‘My Story’ is a mix of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’ by Alexander Solzhenitsen, and ‘The Case for Democracy,’ by Natan Sharansky.
I just finished reading My Story, the new book by Andrei Sannikov, a former Belarussian presidential candidate and political prisoner. My Story is a mix of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and The Case for Democracy, by Natan Sharansky. I recommend that everyone read this important book. It reminds us that the West, and especially the United States, needs to be a voice for democracy, and that there are many people who yearn to live in a “normal country,” and depend on our support.
Sannikov’s book shares the awful details of his imprisonment, including torture. He briefly describes his earlier life, working his way up in the Soviet and then later the Belarussian foreign ministry to become deputy foreign minister. He lived for five years in New York during the 1980s, working at the U.N. He was the point person negotiating with Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and others, on removing nuclear weapons from Belarussian soil as part of the famous (and now, post-Russian invasion of Ukraine, infamous) Budapest Memorandum.
Belarus is a forgotten country. Understanding it requires some context. I first learned of Belarus from my friend, Pavol Demes, at a German Marshall Fund dinner in Brussels in 2005. He had served as Slovakia’s foreign minister and national security adviser. He had been active in the Czechoslovakian democracy movement, and remained active in pro-democracy circles in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Pavol mentioned that the German Marshall Fund was starting a program to help support Belarussian civil society in what was termed “the last dictatorship in Europe.” This was shortly after President George W. Bush’s 2005 inaugural address, which laid out his Freedom Agenda. It was a great speech, and I believed every word of it (and still do). I first met Andrei Sannikov at a separate GMF conference in Bucharest in 2008. We stayed in frequent contact ever since, and I contributed a piece on the opposition shadow government in Belarus to his website.
What I learned appalled me. Belarus was not an independent country for many centuries. Instead, it was a part of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. It declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko won the presidential election on a bizarre platform of “defeat the mafia against the Conspiracy of New World Order and Zionism.” He quickly made a name for himself by taking control of the young democracy’s institutions, pressuring the nascent independent media, and putting forward symbols and systems that reflected a nostalgia for the Soviet Union. For example, the internal security service uses the initials “KGB” on purpose. This would be funny if it wasn’t so awful. Its rank on the Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index is 127 out of 167, and it is classified as “not free” by Freedom House. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Belarus remains in the group of corrupted countries, occupying spot number 107 out of 168. Observers from the Organization for security and Co-operation in Europe state in their report that Lukashenko’s win was “engineered through ballot-box stuffing, unrealistically high early voting rates group voting, voter list fraud, and nontransparent vote tabulation.” These accusations played a role in each of his five electoral victories.
Then things got worse. Much worse. Various opposition leaders “disappeared” — a euphemism for murdered — or suffered mysterious accidents. Not one or two, but a half a dozen, starting in 1999. Similar to Venezuela or Russia, Belarus turned its early democratic ideals into a farce, through a mix of pressure, cheating, dirty tricks, and even the killing of opposition figures. Sadly, Belarus has maintained the facade of a democracy but the soul of a Soviet Republic. Once Lukashenko started killing his opposition, it was clear he was going to stay in power as long as possible so as not to face the consequences for murdering his opponents.
Belarus has mitigated worse consequences for its terrible treatment of its people because of great power interests. The country is situated west of Russia and north of Ukraine. It’s a major delivery point for Russian gas to Europe. It shares a border with many EU members and conducts significant economic activity with these countries. Lukashenko has also made himself “useful” to Russia and the West, serving as an “intermediary” in the Ukraine crisis. He has given refuge to dictators like Bakiyev from Kyrgyzstan. The location of Belarus, and his ability to balance Russian and European interests, especially commercial and foreign policy interests, have spared Lukashenko from the worst economic sanctions.
Sannikov goes into detail about why he broke with Lukashenko in 1996 — the creeping authoritarianism, the bugging of phones, the (re)creation of a secret police. He became one of the founders of Charter 97 — a group explicitly modeled after Charter 77, which was a Czechoslovakian human rights movement against the communist Czechoslovakian government.
Sannikov started a political party with the goal of having Belarus join the EU and orient itself towards the West. During the most frenetic period of the campaign, his top political adviser was found hung — supposedly a suicide, but given the track record of the regime, Belarussians and observers assume that was not the case. Sannikov and the other candidates are given purposely difficult hurdles: He was asked to obtain 100,000 valid signatures (which means getting 200,000, one by one), and allowed to speak only three times to the country via the official media, twice by radio at six in the morning and once two weeks before the elections for a 30-minute speech. After being one of the few to get the 100,000 valid signatures, Lukashenko cleverly allowed other opposition figures to run even though they had not gotten 100,000 signatures, so as to dilute the anti-Lukashenko vote.
In spite of this, he came in second in the 2010 elections. For more than 15 years, the election results in Belarus have been recognized as neither free nor fair. It is likely that Lukashenko received far less than the 80 percent he “won” in that election. Sannikov came in second and did far better than the Lukashenko-controlled electoral commission allowed (the current head of the electoral commission replaced a person murdered by the regime and is under international sanctions).
Immediately after the 2010 elections, Sannikov was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and spent 16 months in jail. The book details the indignities, the suffering, the horrible and surprisingly banal bureaucrats, the paid informants in the prison, and the torturers. The whole picture resembles the Soviet gulag where the Belarussian government looks for inspiration but the manifestation instead echoes other awful dictatorial regimes.
Sannikov was moved often within the prison system via trains to make it difficult for his family and lawyers and supporters to contact him. His wife was also imprisoned and her life was threatened. Their three-year-old son, Danik, was threatened with being sent to an orphanage. Sannikov’s mother, who was infirm and elderly, delayed seeking medical attention for herself while Danik’s parents were in jail to avoid having the state doctors declare her incompetent as a justification to take the child away. She suffered a heart attack during this period and did not seek treatment.
Sannikov’s imprisonment attracted large international attention. Famous celebrities and artists such as Tom Stoppard, Mick Jagger, and Steven Spielberg spoke up on behalf of Sannikov and his wife. The international media, the German government, the U.S. government, the Lithuanian government, the British government, and others, pressured the regime to release Sannikov and his wife.
One of the frustrations of Belarus is the opposition. Sannikov clearly came in second. The regime allowed nine opposition candidates to run in 2010 to dilute the anti-Lukashenko vote. Lukashenko enjoys some support — no one knows how much. He also cynically helped finance and support some of the opposition candidates. The opposition is divided. What should groups who want to support democracy do? U.S. democracy promotion groups have chosen to support other candidates instead with training and other forms of technical assistance.
One thing is clear: This book is important, deserves to be read, and reminds us that there are many forgotten corners of the world where clever but bad leaders play off the West’s other interests to extend their power.