March 31, 2023

Opponent of the Lukashenka regime with a white-red-white flag
Opponent of the Lukashenka regime with a white-red-white flag Photo: Sergei Bobylev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Especially for the rubric “Belarus. Prospects” Alexander Fridman wrote a commentary about whether Lukashenka’s threats to crack down on opponents of his regime living abroad are real, and whether there has been something similar in history. You can discuss his opinion and share your own under the corresponding post in telegram channel “DW Belarus”.

On March 7, Alexander Lukashenko announced the official version of the attack on the Russian military aircraft AWACS 50-A at the airport in Machulishchi near Minsk. The responsibility for preparing the sabotage was assigned to the Security Service of Ukraine, as well as to its “accomplices” from among the Belarusian political emigrants outside the country and opponents of the regime within Belarus itself. Lukashenka’s speech was traditionally rife with conspiracy theories and contained insults against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The so-called “fugitives” – the opponents of the regime abroad – were especially hard hit, whom the “permanent president” even threatened with reprisals.

This is not the first time such threats have come from the lips of Lukashenko and his associates. They are also replicated by the Belarusian state propaganda, which has been discussing various ways of “punishing” both the leaders of the protest movement and ordinary activists for the third year already. At the same time, there are hints, and sometimes open calls for the abduction and removal of “enemies” to Belarus and even for their physical liquidation.

Are Lukashenka’s words populist intimidating bravado or is the official Minsk really going to resort to radical methods?

Not Israel, but Yugoslavia

Since August 2020, anti-Semitic tendencies have sharply increased in Belarusian state propaganda, manifested, among other things, in attacks on critics of the current government of Jewish origin, the spread of conspiracy narratives with an expressive anti-Semitic tinge, and the shameless political instrumentalization of the Holocaust theme.

Alexander Fridman
Alexander FridmanPhoto: Privat

This feature did not prevent, however, propagandists from seizing on the example of Israel: just as the Jewish state and its foreign intelligence service Mossad, protecting national interests and despite international criticism, crack down on Israel’s enemies around the world, so should Belarus. At the same time, the fact that the targets of the Mossad actions were by no means political opponents of the Israeli authorities, but Nazi criminals (case of Adolf Eichmann), Palestinian functionaries and activists who chose the path of armed struggle against Israel and actively resorted to terror, and also, possibly, are responsible for the nuclear program in Iran, which proclaimed its goal the destruction of the state of Israel.

If propaganda references to the Israeli experience do not stand up to scrutiny, are distorted, and sometimes openly anti-Semitic, then a comparison with the relatively little-known case of Yugoslavia seems more appropriate. Between 1967 and 1989, the Yugoslav secret services killed 29 Croatian dissidents in the FRG.

Assassinations ordered by Marshal Tito

After the Second World War in West Germany and, above all, in Bavaria, numerous political emigrants from Croatia found refuge, advocating the separation of the republic from Yugoslavia. The number of Croatian political emigrants grew steadily and approached the mark of 10,000 in the first half of the 1980s. The Croatian press was published in Germany, the “Croatian National Committee” was created in Munich, and individual activists relied on armed resistance to the communist dictatorship and, in particular, developed plans for terrorist attacks on the territory of Yugoslavia.

The activities of the Croatian diaspora were closely monitored both by the West German secret services, with which many emigrants collaborated, and by the Yugoslav (especially Croatian) state security, which created its extensive intelligence network in the FRG.

In the second half of the 1960s, President Josip Broz Tito gave the “Chekists” the green light to liquidate Croatian political emigrants. The killings continued until the very collapse of Yugoslavia, and the victims were politicians and activists, as well as journalists and public figures. The killers acted deliberately bold and cruel. The goal of Belgrade and Zagreb was not only the elimination of specific figures, but also an attempt to intimidate and demoralize the Croatian community in the FRG.

The murder of Stepan Dzhurekovich in July 1983 in the Bavarian Wolfratshausen became a symbol of the crimes. In the early 1980s, the victim served as marketing director for the large Yugoslav oil and gas concern INA. Accused in his homeland of economic crimes, Dzhurekovich fled in 1982 to the Federal Republic of Germany, with whose special services he had previously maintained relations.

In West Germany, he became a prominent figure among the Croatian emigration and published a number of incriminating books about the economic and political system of Yugoslavia. The murder of Stepan Dzhurekovich became a reprisal against the former “man of the system”, declared a “traitor”. A tragic fate befell his son Damir, who moved to Canada and there, according to a very controversial official version, committed suicide in 1987.

A series of murders of Croats in Germany came to the attention of the German press only in 2016 – within the framework of the trial over the former head of the Croatian state security Zdravko Mustač and his subordinate Josip Perkovich. The Supreme Regional Court in Munich found them guilty of organizing and preparing the murder of Dzhurekovich Sr. and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Belarus 2020s and Yugoslavia 1980s

There are serious differences between today’s Belarus and then Yugoslavia, but there are also a number of common features.

If Minsk is in a state of deep isolation in the European direction, then Belgrade had close ties with Western countries and Yugoslavia relied on expanding cooperation with them. In May 1978, the Balkan country won the right to host the Winter Olympic Games, which were held in February 1984 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Unlike Lukashenka, after the suppression of the protests, and at the latest after supporting Russia in the war against Ukraine, Marshal Tito and his successors had something to lose both economically and politically. The FRG was one of Yugoslavia’s key partners in the West, and there was no need to count on Moscow’s support. Nevertheless, the interests of national security (as they were understood in Belgrade and Zagreb), as well as the thirst for reprisals against opponents and “traitors” outweighed all the risks.

It will be much easier for Lukashenka’s regime to decide on such steps. If the FRG and Bavaria became centers of Croatian political and intellectual emigration, then a large part of Belarusian political emigrants settled in Poland and Lithuania and their number significantly exceeds the number of Croats in Germany. Official Minsk’s relations with the EU and especially with these countries remain very tense. If Bonn in the 1970s and 1980s did not show interest in a change of power in Yugoslavia (not to mention the secession of Croatia), then Vilnius and Warsaw not only actively work with democratic forces, but are supporters of an extremely tough course towards Belarusian authorities and are betting on a change of power in Minsk.

Among the Belarusian political emigrants today there are supporters of radical methods of fighting the Lukashenka regime, and in Ukraine Belarusian volunteers are participating in the war on the side of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and do not hide the fact that their ultimate goal is the liberation of Belarus.

Like the Yugoslav special services in the FRG, the Belarusian “Chekists” obviously do not sit idly by. Both Warsaw and Vilnius increasingly note their activities on the territory of these countries, and, it would seem, absentee trials of Svetlana TikhanovskayaPavel Latushko and their associates may actually be a harbinger of radical action.

Since the events of 2020, the Lukashenka regime has steadily demonstrated toughness and uncompromising attitude, without thinking about the political and economic consequences. There are many examples of this: and forced Ryanair flight landing with Roman Protasevich on board in May 2021, and the artificial migration crisis on the borders of Belarus and the EU, and the ongoing large-scale repressions in Belarus itself, and the introduction of the death penalty for high treason, and a ten-year sentence to Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatsky. The Belarusian authorities must not be deterred, and behind them looms the ominous figure of the Kremlin, which has been resorting to kidnappings and murders of “enemies” and “traitors” in the West since Soviet times. Under such conditions, the implementation of the “Yugoslavian scenario” does not seem so improbable.

Author: Alexander Friedman, historian, Associate Fellow of the Humboldt University of Berlin.

The comment expresses the personal opinion of the author. It may not coincide with the opinion of the editors and Deutsche Welle as a whole.

See also:

State terrorism: who will stop Lukashenka?

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