A show trial on the edge of Europe

The word "Stalinist" is often used without much thought but the court case that ended in Minsk on 30 November was perhaps as close as one could get to a Stalinist spectacle in modern-day Europe. In the comically named House of Justice in the capital of Belarus, proceedings took place on a raised stage.

I watched as Judge Alexander Fedortsov, dressed in black and flanked by two grey-suited deputies, spent four hours reading out his verdict in the trial of two 25-year-old men.

Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov, who stood throughout in metal cages, were found guilty of bombing the Minsk Metro system in April, an attack that killed 15 and wounded 200. Fedortsov sentenced them to be shot in the back of the head.

“This is a travesty," Kovalyov's mother, Lyubov, said on the steps outside the courtroom after the verdict, wiping away her tears. "The judge has turned all the evidence upside down." In court, people shouted out in disbelief at the judge's conclusions. When he walked off the courtroom stage, having performed as well as his ultimate boss, the long-standing Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, could have wanted, there were shouts of "Disgrace".

The Minsk Metro attack was one of the more bizarre European news events this year. None of the possible versions for why it might have taken place makes much sense. Perhaps the least cogent is the official version - Konovalov wanted to "destabilise the situation in the Republic of Belarus" and so the chemistry whizz-kid built a bomb himself and detonated it. He confessed all of this during the investigation; in court, he stared into the middle distance and said nothing over three months of hearings. Kovalyov, who had initially implicated his friend, changed his mind in court and said that he had testified only after he heard the screams of Konovalov being tortured. During the trial, he maintained that both were innocent.


Other, more conspiratorial versions suggest some kind of government involvement - possibly a result of infighting in the secret services. But nobody has any firm information.

It is possible that Konovalov and Kovalyov took part in some way, but there is no strong evidence apart from the confessions and the case is full of holes. For instance, the judge explained away a contradiction in eyewitness evidence over the colour of a bag at the scene of the bombing as proof that "different people see the colour black in different ways".

The day after the verdict, I met Pavel Levinov, a human rights activist who, like Konovalov and Kovalyov, comes from the provincial town of Vitebsk. In the shabby apartment of one of Minsk's few, beleaguered human rights activists, he told me how he, too, had been caught up in theinvestigation. In April, just pair as killers, more than half of Belarusians suspect that the state may have been involved in the bomb attack. The regime lost
the respect of most Belarusians long ago; now, it has lost even the most basic level of trust.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

Show Hide image

Ankara bombs: Turkey is being torn apart by bad leaders and bad neighbours

This is the worst terror attack in Turkey’s history. In just a few months, hundreds of civilians, Turkish security personnel and PKK members have been killed.

It had already been a deadly summer of political instability in Turkey. And now this. Another massacre – this time at the hand of twin bomb attacks on a peace rally in Ankara, which have killed at least 97 people.

It is the worst terror attack in Turkey’s history. In just a few months, hundreds of civilians, Turkish security personnel and PKK members have been killed. Barely a single day passes in Turkey without some incident of lethal political violence.

Freedom from fear is the very basic principle of human security, which should be protected by any state that wants a true sense of legitimacy over its population and territory. In Turkey, that freedom is under enormous pressure from all sorts of internal and external forces.

Stirred up

There are plenty of competing explanations for the political violence engulfing the country, but none can seriously overlook the impact of Turkey’s bad political leadership.

The terrible, violent summer reflects nothing so much as an elite’s greed for power and willingness to treat civilians as dispensable. This has become particularly apparent since Turkey’s inconclusive June 7 election, and the way various political parties and leaders did all they could to prevent the formation of a viable coalition government.

Ultimately, the power game is simple enough. At the elections hastily called for November, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party needs to garner only a few per cent more than it did in June to win the majority it needs for Erdogan to bolster his powers and make himself the country’s executive president.

To that end, pro-government media has been in overdrive throughout the summer, deliberately fuelling an environment of division, paranoia and mistrust in hopes of winning votes out of pure fear.

All the while, southeast Turkey has endured dreadful violence. Some towns – Cizre, for instance, which was under seige for days – have suddenly found themselves on the front line of renewed fighting between the security forces and the PKK.

The demise of the peace process is not just a failure of diplomacy – it signals that the armed conflict is still hugely politically and financially lucrative to Turkey’s political and military leaders. And the violence they’re profiting from is rapidly corroding social life and human security across the country.

The war next door

But the political instability caused by Turkey’s leaders has been greatly exacerbated by its neighbours, especially the continuing civil war in Syria and its deadly ramifications – an influx of jihadist fighters, a massive refugee crisis, and spiralling military interventions.

Since the end of the Cold War, global security has never been so seriously threatened as it is by today’s situation in Syria, which is now host to a head-to-head clash between the interests of Russia, the Assad regime and Iran on the one hand and the US, the EU, their Arab allies, and NATO on the other.

All sides claim to be fighting against the Islamic State and other Islamist extremists, but it’s clear that what’s really at stake is a lot more than just the fate of the jihadists or the political future of Syria. Already there’s an ominous spat underway over Russian planes' incursion into Turkish airspace; NATO has already raised the prospect of sending troops to Turkey as a defensive gesture.

And while it was always inevitable that the Syrian disaster would affect its northern neighbour to some degree, Turkey’s continuing internal political instability is proving something of an Achilles heel. By deliberately forcing their country into a period of chaotic and violent turmoil, Turkey’s leaders have made it more susceptible than ever to the Syrian conflict and the mighty geopolitical currents swirling around it.

And yet they press on with their cynical political ploys – seemingly unmoved by the cost to their people, and unaware that they could just be becoming pawns in a much bigger game.

The Conversation

Alpaslan Ozerdem is a Chair in Peace-Building and Co-Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.