MINSK, Belarus — Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has suggested that a massive blast that ripped through a subway station in central Minsk this week was the work of outside forces, bent on destabilizing his former Soviet state — but then the question is who?
And even if those to blame are located outside Belarus, what does this mean for the country’s already beleaguered opposition? Could this mean a further escalation of the crackdown that followed last year’s anti-government protests?
So far no one has claimed responsibility for the explosion in Minsk’s packed Oktyabrskaya station (located below the city’s main public square and just yards away from the presidential administration), which took place at the height of rush hour Monday evening, killing at least 12 and wounding more than 200.
Authorities say that the blast was a terrorist attack: A bomb, laced with nails, ball-bearings and other metal objects, was placed beneath a bench and then possibly detonated by remote control. It carried a force of 11 to 15 pounds of TNT.
The impact was horrifying. Eyewitnesses described bodies strewn about, many missing legs and arms, with pools of blood covering the platform. Many of the survivors are said to be in critical condition.
“I had two friends in the metro at the time,” said Lidiya Vintskevich, a journalism student. “One of them is in a coma right now in the hospital and is in a very difficult situation.”
The country’s security services, still called the KGB, have taken the lead in organizing the manhunt for the perpetrators. They say that they have compiled a composite photo of a man whom they believe could be responsible for placing the bomb whom they are now searching for.
KGB head Vadim Zaitsev said that the man pictured was in his 20s and of a “non-Slavic appearance.” He added that the individual could have been hired simply to place the bomb.
The Belarus state prosecutor’s office also said that several people had been detained, but gave no further details. These may have not been suspects however.
President Lukashenko promised to turn the country “inside out” to find those who carried out the attack. He suggested that the metro attack was somehow connected to a previous explosion during Independence Day celebrations in 2008 that injured 50 people, and which was never solved.
“These are perhaps links in a single chain. We must find out who gained by undermining peace and stability in the country, who stands behind this,” Lukashenko said.
“I do not rule out that this [blast] was a gift from abroad,” he added.
Belarus has in fact come under increased pressure lately, though perhaps of an entirely different sort than the president implied.
Western governments have punished Lukashenko for his suppression of political dissent — in the hope of relaxing the crackdown on the country’s opposition, many of whom face extended jail sentences for their involvement in the December protests.
At the same time, the neo-Soviet model that has driven the country’s economy is showing signs of running out of steam. Fears that the national currency, the ruble, faced an imminent devaluation created panic in past weeks. Scores of Belarusians bought dollars, jewelry, cars — even sugar and cooking oil — in an attempt to convert their money into something with a more fixed value.
KGB head Zaitsev said that his ministry was investigating three scenarios: an attempt to destabilize the country, activities of “extremist organizations,” or the actions of someone mentally imbalanced.
But at the moment, it is difficult to say who exactly any of these candidates could be. Extremist groups have never been an issue in Belarus, and it is extremely hard to imagine how the country’s opposition could organize a terrorist attack, given that its leaders are either in prison or under strict surveillance.
As for the unnamed external forces, many say that more information is needed.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Anna Sushinskaya, a public relations worker, when asked about Lukashenko’s speculation over the blast’s foreign origins. “Unfortunately I don’t think that anything that happens in our country has any connection to what happens abroad.”