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Minsk Rumors

Who was behind last week’s mysterious bombing in Belarus?

Of all the countries in the world that one would expect to be a target of terrorist attacks, Belarus surely ranks near the bottom of the list. Unlike its neighbor, Russia, where a January bomb that killed 35 people at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport was just the latest in a string of attacks related to the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, Belarus is not fighting an Islamic insurgency—or, in fact, any type of insurgency. It’s an ethnically and religiously homogenous nation mostly composed of Orthodox Christian Slavs, kept in the tight grip of its authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. There aren’t violent sectarian rifts of the sort that brought decades of terrorism  to Northern Ireland or ethnic cleansing to the Balkans. And Belarus is not participating in any foreign military operations of the kind that might inspire overseas terrorist organizations to strike.

So, when an explosion hit Kastrychnitskaya (October Square) subway station in Minsk  last Monday, killing 13 and injuring over 200, many Belarusians were shocked. “Who would do that and why?” Iryna Vidanava, editor of the independent multimedia youth magazine 34, asked me. “It’s obvious [Belarus] is not a country where we would have any problems with terrorism or explosions or terrorist groups.” Granted, this isn’t the first time there has been a bombing in Belarus: There was one in 2005, in the eastern city of Vitebsk, and another in 2008 in Minsk, both of which injured dozens and which authorities blamed on “hooligans.” Yet the sheer randomness of these crimes and their inexplicable place in Belarus’s political culture has created more questions than answers—the most uncomfortable being, who benefits?

Lukashenko, a former collective farm chairman who seems to have come out of central casting to play the role of a Soviet-era apparatchik, has ruled Belarus since 1994 . His regime routinely assaults, arrests, and occasionally “disappears” political opposition, shuts down independent media , and controls most of the economy. The repression culminated last December, when Lukashenko rigged a presidential election—his fourth victory—and then ordered truncheon-wielding riot police to attack tens of thousands of peaceful protestors in Minsk. Lukashenko jailed 700 opposition activists  and continues to hold dozens on trumped-up charges  that could keep them imprisoned for up to 15 years.

Unsurprisingly, then, high-ranking officials have intimated that the opposition is responsible for the recent subway attack. The day after the bombing, the head of the Belarusian KGB (as the country’s internal security service is still called) suggested political opponents were to blame for the attack. “You know that there were events recently,” he said, referring to the post-election protests, “and not all people who have been held responsible or investigated by the prosecutors and the courts agree with the decisions of those courts. … There are those today who do not like the way of life in Belarus or the Belarussian security structure. They are looking for changes that will exacerbate the situation by spreading fear, panic and distrust of law enforcement agencies and government organs.”

Then, with unusual swiftness, the Belarusian government claimed to have “solved” the crime: Less than two days after the explosion, police announced the arrest of three perpetrators, who allegedly confessed not only to last week’s blast but to involvement with the 2005 and 2008 attacks as well. Those confessions, however, were conveniently announced just one day after Lukashenko speculated that the bombings  were “links in a single chain.” The regime has also withheld the names of the suspects, as well as any other incriminating details or information about a possible motive.

Needless to say, many Belarusians aren’t buying what their government is telling them. “The thinking of people now is diametrically the opposite of what we are hearing from our televisions,” Andrei Dynko, editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, one of the handful of independent media outlets in Belarus, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. One popular theory? That the Belarusian government itself carried out the latest bombing to pin blame on the opposition and rally support behind Lukashenko. So widespread is this theory that it has made it as far up as the U.N. Security Council, where an anonymous member recently told Foreign Policy, “Well informed sources around Minsk believe that there was an even chance that the government might be behind this.” (What’s more, in light of this concern, the council condemned the bombing as an “apparent terrorist attack,” the first time the body has used such language.)

According to the theory of government involvement, Lukashenko has come under increasing domestic and international criticism for cracking down on opponents—criticism he would obviously like to do without. Still, it wouldn’t appear that Lukashenko needs to intimidate his already beleaguered and demoralized opposition, certainly not by conspiring to set off a bomb in downtown Minsk. And, to be sure, no evidence has surfaced to implicate the government in a plan to use violence as a means of undermining its detractors. But there is speculation that the regime could be complicit in the explosion for other reasons—namely, an impending economic crisis the likes of which the country hasn’t seen since the era of the communist breadline.

