building materials factory. His life changes in 1989.

The USSR collapses with the Berlin Wall but he takes flight. He was elected deputy of the young Belarusian Republic at 37 years old. We meet a man who knew him closely. Anatoly Libertgo was close to the President before becoming a pariah in his eyes. However, he was part of the first circle of the President's friends in the early 90's. [Russian spoken audio] In 1991, after the fall of the Socialist Republic, Belarusians discovered what life was like to be without restrictions, a life of freedom with abundant supermarkets.

The young deputy, Lukachenko discovered his talent for speaking in public. [Russian spoken audio] A strategy that paid off. In 1994, although he was not the most loved, Alexander Lukashenko became the first Belarusian president. In Belarus, Lukashenko was elected with 80 percent of the votes.

He quickly showed his true colors. [Russian spoken audio] President Lukashenko decided everything by himself. [Russian spoken audio] In 1996, in order to extend his mandate from five to seven years, Alexander Lukashenko tries to modify the Constitution.

Eighty-nine out of 110 deputies are strongly opposed to it. The sanction is severe. He adjourns the parliament and sends the rebels to detention.

Even his old friends, like Anatoly Lebedko, who dared to rebel, suffered the same fate as the others in a prison that looked like this one. [Russian spoken audio] Anatoly Lebedko drew the horror of his detention cell. Here, the guards who dressed entirely in black and who tried to break him day after day. [Russian spoken audio] The president's disgraced friend spent 108 days in prison.

[Russian spoken audio] Between 1994 and 2020, Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected six times with over 80 percent of the votes. None of these elections were validated by the international community. [Russian spoken audio] For 30 years Lukashenko has been consolidating his power at the expense of his people, whose freedoms are constantly decreasing.

The youth is the first to suffer. In Minsk, at nightfall, young people meet in the bars that animate the streets of the historical center. We go to one of the most famous, known for its live concerts. Local bands play rock classics.

A place to party like in any other country, according to the bouncer. [Russian language spoken] A gin and tonic please. Everything seems normal until we start the conversation.

Do you have a lighter? Mistrust reigns. I'm travelling, on holidays. Here? -Yes. Holidays here? -Yes. You are traveling to have holidays here. -Yes, sure. Are you fucking out of your mind? Sorry, what? Are you fucking out of your mind? You come here to Belarus.

The most fucking unsafe country right now in the world, Do you even know what's going on here? No. -Really? You don't want to tell me? No, I don't know you. I don't know if you're a fucking agent or something like that. What? -Agent. I could go to jail right now for saying a couple of words, like "I don't agree with that."

You go to jail right away for 40 days. That's the reason why you don't trust anyone these days. Okay, no problem. -No, politics talk, just chilling.

These young Belarusians belong for the most part, to the educated middle class, which has emerged in recent years in the country. They are the ones who are particularly targeted by the government. What are you doing here? They hate us. They try to raise taxes for us so we look like we're the enemy of government. We're thinking too much, we're much too clever. When you meet people that you don't know, for example, in the work and stuff, are you afraid of talking about that? -Absolutely.

We cannot talk about politics in the street. Maybe you can but please don't try it. Twenty percent of people could either be cops or informers.

I think this government is planning to make this country look like North Korea with the situation. More than 80 percent of Belarusians are educated Europeans are free people. That's the reason why you are comfortable with us. Let's drink like never before like it's the last time in our lives. Have the time to meet some people. Belarus is the only country of the former USSR to have kept the name KGB to refer to its secret police, and it has lost nothing of its formidable efficiency.

The KGB arrests and imprisons without needing any justification. We are expected one hour from the capital in one of the big cities located in the west of the country. In order not to attract attention, the person we are going to meet has formally forbidden us to speak French and English on the street.

On the 25th of June 2020, Daria’s husband was arrested by the KGB. [Russian language spoken] Igor, her husband, a freelance journalist, ran a news channel on the Internet. His articles were not openly critical of the government. After a sham trial he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for disturbing the peace.

[Russian language spoken] After her husband's arrest, Daria resigned from her job as a civil servant. It was impossible for her to continue working for the state that separated her three year old daughter from her father. [Russian language spoken] Whenever she can, on social networks, Daria criticizes the state, but she tries never to cross the line.

[Russian language spoken] As a dissident, Daria is entitled to special treatment. [Russian language spoken] So Daria asks us to be quiet. Only our translator is allowed to ask questions in Russian.

[Russian language spoken] Daria goes to visit her husband twice a week, but the couple is forbidden to touch each other. [Russian language spoken] Despite the risks, Daria agreed to speak openly. She doesn't want to hide anymore. [Russian language spoken] We won't go with her to prison, the risk of being arrested is too high. For the past few years, people like Daria have dared to speak out and challenge the absolute power of their president and sometimes it ends in a bloodbath. Today in Belarus, it's forbidden to dress in red and white.

