The closed society and its enemies: conspiracy theories made in Belarus

Thursday, 28. April 2011     0 comment(s)
Anaïs Marin
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme
Top pictures: the photofits of the two suspects released by the Belarusian KGB on 12 April (www.kgb.by/press/inform/205.html)<br />Bottom pictures: a caricature of the latter, circulated on the Russian-speaking blogosphere (http://besttoday.ru/postimage/2/) Top pictures: the photofits of the two suspects released by the Belarusian KGB on 12 April (www.kgb.by/press/inform/205.html)
Bottom pictures: a caricature of the latter, circulated on the Russian-speaking blogosphere (http://besttoday.ru/postimage/2/)
A deadly blast occurring in public transport at rush hours almost always gives rise to conspiracy theories… especially when nobody claims responsibility for planting a bomb. The explosion that killed 13 and wounded almost 200 in the Minsk metro on 11 April is no exception: the wildest rumours that the incident had been staged started circulating soon after in the blogosphere and online media

Even if a suspect and two of his alleged accomplices were arrested 36h after the blast, impartiality not being characteristic of police investigations and judiciary procedures in Belarus, the truth about this so-called “terrorist bombing” will probably never be known. The fact that it bred so many speculations is nonetheless telling about the need, for a closed society such as Belarus, to invent itself enemies and blame scapegoats when uncertainty reigns.

President Alexander Lukashenka himself was the first who evoked a conspiracy when he stated that the bomb might well be “a present from abroad”. Such an allegation echoes earlier statements that the demonstrations held in Minsk on 19 December to protest against his fraudulent re-election were hatched by foreign revolution-makers. At the time he specifically accused Poland and Germany of helping opposition candidates instigate what he claims was an attempted coup d’état. 

This time however, the external enemy was not pointed out so clearly. True, Lukashenka implicitly referred to the West again in arguing that Belarusian dissidents, whom he called a “fifth column” (read: an internal enemy in the pocket of outside sponsors) had better “open their cards” to help identify who ordered the bombing. 

Thinking of who might “have an interest in destabilising Belarus”, as he puts it, the first country that comes to mind is Russia though. Diplomatically isolated since Washington and Brussels adopted sanctions earlier this year, Belarus is increasingly dependent on Moscow to maintain afloat its unsustainable development model. This situation undermines two of the regime’s founding pillars: the country’s external sovereignty, under threat now that Belarus has but Russia and rogue states to turn to for support; and its economic prosperity, jeopardised by growing deficits and a currency crisis that threaten to curtail the population’s support for its paternalist leader. 

In damaging the third pillar of the “Belarusian miracle”, security – understood as social peace at home (however forcefully enforced) and having no enemies abroad – the 11 April attack makes Lukashenka’s regime ever more vulnerable to Russia’s suffocating embrace: who else than the Russian big brother can grant Belarus international legitimacy, a bailout to avoid bankruptcy, and expertise to foil future terrorist threats? Should Western investors fear for their lives in Belarus, which companies would benefit from the absence of competition in the upcoming privatisation of Belarusian industrial assets? Following the cui bono principle, in the current state of affairs many see Russia as the neighbour that benefits most from the crime. 

In a probable move to discard such accusations, some Russian experts evoked instead the Caucasian lead, arguing that the bombing could be a response to the recent suspension of Belarus’ visa-free regime with Georgia. Actually, the first released photofit, elaborated with the help of Russian FSB experts, described the bomb planter as a non-Slavic-looking man whom some said looked like “wahhabi” Viktor Dvorakovsky, suspected of participating in the 24 January Domodedovo airport bomb attack. 

The Belarusian KGB opted for a “home-grown” anarchist terrorism lead however. On 12 April it released two other photofits and later that night arrested two young factory workers from Vitebsk who not only confessed to the metro bombing, but also admitted being behind the 2005 Vitebsk bomb attack and the Minsk blast of 4 July 2008, for which no suspects had been found yet. 

The authorities refusing to disclose the names, faces, and confessions of the alleged perpetrators, the wildest rumours on who really ordered the bombing and why, kept on circulating. Contradictory statements from different power branches – the Presidential Administration, the KGB, the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor’s office – fuelled allegations that the Belarusian security forces might have staged the attack. That would explain why there reportedly was an unusually high number of police cars and ambulances in the vicinity of the “October” metro station already one hour before the blast, or that two opposition websites, Charter97 and Belarusian Partisan, were the target of cyber-attacks earlier in the afternoon.

Supporters of such speculations do not infer that Lukashenka ordered the bombing though: his genuinely shocked reaction to it might even exculpate him and turn suspicion towards his entourage. Whoever the mastermind, at least two objective facts speak in favour of the state conspiracy theory however. 

Firstly, from the power of the blast experts concur that only professionals could have the needed experience and amount of explosives to make the bomb. This was the KGB’s initial line of argument, when it claimed that the residues of trotyl found on location had “no equivalent in the world”. However KGB chairman Vadim Zaitsev declared a few days later that the criminals found the ingredients and recipe to make the device on the Internet…

Even if it was so, the very fact that the amateur bomb planters fulfilled their plans three times since 2005 without ever being spotted by the KGB, in a country that counts far more agents per capita than the world average, can only but raise doubts. It might also alert public opinion on the lack of professionalism of the Belarusian state security forces. This in turn led some commentators to evoke a settling of scores between competing clans within the KGB, and more specifically a revenge of the (partisans of the) previous KGB chairman, Viktor Sheiman, sacked from the government after the July 2008 bombing. 

Secondly, some statements from within the government – that the blast results from a too liberal stance on the opposition - aroused suspicions against the “siloviki” (hard-liners), the obvious beneficiaries from the tightening of screws set off by the ongoing anti-terrorist campaign. Be it external or internal, the existence of an enemy indeed gives the most radical faction of the ruling elite free hands to intensify control and repression, “regardless of democracy and cries and wailing of foreign [Western] sufferers”, as Lukashenka put it. 

The witch hunt already started, targeting young activists, bloggers, critical journalists, opposition politicians who are not yet in jail, and all those who from now on incur criminal liability for spreading rumours that “discredit” the state. The all-pervasive atmosphere of suspicion reigning in Belarus since 11 April surely aggravates the uncertainty surrounding future developments in the country.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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