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Belarus protesters find inspiration

By Jason Motlagh,

MINSK, Belarus — The Belarusan capital is striking for its absence of litter, a testament to the harsh punishments that await violators and the orange-vested cleaning crews that prowl the sidewalks around the clock.

But in recent weeks, the authoritarian government here has been at a loss to stop a growing number of young activists from filling the streets to protest the country’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union and the ruthless leader they say is responsible.

With opposition figures in prison or exile, they have taken a page from the Arab Spring playbook, using social networking sites to circumvent rules that outlaw public gatherings in what has been called Europe’s last dictatorship.

For the fifth week in a row, several thousand met in Minsk’s October Square on Wednesday to clap hands, a gesture of solidarity against Alexander Lukashenko, the former collective farm manager in power for 17 years.

This time, authorities were waiting for them. Dozens of protesters were arrested by police with help from plainclothesmen. Witnesses said they cornered people, punching and kicking them before packing them into police vehicles. Smaller protests were reported in 10 towns and cities outside the capital.

“It’s become a little scary, but we are not going to walk away from this. Enough of Lukashenko!” said Vitaly, 22, an accountant who has been taking part in the rallies and did not want his last name used, out of fear for his safety.

The latest crackdown follows unrest last Sunday that disrupted celebrations marking Independence Day here. Police deployed tear gas and batons as they arrested nearly 400 people around the country, human rights groups said.

Earlier Sunday, Lukashenko — dressed in olive-drab military attire — gave a speech in which he warned his countrymen against harboring dreams of “color revolutions” like those that successfully toppled governments in other former Soviet states. “They want to put us on our knees and reduce our independence to zero!” he boomed. “This will not happen!”

The president blamed the troubles on shadowy forces operating in foreign capitals. His drama was not without some justification.

After the crackdown on protesters following December’s election, Viachaslau Dziyanau, a 24-year-old democracy activist and campaign worker for a rival candidate, fled to Russia, Lithuania, and finally Krakow, Poland, to focus on a protest group he founded on the Russian social networking site Vkontakte.

Buoyed by the support of restless Belarusans in their 20s and 30s, the group quickly evolved into the “Revolution Through Social Networks” movement, which has more than 215,000 virtual members despite ongoing government efforts to shut it down.

In a June 23 interview with Echo Moskvy, a Moscow-based radio station, Dziyanau asserted that Lukashenko’s government is “afraid of the [nonviolent] dynamics” of the protests and the elusiveness of its organizers, whose calls for flash-mob clapping rallies at 7 p.m. every Wednesday have been heeded by more and more people across the country.

“The main difference between our initiative and what happened in Arab countries is that in Arab countries, the Internet was only an instrument for action,” he said, referring to social-media-driven uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. “In Belarus, the Internet is the source.”

Not everyone in Belarus is buying the revolutionary hype.

Lukashenko, known to his supporters as “batka,” which means father, has built a vast security apparatus and enjoys significant backing among workers who have put stability ahead of social freedoms. Valery Dranchuk, a prominent activist, said that unless those workers join the opposition, and unless there is increased pressure from the United States and the European Union, the “state machine” will prevail.

Lukashenko helped launch the economic crisis when, in the run-up to last year’s election, he gave public-sector workers a pay raise by printing more money.

The resulting inflation has decreased the value of pensions, dried up imports and led to a shortage of basic goods. According to a May survey by the independent Institute of Sociology, Economy and Political Studies in Minsk, more than half of Belarusans said they could “not feed” or could “barely feed” their families.

Last month, angry motorists assembled in Minsk to demand lower gas prices. The president agreed the following day, only to be confronted by fresh protests over new travel rules meant to limit the smuggling of subsidized gas and cigarettes across the border.

To reduce the near-term strain, Lukashenko might opt to sell valuable state assets to Russia, on which he has long depended for cheap oil. Yet that risks giving an even greater slice of the country’s economy to an increasingly fickle ally that has upped the cost of its support, going so far as to cut off electricity supplies for four days over unpaid bills.

Meanwhile, a massive loan from the International Monetary Fund would require financial restructuring that could weaken the government’s grip.

“There’s no question the government is caught between a rock and hard place right now,” said Sergei Chaley, an independent economist in Minsk.

Chaley suggested that as the summer wears on, and as the rising costs of food and fuel stir anxiety as cold weather approaches, the activists might not be alone in the street.

Rusia Shukiurova, 31, a musician, is less certain. “The roots of the system are so deep, I fear that only through revolution, with spilled blood, with something fast and powerful, can things be changed for good,” she said. “This country is made of fear.”

Motlagh is a special correspondent who reported from Belarus on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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