Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

January 22, 2011

Update, Belarus

Filed under: Personal,Politics,Travel — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:34 am

I’m ba-a-a-a-a-ck!

I arrived at the airport in Minsk late Sunday the ninth, in a state of some trepidation.

When the mission was first conceived among us, the original thought was that it might be a “witness bodyguard” mission, i.e. to live in the lap of a person in danger of assassination on the assumption the dictatorship wouldn’t want to murder a dissident in front of a foreign witness – or be forced to murder the two of us with all the resulting complications.

Thankfully, before I left it was established that Jaroslav Romanchuk, though under pressure by the Belarussian KGB and threatened by imprisonment, did not appear to be in immediate danger of liquidation. Though of course, that could change.

I tried to contain my disappointment.

The purpose became a fact-finding mission after claims by some factions of the opposition that Jaroslav had caved under pressure and made statements against the interests of the pro-freedom movement.

Nonetheless, I was worried. Did the “organs” (KGB) know I was coming to make contact with a prominent dissident? Would customs get suspicious about my camera, digital note taker, and Flip video camera? Had my emails been intercepted? When I contacted Jaroslav, would his apartment be under observation?

I passed through customs without incident. I must say it’s a weird experience to fearfully approach an intimidating Soviet-style uniform – filled by a beautiful Belarussian blond. No inconvenient questions, no demands to know why I was in the country, no bag search – that I know of. I’m still trying to find an address book.

I checked into my $20-per-night room, located in the heart of downtown Minsk, and made contact with Jaroslav the next day. I had arranged with a friend to call him and give a phrase with an allusion he’d recognize so he would know who was coming.

Jaroslav appeared shaken, but not broken. He had a touch of something flu-like, which hardly seemed to slow him down. He’s free but has been interrogated by the KGB three times (as of now.) However many of his comrades are still incarcerated, threatened with long prison terms on charges of attempting a coup d’etat. A charge that could get them fifteen years hard.

It also appears the KGB hinted broadly they could be killed if he didn’t cooperate.

Jaroslav is walking a tightrope, keeping the lines of communication with western countries open through interviews and negotiations, while bearing the awful responsibility for the lives of his friends and countrymen.

I conducted three interviews on wide-ranging topics with Jaroslav, over the course of three days. I am currently transcribing and editing the audio and video.

On my last night in the country I attended a small party in his apartment where I met a couple I knew from the our Liberty English Camps, and a few new friends. I also met Jaroslav’s fiancée, a beautiful young lady and fellow-economist, who stuck with him through the stress of the presidential campaign and the aftermath.

When the transcript is ready, we will be looking for a venue that will give it the widest possible distribution.

And my sincerest thanks to all the donors who made this trip possible.

The secret to happiness is freedom. And the secret to freedom is courage.” – Thucydides


  1. Thank you for this mission Stephen. My hat is off to Jaroslav for all he’s doing! I hope he stays safe.

    Comment by Marsha Enright — January 23, 2011 @ 11:31 pm

  2. Thank you for this news. Aloha, Ken

    Comment by Ken Schoolland — January 24, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  3. This is the sort of thing I wish I could be involved in: actually working to better the human condition, rather than paying lip service to it. To live with ‘honor’, to touch on the most recent post.

    I salute you!

    Comment by Gun-totin-wacko — January 24, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

  4. Stephen, thank you for a courage that matches that of Jaroslav. We really appreciate the status report, which is only slightly reassuring: They haven’t yet imprisoned our friend, or worse. Perhaps continued public attention and protest will protect him and others from further victimization by these Stalinist thugs.

    Comment by Robert Bidinotto — January 24, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

  5. How would you explain then, that people from Romanchuk’s own party, the UCPB, think that he is a traitor?

    I am afraid that you do not understand much of what you are writing about. The truth is that after denouncing innocents on TV (Check the logic: to save his fellow party member Lebedko, he publicly denounced 7 innocents…does it make sense to you?) Romanchuk changed his story 5 or 6 times. Most of his friends have no contact to him anymore because of this. His testimony is being currently used by the KGB to accuse the political prisoners, did you know that? They risk 15 years in prison.
    By the way, while members of the opposition were still being interrogated by the KGB, Mr Romanchuk went on a winter trip abroad to ski, the opposition site Charter 97 reported:
    But I guess, those are info your friend forgot to give you…

    Comment by Insider — February 4, 2011 @ 5:32 am

  6. Actually we discussed the charges at some length, with him and mutual friends in the movement.

    And yes, Jaroslav has a friend of some years standing – but I realize any man can be broken, or make bad decisions, which is why I went to see for myself.

