Monday's metro attack in Minsk killed 12 and injured roughly 200 people. As investigations and reprisals begin, the political opposition might suffer from fresh tensions in Europe's 'last true remaining dictatorship.'
The bomb targeted a busy subway station at rush hour
Monday evening's bombing targeted rush hour traffic at one of the busiest metro stations in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, killing at least 12 people and injuring roughly 200 more, according to the local press.
"I'm not ruling out that this was a gift from abroad," President Alexander Lukashenko, famed for his isolationist policies, said of the bombing. State-run media is already reporting several arrests in connection with what's being treated as a terrorist attack.
Since coming to power in 1994, Lukashenko has become a dab hand at arresting and detaining people - though it's usually opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists being thrown behind bars, not suspected terrorists. Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Belarusian secret service is still called the KGB.
The former US administration of President George W. Bush famously described Lukaschenko's Belarus as Europe's "last true remaining dictatorship," a mantle that has endured in the wider world. The tall, 56-year-old Belarusian leader probably prefers his local nickname of "Batka," or "Dad."
Persecuted opposition fears fallout
Prominent opposition figures question Lukashenko's view that the attack came from beyond Belarus' borders. Alexander Milinkevich, a defeated presidential candidate in 2006 elections, called the attack an act of terror by people "within Belarus and beyond who want to destabilize the situation in Belarus."
Leaked WikiLeaks cables described the president as 'clearly disturbed'
"These forces want to provoke an even tougher political repression and destroy our country's chance for European integration and weaken its independence," Milinkevich said.
Since Lukashenko's landslide reelection in December 2010, in a vote labeled unfair and undemocratic by the West, his government has quashed any opposition attempts to speak out against the ballot.
Demonstrations were broken up by police, protesters were arrested and often handed draconian fines or even prison sentences.
Prisoners of conscience
According to Amnesty International, 20-year-old law student Mikita Likhavid was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for "mass disorder," after taking part in a protest. Zmitser Dashkevic, leader of the Young Front organization, and fellow group member Eduard Lobau were sentenced to two and four years respectively in a labor colony for allegedly assaulting passers-by the day before the election.
"These men are prisoners of conscience - jailed for the peaceful expression of their views," Amnesty's Nicola Duckworth said after their March sentences. "They must be immediately and unconditionally released."
Alexander Otroschenkov, a journalist, activist and the press secretary of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, received a four-year prison sentence in March.
Other opposition figures have fled west to avoid such sentences. Ales Mikhalevich - a presidential candidate arrested on election night for allegedly organizing mass riots - has since sought asylum in the Czech Republic.
The OSCE was forced to close its doors after speaking out against the election
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was effectively booted out of Minsk at the end of March. The group was forced to close its Belarusian offices after Lukashenko's government refused to extend its mandate. OSCE election monitors had questioned the validity of the 2010 poll.
In February, the European Union and United States imposed a fresh set of sanctions on Belarus, in response to the deteriorating human rights landscape there. These measures include travel bans and asset freezes affecting Lukashenko and over 150 of his associates.
Bombing a boon for Lukashenko?
Observers in Minsk say the atmosphere had soured since Lukashenko's reelection, despite government attempts to quash dissident voices. There are reports of rising food prices and panic purchases in the capital, as international sanctions bite.
Russian media, including the Nezavisimaja Gazeta, see possible political gains in the terror attack for Europe's last dictator.
"Now, Lukashenko can get something back from this explosion: that oft-promised 'national unity' around a strong leader as well as an easing of the financial pressure and the sanctions from the West," the paper's Tuesday edition postulated.
The attack might also distract Belarusians from the more everyday economic problems they have faced for over 15 years.
Author: Roman Goncharenko/Mark Hallam (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton