MINSK, Belarus — On a sweltering day in Minsk last summer, Maksim Piakarski and Vadzim Zharomski propped open the windows of the two-room apartment they shared on the outskirts of Minsk, Belarus’ capital, and tried to catch what little breeze they could in the August heat.
Within seconds, men in full body armor and helmets who had lowered themselves from the roof leaped through the open windows and ordered Piakarski, 24, and Zharomski, 26, to the floor. More masked men broke open the front door. Confusion and chaos ensued, as the masked men kicked and beat the two and shocked them with stun guns. The apartment was ransacked, and the officers took laptops, books and flash drives.
Across town, a similar scenario played out in the apartments of two other young men, who, like Piakarski and Zharomski, were avowed nonviolent social activists. All the young men were hauled off in unmarked cars to be interrogated by the Interior Ministry’s department of organized crime. Viachaslau Kasinerau, 27, said interrogators broke his jaw in two places as they beat him and accused him of being a fascist and neo-Nazi.
When it was over, they were charged with hooliganism, facing up to six years in prison if convicted.
Their crime: spray-painting “the Revolution of Consciousness is already happening” and “Belarus must be Belarusian” in Belarusian across walls of abandoned buildings in the city center.
“The whole thing was like something out of an American action movie, like the SWAT team coming to get us,” said Piakarski, a Web designer. “At one point there were 10 guys in this apartment, tearing the place apart like we were a group of terrorists.”
Such anti-regime phrases are not tolerated by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled this nation of 9 million people for the past 22 years. Pictures of the graffiti had gone viral on the Internet, drawing the praise of Belarus’ Western-leaning opposition groups. Human rights organizations immediately declared their case politically motivated.
This harsh crackdown on activists comes as Lukashenko’s isolated regime has come under new focus after a series of politically savvy moves by the man the Bush White House once called the “last dictator in Europe.”
Lukashenko hosted a series of peace talks on Ukraine and shook hands with Western leaders last year, including President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly. He has never recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. When Russia said it wanted to build an airbase in Belarus, Lukashenko remained noncommittal. This summer, he released six political prisoners after nearly five years of pressure from the West.