‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ Hasn’t Changed His Colors

Andrei Zeltzer, a 31-year-old computer programmer and opponent of the repressive government in his country, Belarus, was shot and killed by government security forces last week.

Mr. Zeltzer’s death took place during a raid of his home in Minsk, the country’ capital, last Tuesday, by Belarusian police in plain clothes. The Belarus government said that the officers had orders to arrest Mr. Zeltzer, who resisted and, it claimed, killed one of the security forces before being shot and killed himself.

The reasons for the planned arrest were unclear but Mr. Zeltzer was an outspoken critic of the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko. Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Mr. Lukashenko has held his position since 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when Belarus, which lies east of Poland, declared its independence.

The country’s most recent elections, which took place last year, have been called a sham not only by anti-Lukashenko activists but by independent observers as well.

Demonstrations following the election demanding the president’s resignation were met with the detention of tens of thousands of people, and it has been reported that several demonstrators were killed and others tortured.

A Russian Jewish news site described the late Mr. Zeltzer as Jewish. And a newscaster on a Belarusian state media channel denounced the dissident as an American and “a cosmopolitan, enjoying state benefits to fatten himself up and live in two countries, to make money here and spend it there,” which observers noted was hardly-disguised code-language often used by Eastern European antisemites to refer to Jews.

Supporting the observers’ speculation was the fact that, at times during his lengthy monologue, the news anchor, Ryhor Azaronak, adopted a stereotypical accent of Yiddish-speaking Jews.

There has been no confirmation that Mr. Zeltzer was in fact an American citizen, but he worked for a U.S.-based technology company, Epam, whose founder and CEO, Arkadiy Dobkin, is another Belarusian Jew, currently living in this country.

The Lukashenko government is infamous for the measures it has taken to squelch opposition. Today, most airlines don’t fly over Belarusian territory, a policy born of the fact that, this past May, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced by a Belarusian fighter jet to land in Minsk — ostensibly because of a bomb threat by Hamas, a claim the terror group called “fake news” — and two Belarusian dissidents were removed from the plane and arrested.

Back in 1995, Mr. Lukashenko presented Adolf Hitler as a role model for his presidential system in Belarus. “The history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus,” he explained. “Germany was raised from ruins thanks to firm authority, and not everything connected with that well-known figure Hitler was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and attained its peak under Hitler. This corresponds with our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of a president in it.”

More recently, in 2007, Mr. Lukashenko referred to the “miserable state of the city of Babruysk,” calling it “a Jewish city.” He contended that “the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Babruysk into a pigsty. Look at Israel. I was there and saw it myself … I call on Jews who have money to come back to Babruysk.”

After criticism for that statement emerged, a Belarusian representative of a government periodical said that Mr. Lukashenko was “anything but antisemitic” and had been “insulted by the mere accusation” that he might be. The Belarusian Ambassador to Israel insisted that his president had a “kind attitude toward the Jewish people.”

Confronted in a CNN interview on October 2 with evidence from human rights groups that some Belarusian detainees had reported injuries including broken bones, burns and other abuse, Mr. Lukashenko lashed out at the U.S. as having a worse record on human rights, invoking the Guantanamo detention center and the death of Ashli Babbitt, shot and killed as she tried to crawl through a broken window leading to the Speaker’s Lobby during the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. (The officer who shot Ms. Babbitt was cleared by both the Capitol Police and Justice Department of any wrongdoing.)

A reporter for the network visited Minsk and endeavored to speak with people on the street. Most refused and hurried away.

One young man did stop to talk briefly, just to explain why he wouldn’t consent to a longer interaction. “This is Belarus,” he said. “The police can arrest you and me.”