Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines: Belarus Jews Remaining Calm Amid Rising Political Turmoil

April 9, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Jews of Belarus are keeping a low profile in the wake of a crackdown on political dissent and free speech, according to community leaders and activists in this former Soviet republic.

In this respect, they say, the Jewish community is not unlike the majority of the nation’s population.

“Jews are not involved in politics and do not react to what is going on” in Belarus, Yevgeny Rabinovich, a Jewish activist, said in a telephone interview from the capital of Minsk.

He said Jewish groups, which are public organizations, do not speak out on the country’s political issues.

During the last two weeks, authorities have been cracking down on opposition rallies in the nation’s capital, beating and arresting demonstrators who oppose a proposed alliance between Belarus and Russia.

The authorities have also lashed out against Western and Russian broadcasters for their “biased” coverage of events in Belarus.

Last month, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko expelled a Moscow television journalist who featured anti-Lukashenko protests in his reports.

Human-rights activists have been criticizing Lukashenko for the curbs he imposed on opposition protests and news coverage.

Despite these actions, Lukashenko is popular with a broad section of the population, including Jews, Jewish leaders say.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus experienced severe economic hardships. People are nostalgic for the Soviet past and a strong- handed governmental policy, one Jewish leader said.

A Jewish activist from Minsk described the mood of the nation’s population, including Jews, as “social apathy.”

“People are much more concerned about economic problems,” said Yakov Basin. In spite of the ongoing opposition protests, he added, “The situation within the country seems to be stable, and the rest does not disturb the people.”

Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm director, has virtually no political rivals.

In a referendum last year, he gained nearly unlimited powers and extended his presidency into the next century.

He rules Belarus with an iron-fisted Soviet style that he openly admires. Not surprisingly, he has little tolerance for dissent.

In an interview with a German newspaper a few years ago, Lukashenko spoke admiringly of Hitler’s prewar policy for reinvigorating the German economy — a plan that depended largely on massive militarization.

Last month, Lukashenko moved to further tighten his rule in this nation of 10 million.

He said at the time that the people had asked him to introduce a dictatorship similar to that of the Stalinist era.

But leaders of the 100,000-member Jewish community of Belarus do not see the situation as hopeless.

“I don’t think people are scared of openly expressing their views,” said Rabinovich. He said the situation is tolerable as long as “each morning I find opposition newspapers in my mailbox.”

Although most of the opposition papers are printed in the neighboring Lithuania, they are easily available in Belarus, at least in Minsk.

Jewish leaders say they do not fear any rise of anti-Semitism in Belarus, where ultranationalist and anti-Semitic groups are weak.

In recent years, Russia has been the sole source of anti-Semitic publications in Belarus, but they are not numerous.

In a recent interview with a pro-government newspaper, Lukashenko said he would crack down on any manifestations of anti-Russian, anti-Semitic or anti-Polish attitudes.

Russians, Poles and Jews are among the nation’s largest minorities.

While Lukashenko vows to fight any grass-roots anti-Semitism, his increasing authoritarianism makes it difficult for him to deal with the rise of minority- rights movements.

This rise is “dangerous for the authorities,” who might see the movements as undermining the regime, Basin said.

For all its authoritarian stands, the government has not countered freedom of religion or emigration.

Each year, about 4,000 Jews leave Belarus for Israel. A few hundred leave annually for the United States and Germany.

Some local activists speak of lackluster Jewish communal life in Belarus, blaming it on the government’s lack of support for Jewish organizations.

But Leonid Levin, chairman of the Belarus Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, described the state of Jewish life as “normal.”

Last week, Lukashenko signed a union treaty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The treaty has been sharply criticized by the nationalist, Communist and liberal opposition in Minsk.

Liberals in Moscow have likewise opposed the treaty, fearing that a planned union with the economically depressed Belarus would wipe out Russia’s hard-won economic reforms.

The treaty, however, ended up being largely symbolic.

Most of the bilateral agreements Russia and Belarus signed over the past few years with the aim of fostering integration have been vague, and the latest accord offers little evidence of a more concrete approach.

Meanwhile, there is little basis for Jewish concern, said Basin. But if the political alliance between the two nations does become a meaningful reality, he added, Russia may be able to guarantee further stability for the Jews of Belarus.

Recommended from JTA