Throughout his rule, Lukashenko has been able to marshal popular support via the economic stability that his authoritarian system, largely buoyed by Russian oil subsidies, provided. When I reported from Belarus in December, I was surprised by the number of people I met who said they backed Lukashenko because he had insulated the country from the economic shocks bedeviling the Western world due to the global financial crisis. Some 80 percent of citizens are employed by the government, which regulates the prices of most goods. Last November, a month before the election, Lukashenko raised salaries 30 percent in a bid to win popularity.

But, according to Katia Glod, an independent political and economic analyst based in Minsk, “the economy has remained unreformed largely since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Far too much money has been spent on social welfare to keep the population content, while insufficient amounts have been invested in modernizing the economy and encouraging entrepreneurship. Added to this strain is that Moscow has grown impatient with Lukashenko’s lack of economic reforms; it has delayed its extension of billions of dollars in credits over the regime’s hesitancy to reduce state spending, tighten monetary policy, and turn over much of its oil refineries and chemical plants to Russian control.

Now, after almost two decades of economic calm, it appears that the key assumption behind Lukashenko’s authoritarian social contract—that Belarusians would exchange political freedom for economic stability—is crumbling. In recent weeks, long lines have formed outside currency exchange centers, with citizens waiting days to get their hands on rare U.S. dollars and euros. Since the beginning of the year, Belarus has used up 20 percent of its hard foreign currency reserves. Five days before the subway blast, RFE/RL reported that the economy was “teetering on the brink of collapse.”

How could the bombing play into this? It’s not clear, of course, that it does at all. But those who believe the rumor that the government was involved say Lukashenko may have hoped the blast would be a distraction from the economy’s nosedive. And, according to people I spoke to, the bombing did divert public attention for a while. “All people were talking about before and after the explosion was the price of sugar, where to get dollars,” Iryna Vidanava of 34 told me.  But, after the bomb went off, “for a couple of days, everyone forgot about the economic hardship.”  

The initial shock from the blast quickly subsided, however, and the government’s inability or unwillingness to produce information about the alleged attackers in its custody has only contributed to public distrust. Indeed, it still remains unclear whether authorities have arrested four men and one woman, or three men and one woman, and they haven’t revealed any of the individuals’ names. On Tuesday, a Russian website revealed the identities of what it claims are three of the suspects, all of whom live in a single apartment block in Vitebsk. But the Belarusian government has refused to confirm or deny the report. All it will say is that the suspects constructed the bombs in the basement of the building in which they live.

The regime is also highly sensitive to the perception that it might be withholding information about the bombing or, worse, that it was responsible for it. “Only idiots and scoundrels can allege that, only the scum can do that,” Lukashenko snapped in a Tuesday statement, responding to allegations that the government perpetrated the attacks to distract the country from its economic woes. The regime has reprimanded two independent newspapers, Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya, for publishing articles critical of its response to the attack.  Earlier this week, a local prosecutor sent an official warning to a journalist at a local newspaper who raised questions about the government’s explanations, accusing him of “distributing false information about the investigations into the Minsk subway bombing,” and for attempting to “discredit and insult law-enforcement officers [and] Belarusian statehood and society.”

Understandably, with no evidence on their side, Belarusians are being careful with what they say publicly; in particular, most of the speculation about the regime’s motives is being whispered in private or published anonymously on internet forums. “I would say that it’s too early to draw any conclusion like that,” Vidanava says when I ask her if she thinks the government might be behind the bombing. “As of today, if I say this is the case, it’s a criminal responsibility for me.”  

Was the government actually involved? Right now, the only thing that’s clear is that nothing is adding up to explain who set off the bomb in Minsk and why. It doesn’t help that conspiracy theories, whether ultimately correct or not, seem to be as plausible as the government line. Worst of all, in country where information is so tightly controlled, the Belarusian people may never know the truth about what happened.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor for TheNew Republic and writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague.