Aware of the possibility that the secret police were listening in, Belarussian dissident Anastasia Palazhanka whispered to the visitors: would they help her arrange her wedding to her fiancé, an imprisoned leader of the Young Front opposition? Palazhanka, a 21-year-old honored by Hillary Clinton last year with the prestigious International Women of Courage award, was conferring with observers from the Organization for Security and Co–operation in Europe (OSCE), who were on hand to monitor parliamentary elections in the former Soviet Republic. They’d dropped by the Soviet-era Hotel Yubileinaya in Minsk to listen to opposition members who -wanted to air concerns about the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
With an emotionless face, the young woman relayed the facts about her fiancé, Zmitser Dashkevich. He’d been in prison since 2010, after being arrested on the eve of a major anti-Lukashenko protest; he’d spent half his term already in solitary confinement; his sentence was recently extended by a year after authorities said he’d disobeyed prison rules. Palazhanka told the OSCE officials that Dashkevich was suffering under emotional and physical pressures, and that his lawyer was rarely allowed to see him. She did not tell them that the couple had no illusions left about a speedy end to Lukashenko’s rule, and that they were expecting the worst for Belarus.
Palazhanka’s story is frighteningly common in Belarus, where Lukashenko—who has been called “Europe’s last dictator” and who was barred from attending the Olympics this summer due to EU sanctions over alleged human-rights abuses–has been pursuing a brutal crackdown on the opposition. Since 2010, 14 leading dissidents have been jailed, while scores of others have fled to Poland, London, and Lithuania to escape persecution. Meanwhile, the president’s power continues unchecked: during last week’s elections, independent observers blasted the government for ballot fraud and two opposition parties boycotted the vote, which resulted in the country’s parliamentary seats being unanimously stocked with Lukashenko loyalists.