    I see you posted from Germany?

    If you have direct, first-hand knowledge relevant to this, please identify yourself and your sources.

    Comment by Stephen W. Browne — February 4, 2011 @ 6:14 am

  7. What is your reaction to both links that were posted? You seem to brush it off as if it was irrelevant. The real Belarusian opposition is in Germany currently. And yes, we have first hand knowledge, not only from them but from the people Romanchuk denounced. Before you ask for sources, check your own properly. You are not helping the real freedom fighters by excusing the actions of Romanchuk.

    Comment by Insider — February 4, 2011 @ 7:10 am

  8. Sir, I am not brushing anything off. I can’t react to the media articles because I don’t read Russian. (I read cyrillic enough to recognize some words only.)

    I am in the process of consulting a translator.

    And media articles are not primary sources and no journalist should rely on them without checking.

    The full interview will be published soon, and I will link to it here.

    Among the charges and counter-charges is that some of the opposition appeared to have been acting or cooperating with agent provocateurs from the Belarusain KGB and perhaps even Russian FSB.

    Which is why I would like you to identify yourself and your sources. You understand of course, for a journalist using anonymous sources is – or should be, a last resort and puts the journalist’s credibility on the line.

    From where I sit I can see a number of possibilities, and I have no way of knowing which, if any, of them might be closest to the facts.

    And of course, I must be very careful because I am closer to one source than to others. But please understand I am deadly serious about striving for objectivity in this, because my reputation as a journalist is at stake here.

    So again, I invite you to identify yourselves and state your case and you will have access to a forum here.

    Comment by Stephen W. Browne — February 4, 2011 @ 8:10 am

  9. P.S. And by the way, may I ask how my blog came to your attention? I’m trying to increase my readership and am always pleased to hear it’s being read abroad.

    Comment by Stephen W. Browne — February 4, 2011 @ 8:13 am

  10. I understand what you mean. nd I also understand what you are intending to do.
    I gave you my sources. They are not governmental. They are mostly active in the opposition in many different parties. One of them is a UCPB source. Most of them are activists and journalists providing independent info.
    Now, speaking of sources, how many members of the opposition-not related to Romanchuk- have you been speaking to, if I may ask?
    Re: your blog: Your posting has been forwarded to many people following Belarusian issues and I was one of them.

    Comment by hk82049 — February 4, 2011 @ 8:56 am

  11. I guess Romanchuk has been telling this story about agent provocateurs within the opposition. I do not even say it is untrue in some cases. But accusing specific and completrely innocent members of the opposition he personally hates (and who have themselves identified Romanchuk very early as what he is) of cooperating with the KGB has been a standard line of Romanchuk for years. But how would you know?

    Comment by hk82049 — February 4, 2011 @ 9:03 am

  12. I have spoken to one other source in opposition to Romanchuk, in Lithunia. I also spent some time with some students and former students in Minsk of the same opinion.

    No, it’s not adequate you’re quite right. I’m not currently part of a news organization and my resources were limited to only a short stay. Something I hope to remedy in the future.

    However, this is what I can do right now. Would you be willng to write up your position, identify yourself, your position in the opposition, and your specific positions re Belarusian politics, your specific charges against Romanchuk, identify those who you say he has slandered and why you think the charges are false?

    I can’t speak for my other publishers, but I can post it here. You would be the first guest poster ever on this site.

    Comment by Stephen W. Browne — February 4, 2011 @ 9:25 am

  13. Steve,

    I think you’re handling this with the appropriate care and caution. We have no idea what the whole truth is, or who is telling it — if anyone. It could be that everyone’s accusations of culpability are only partly factual — or that everyone is being “played” by people deliberately spreading lies and disinformation in order to divide the opposition. That’s the evil nature of life in a totalitarian society.

