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In the July issue of Harper’s Magazine, I tell the story of Andrei Vardomatsky, the last independent pollster in Belarus, who became a target during the country’s most recent presidential election. Belarus is an eastern European nation of forests and ghosts that has been ruled since 1994 by an autocratic president called Alexander Lukashenko. On December 19 last year, after the polls had closed, tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets of Minsk to protest against his latest, fraudulent election victory. The demonstration—by far the largest of Lukashenko’s reign—brought down the fury of the authorities. Riot police descended, beating protesters indiscriminately. Seven of the nine opposition politicians who dared to stand as candidates against Lukashenko were arrested, along with more than 600 other people. The regime remains convinced it was the victim of an attempt by Western governments to ignite a “color revolution” similar to those that took place in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004 (an anxiety that has doubtless been reinforced by the events of the Arab Spring). In trials concluded in recent weeks, candidates and activists have been sentenced to several years in prison for their part in what the government calls “The Conspiracy.”
There is no better, or more alarming, guide to the interpretative thinking of the Belarusian state than its own account of the protest, which was published earlier this year and still features on the government’s official website. This 15,000-word document ran in full in Sovetskaya Belorussiya, the main state newspaper, on January 14, and was translated into English a few days later. It reads as a kind of collage, an assembly of ornate rhetoric (“an absurd notion is being obtruded upon public opinion”) and WikiLeaks-inspired extracts from surveillance reports and documents confiscated from the offices of opposition groups. The different sections describe clandestine meetings in cafés and intercepted conversations on Skype, and include detailed instructions for how best to smuggle funds for the uprising into Belarus.
Some of the people named in the document (including Vardomatsky, the subject of my article) denied to me the accuracy of the authorities’ claims; others admitted that some of the opposition materials are genuine. One Belarusian contact, who has given evidence at several trials arising from the protests, described it as a mosaic of truth and fabrication. He is, as the following distillation suggests, almost certainly right.
From “Behind the scenes of one conspiracy: Some declassified documents on the events of December 19”
The attack of the Government Residence caused indignation in Belarusian society.
The hidden motives of these events are known: foreign analytical centres formed and financed certain pro-radical structures. They made an attempt to overthrow the legal authorities and impose their understanding of “democracy” on society.
It is widely known that the foreign policy, pursued by Belarusian top leadership, is of exceptionally amicable character, it is aimed only at the development of good-neighbourly relations with all countries; and the country’s domestic policy provides steady and progressive advance of Belarusian society. Even the most vehement opponents of the Belarusian authorities, both inside and outside Belarus, have to admit the unique nature and the effectiveness of the Belarusian model of development.
However, the very fact of existence of such an independent state building its policy based on its national interests, causes harsh irritation on the part of some foreign political forces willing to subdue to their interests those post-Soviet states that are not yet under their influence, to which the Republic of Belarus belongs in the current conditions.
[T]he times have changed. Military invasion of a country aimed at overthrowing the ruling authorities is no longer “effective”. Another strategy has been employed – aimed at inspiring an internal political conflict controlled from the outside. A striking example of its implementation is the so-called “colour revolutions” in several post-Soviet countries.
The following technology is used to build up the notorious TV picture which occupies a particular place in the scenarios of “colour revolutions”.
The emotionally warmed-up crowd of young people led by specially trained people takes an influential governmental institution by assault, go inside, smash everything, and hang out victory flags. It is all broadcast over TV real-time and correspondents report that “the regime has fallen”, “the democracy has won”, and the new class has taken over the power.
The events which took place at Independence Square showed that several hundreds of journalists arrived in Minsk from abroad just to get this picture.
Those who financed this venture with the money of European tax-payers were perfectly aware of the fact that the success of the “revolution” would lead to a crisis erupting in the centre of the continent. They also realised there would be bloodshed in Belarus. Yet this was of no concern for them. Their primary goal was to replace Lukashenko, replace him with an obedient figurehead and coldly witness the unnecessary ordeal of a nation consumed by chaos.
At Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk [presidential candidate] Andrei Sannikov, following the plan previously drafted and approved by foreign experts, makes a dramatic statement: “Lukashenko’s regime is over; we proclaim the Government of National Rescue whose members are the candidates for presidency.” Naturally, what they heard was a blatant lie, yet the statement proclaimed nothing short of an overthrow and many citizens became involved in a perfectly illegal and dangerous action.