The colours of the former flag of the country became the rallying sign of opponents. In the summer of 2020, during the last presidential election, Alexander Lukashenko was faced with a problem, this lady here. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya entered the presidential race the day her husband, a famous opponent, was imprisoned. The English teacher knew how to wake up the people who didn't dare to rebel. She made them realize that the infinite power of Alexander Lukashenko was not indestructible. [Russian language spoken] Unsurprisingly, Alexander Lukashenko won votes that would make anyone nostalgic of the Soviet era envious, 80 percent of the votes.

Immediately, the authoritarian president warns those who wish to contest this result. [Russian language spoken] Except that this time his people do not conform and instead rebel. Hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets with the slogan. [Russian language spoken] As promised, his response is fatal. The president gives the order to shoot the crowd.

A dozen deaths, hundreds of injuries, tens of thousands of arrests and he was not finished there. During the following weeks, the KGB is peeled to social networks. No demonstrator can escape them. A video attracts their attention. It goes viral on the Belarusian web.

[Russian language spoken] This little four year old boy, also in red and white, has become one of the symbols of resistance. As such, the KGB started to pursue him. The story of this pursuit is hardly believable. For a year and a half, Viktor and his mother have been hiding in Lithuania. [Russian language spoken] The video trended, they put in Forbes and everywhere. Some people called me from America and said are you crazy? You need to run away immediately.

I said, come on he's just a kid. Nobody expects such big pressure on these things. The Belarusian KGB knows that martyrs and symbols do much more harm than the best of speakers. To find Viktor, the secret police launches a titanic program, sifting through all the schools of the capital and its suburbs.

They sent every kindergarten the video and asked directors if they find this kid just to call them. The director called me and said, oh, come to our kindergarten. I said, oh, it's still warm, we are outside of the city.

I will come soon. My friend understood because she saw it and she recognized him. She called me and she said, don't go to kindergarten. Irina fled, leaving everything behind. She had to abandon her business, her family and particularly her husband, a demonstrator.

He was imprisoned a few days before the video of his son. Today he has been in prison for a year and a half for simply wanting to express his discontent. The whole of Europe condemns this savage repression. President Lukashenko is weakened, but he still receives strong support, that of their Russian big brother. According to Jean de Gliniasty, former diplomat specialist in eastern countries, between the two men, their relationship is one of love and hate.

Vladimir Putin would like to replace him, but he has no choice but to support him. [French and Russian spoken audio] The unlimited violence used to repress demonstrations and the hijacking of the Ryanair plane have led Europe to tighten the sanctions against Belarus. They are far from destabilizing the country. Jean de Gliniasty explains that with Alexander Lukashenko, it's an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. [Russian spoken audio] The Belarusian authorities charter several planes to Iraq. They come back loaded with thousands of migrants to whom they promised fast access to Europe.

Only... Illegal border crossing is forbidden, you will face criminal charges. It's too late, the trap has closed. The Belarusian policemen prevent the migrants from turning back and force them to move forward with truncheons. Blocked in a no man's land, with temperatures approaching minus 30, some die of cold. A humanitarian crisis breaks out.

Alexander Lukashenko accuses Europeans of mistreatment. [Russian spoken audio] While the migrant crisis is in full swing, Vladimir Putin and the Belarusian president have an ice hockey match. The master of the Kremlin is playing in the same team as Alexander Lukashenko. This is a very clear message addressed to the whole world. Sanctioning Belarus is to attack Russia.

[Russian spoken audio] In exchange for the support, the Belarusian president lets Vladimir Putin install his army along the border with Ukraine. Officially, it's only a question of joint military maneuvers between the two countries. The international community is worried and there is reason to be.

Satellite images show that the Russian army occupies no less than five military fields and four air bases. They are also installing high tech equipment, as shown in these images from the Russian Ministry of Defence with its impressive anti-aircraft batteries in place. The morning of February 24th, we're in Minsk, and we discover at the same time as the rest of the world, the announcement of war. [Russian spoken audio] Russian troops stationed in Belarus are invading Ukraine.

We start to feel a little tense. France strongly condemns the attack, and we're surely the last French tourists in the country now. We fear that the KGB will start to dig into our backgrounds and discover that we are journalists. Today, we have a meeting with an opponent, but when we call her, bad news, she refuses to meet us.

[French spoken audio] The opponent advised us to change our accommodation quickly. She fears for our safety. A few hours later, we arrived in a new guest house at the other end of the city. However, we don't feel calm. We do a quick inspection just to make sure ears are not hidden in the walls.

We look around the street. It seems we were not followed, but it's impossible to be sure. Our biggest fear is to be arrested for espionage. As we feared, our trip in Belarus will end badly. Vladimir Putin did not choose to invade Ukraine on February the 24th by chance. It marks the holiday of the defender of the Fatherland.

This holiday, which dates back to the former USSR, is celebrated throughout Belarus with parades and reenactments of battles like this one. We are shocked that the festivities have not been cancelled, while on the other side of the border, men are killing each other. Here, extras reenact war.

[Russian spoken audio] Among the spectators, there are many nostalgic for the father of peoples and the lost splendor of the Soviet Union. So, of course, Putin supporters are present in large numbers, and for them, this war with Ukraine is well justified. [Russian spoken audio] Many Belarusians watch only Russian TV channels and this is evident from the speech of this extra, a carbon copy of Putin. [Russian spoken audio] In Belarus, not everyone is pro-Russian nor pro-war. Quite the contrary.

This is what this taxi driver explains to us as we film discreetly. [Russian spoken audio] The man would never have spoken openly. The dome of terror that covers the country is having its effect. The fear of prison silences part of the population. The few brave ones who dare, are quickly dealt with by plain clothes policemen, as in this video.

Fleeing the country is the only way to criticise the government without risking ending up in a prison cell. Political opposition go into exile in the neighboring country of Lithuania. Its capital, Vilnius, is only 170 kilometers from Minsk. Today, it hosts a large part of anti-Lukashenko demonstrators, starting with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took refuge here a year ago. The English teacher, who had the courage to confront the tyrant president during the presidential elections of 2020.

Not surprisingly, she lost because of rigged elections. Today, she demands the presidency. Threatened with death, she went into exile here with a close bodyguard. For her, the danger is real.

So before meeting Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, we must show our credentials. After the search, we are confined in a room or rather in this safety lock. Yes, this is the border between the open part of our office, closed part and public part. -Okay, so we don't go there? Yes.

Anna Gasolina, the press officer is not kidding, threats are daily. Yesterday, I received anonymous letter, maybe from KGB agent with threat to decapitate me. This is the first time you receive that? No, I have received lot.

She has reason to take it very seriously. Last summer, Vitaly Shishov, another opponent, was found hanged in Kiev. The Ukrainian police suspect a murder disguised as suicide. His colleagues accused the Belarusian KGB. The president in exile finally shows herself.

Like a head of state, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has many meetings with European diplomats. Today, she met with the ambassadors of the Czech Republic and Spain. Fifteen, 20 minutes. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya assures us that as soon as she recovers the presidential mandate, which is rightfully hers, she will quickly cut ties with Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko dragged Belarus into this war against our brother Ukraine.

We see that he is losing our independency. From election 2020, only thanks to Russian support and now Lukashenko is paying for the support by lending our land to the Russian military forces. Lukashenko was always close with Putin, and now he is the only ally because he knows that he doesn't have support from Belarusian people.

So from Vilnius, Svetlana is trying to organise the resistance. We are trying to persuade the Belarusian soldiers not to participate in this war. Not to fulfill the criminal orders of Lukashenko. They have a possibility to stop railway transportation of military equipment or food for Russian military troops. A lot of people on the ground take pictures of tanks moving through our country and give this information to Ukrainian side. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya invites us to follow her.

She is expected at the other end of the city, at the Russian embassy. Finally in front of the embassy, she takes part in a meeting which denounces the war in Ukraine. Her bodyguards are not reassured, but for her it's an important event against Vladimir Putin. This attack by Kremlin on Ukraine is an attack on liberty, and it's our duty to stand with Ukraine in the face of such evil. All of us, who believe in freedom, today we are all Ukrainians. [Russian spoken audio] The battle will be long for the exiled head of state.

Lukashenko is not ready to let go of the reins of the country. The autocrat never seems to run out of ideas. He's going to put a new referendum to the vote that will allow him to change the Constitution in order to have even more power. He also added a little bonus for his friend Vladimir Putin, the authorization to deploy nuclear missiles on Belarusian soil. We return to Minsk. The day of the referendum, we filmed the small demonstrations that tried to block some polling stations.

[Russian spoken audio] State television threatens the demonstrators and broadcasts the arrests. The police arrested over 300 people, including myself. Fortunately, I had time to warn Emily so that she could hide in another guest room and save the footage that we had shot for a week. The police officers realised very quickly that I'm a journalist. They erased my footage from the day, and after eight hours of distressing custody, I am allowed to leave.

Now we have no choice, we leave Belarus by bus. Our last moments of stress. Crossing the Lithuanian border. [French spoken audio] The last 20 minutes seem never ending.

We managed to cross the last obstacle. [French spoken audio] After the beginning of the war, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged French people to leave Belarus immediately. Today, there are less than 1,000 of them in the country.

2022-09-13 22:23

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