    It’s also why I decline to blame individuals for the ugly choices they sometimes feel compelled to make under the extreme duress of totalitarianism. In a free society, a person can choose between a range of positive values—rationally self-interested options, in which one person’s gain does not come at the expense of anyone else. A free society is built on “win-win” relationships, and that encourages everyone to “maximize gain.”

    Not so under the compulsion of tyrannies. Morality presupposes freedom of choice, and a “forced choice” is a contradiction in terms. “Your money or your life” is not a moral (rationally self-interested) alternative. Neither is “your friend’s life or your girlfriend’s,” or “your life or your mother’s,” etc. A “Sophie’s Choice” situation is not a moral alternative. Any forced “choice” between two terrible harms is not a “moral” choice at all.

    Yet under tyranny, the only alternatives presented to individuals are various kinds and degrees of harm and loss. In such a context, one can no longer try to maximize gain; one can only try to minimize loss. The rules of civilization — reason and rights — have been banished, and the only remaining rule of existence is “damage control.” Because force excludes reason from determinations of one’s self-interest, it compels one to descend back to the kind of brute, “kill or be killed” self-interest practiced by animals in the jungle.

    So, if fully moral choices are impossible under tyranny, it is a mistake to try to attribute moral blame to individuals who are “forced to choose” among truly horrible alternatives, and who are only trying to minimize harm to themselves and their loved ones.

    By pointing fingers of blame at each other, the Belarusian opposition are only playing into the hands of the regime. They should instead point their fingers straight at the evil regime that is forcing otherwise decent citizens into impossible dilemmas that simply cannot be resolved morally.

    Morality without free choice is nonsense. Morality, and moral blame, end where the muzzle of a gun begins. I hope members of the opposition begin to grasp this point and to start showing some compassion toward each other. They need to target their common enemy.

    Comment by Robert Bidinotto — February 4, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  14. P.S. I believe you are quite right to insist that Jaroslav’s critics identify themselves. There are only two reasons I can think of that they would not:

    1. They are agents-provocateurs from the regime, spreading disinformation.

    2. They are honest members of the opposition, but they fear reprisals if they dare to identify themselves.

    Well, if it is the second alternative, aren’t his anonymous critics proving my very point? How can they claim that Jaroslav is a coward for making self-protective choices under the threat of terrible harm, when they themselves are doing so right here? If he is to be blamed for cowardice, how do we interpret their anonymity?

    Comment by Robert Bidinotto — February 4, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  15. A few of my thoughts at present:

    1) I am way too close to the primary source and must tread very carefully to preserve my objectivity – and my integrity as a journalist. God forbid I should emulate the New York Times! I think I’ve done pretty well so far, you can judge for yourselves.

    2) So far the sources linked to are online articles from other opposition factions, making this a he-said/he-said situation. That is still news, not trivial, and can be reported as such without having to present a conclusion as to which claims are most true.

    3) I’ve seen this movie before, in Poland, in Serbia, and in countless histories. Opposition movements are always fragmented, and often the opposing sides hate each other worse than the regime.

    When I lived in Poland I remember when charges were made then-president Lech Walesa was the informer identified in SB (Polish communist-era secret police) files as “Bolek.”

    Opposition movements always fragment into at least two broad groups – those in exile and those still inside the country. Think Sinn Fein, the earlier Fenian Brotherhood, or the Polish Government-in-Exile (who later graciously conferred their claim to legitimacy on the current government. The last Polish President-in-Exile died in that plane crash near Katyn, the accursed place.)

    There is always tension between those who stay in the country to resist from within, and those who choose exile with the greater latitude for choice that gives.

    There is always tension between gradualists and those who demand immediate change – and there is a place in every opposition for both. Indeed both are necessary for a “many strategies – one goal” approach.

    See my review of The Singing Revolution here:

    4) Or – Romanchuk could indeed have been broken and made a very bad choice under KGB stress that he’s now trying to justify. I don’t like this, but for the sake of journalistic integrity I have to consider it.

    Romanchuk’s friend and partner is in prison still. He’s now engaged to a lovely young woman who is also his partner in the Mises Institute and political opposition, and that’s a pressure point.

    If the KGB threatened my wife or little ones… there is probably nothing so degrading I wouldn’t do to secure their safety. I might want to suicide later, but that’s just how it is.

    Comment by Stephen W. Browne — February 4, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

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