At his press conference on December 20 the President instructed the special services to publish the now declassified documents to inform the general public of what had actually happened behind the scenes…
From the confiscated “Tell the Truth” Strategic Action Plan
“One of the components of the support campaign for the candidate of national confidence should be deliberate production of stimuli for the dissemination of rumours. A well-run rumour campaign forces the authorities to continually look for excuses, which helps create the so-called presumption of guilt and evokes greater mistrust towards the government in the general public.
Suggested rumour cycles:
The following rumors are also effective:
From an analytical note
The “Courier” will be the major method for the campaign. This variant is the most widespread and the most efficient, in spite of the highest degree of risk.
The best options for couriers are: 1) Elderly people 2) A family with a small child 3) A student 4) A handicapped person.
The courier is unaware of the true purpose of the money, he or she only knows the legend. According to the legend, the money is delivered to Belarus as undeclared cash profit of a business entity.
Pluses: The opportunity to transport large amounts of cash (up to 200,000 USD per trip).
Minuses: Risk of disclosing the courier and loss of money.
Legalisation of money in Belarus
‘Friend’ – As previously stated, the most effective method in Belarus (taking into account the specific nature of the country) is to give the money to trusted people for keeping.
How this works: when the money arrives in Belarus, it is divided into five or more parts and is given for safekeeping to friends or, even better, to their close relatives. It is allowed to call the ‘Friend’ about the money only one time and to take the whole sum of money at once. Before that a special language used when saying that the money is needed, is discussed. It should not cause suspicions if the communication equipment is bugged. For example, “Let’s have a nice hearty dinner today somewhere away from the city centre”. When we use a ‘Friend’ on several occasions, the phrase is changed each time.
Expenses: a bottle of cognac and a chocolate bar, a Schengen visa issued for a year.
If the operation fails:
the courier should switch off his phone; when asked whose money this is, he should say that a Lithuanian man he met in a restaurant (the Lithuanian sat down at his table) asked him to carry the money and that he had to leave it in an automatic luggage locker at a station. He was paid to carry the money.
From the materials of the State Frontier Committee
“On December 15 a group of 5 people, residents from the town of Rovno, was detected at the Mokrany checkpoint at the Belarus-Ukraine border. They tried to enter Belarus by car as if with the aim of taking part in a “training workshop”. Then it turned out there was no any workshops of that kind. They had warm clothes, tents, sleeping bags, photo and video equipment. The addresses of their destination points in Belarus turned out to be fake.
Later, a similar group of 4 residents of Ivano-Frankovsk region was denied entry. They all came from the same village and claimed they did not know each other. When questioned, they could not clearly state the aim of their visit and were also going to stay in the country till December 20. Apart from warm clothes they had similar sets of knives, 30 in total.
On December 19 the frontier services on the Belarus-Lithuania border detained a courier (Igor Vladislavovich Semeniako, born in 1986) carrying about 7 thousand doses. The drugs were to be delivered to Minsk on the same day and distributed among the participants of the protest actions.
A group of 7 people was detected at the Mokhro checkpoint on December 13, 2010 trying to transport a smoke flare, an electric shocker, 5 rubber truncheons and one slingshot to Belarus.
On December 17, 2010 Belarusian frontier services denied entry to a Russian mini-van with 12 activists of the radical organisation Oborona (Defence). It was found that the passengers of the vehicle were carrying 2 telescopic metal rods and brass knuckles, a number of weapon-like items made of metal, 6 tents and 14 sleeping bags as well as an official uniform of an officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus.
From an operative note. The chronicle
At 22.05 A.Sannikov called on the protesters to go to the Government Residence and “negotiate with the authorities” and then the crowd moved forward to the central entrance of the building. At 22.21 the protesters managed to open one door and began to get inside, with A. Sannikov crying out, “They have just opened the Government door to us, we have been waiting for it for 16 years. Here there are a lot of journalists, our friends, let us come together, we are making history”.
At 22.30 the law-enforcement bodies started the operation on suppression of the illegal action by separating the crowd and isolating the most active group.
The forces of special divisions of law-enforcement bodies carried out “the cleanup operation” of Independence Square from 23.05 to 23.30.
More from Sam Knight:
From the July 2011 issue
Lucas Mann on hope and change in a minor-league-baseball city
Minimum number of baboons forced to smoke crack in a 1989 study testing the efficacy of cigarettes as a drug delivery device:
A reduction in distrust toward atheists was documented among pious Canadians who are reminded of the Vancouver police.
A Missouri cinema apologized for hiring an actor dressed in body armor and carrying a fake rifle to appear at a screening of Iron Man 3.
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Winner of the 2012 Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books