Some of the most excited young people camping in Kiev's Independence Square during Ukraine's democratic revolution were not even Ukrainian. They were leaders of the youth group Zubr, of neighboring Belarus. In Minsk in October, Zubr's street protests against the fraudulent elections of a Russian-backed dictatorship were brutally crushed by security forces, and appeared almost quixotic. Then Ukrainians showed them that such a movement could triumph -- and that the wave of autocracy rolling from Moscow across the former republics of the Soviet Union could be turned back.
The euphoria didn't last long. On the return trip from Kiev, four of the Zubr leaders were pulled off a train by the Belarusan secret police, savagely beaten and tossed into a local jail. Only quick intervention by Western diplomats may have saved them from a worse fate: Opponents of the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko have disappeared permanently in the past.
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That incident was an augur of the political struggle taking shape in a country of 10 million that lies astride the road from Berlin to Moscow, and now is the last Eastern European country governed by autocracy. Ukraine's "orange revolution" may have thwarted the ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to create a new empire based on the model of rigged elections, controlled media and thuggish intimidation. A toppling of the Lukashenko regime would probably make Putinism unsustainable even in Russia.
"Ukraine has had a great impact on Belarus," says Irina Krasovskaya, leader of the human rights group We Remember, who recently has been shuttling between Minsk and Washington. "It gives us hope for our victory, because we realized that Russia is not so powerful as they want to seem."
That truth has quietly resonated far beyond Belarus's small opposition movement. Even as the political crisis in Ukraine has wound down, democratic leaders from Kiev to Washington have begun to think about how Belarus might be transformed. Lukashenko, for his part, has launched a preemptive offensive against the opposition -- one seemingly calculated to test the West's intentions.
The strongman's gambit was to dispose of the most likely Belarusan counterpart to Ukrainian president-elect Viktor Yushchenko: a former presidential candidate, ambassador and government minister named Mikhail Marinich. The 64-year-old Marinich, who like Yushchenko defected from the government in the hope of leading a democratic movement, was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison on the patently ludicrous charge of stealing U.S. government property. In fact, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk supplied computers to Marinich's "Business Initiative" movement, designating them a loan so they could not be easily confiscated. Marinich's sentence came in the teeth of American protests that the "stolen" property was not stolen.
Lukashenko has reason to fear Marinich -- and the Bush administration to support him -- because, like Putin, the president has adopted the practice of legitimizing his rule with one-sided elections. The next one is due in 2006, and Lukashenko knows he can't win fairly: In October, a Western-sponsored exit poll showed that a referendum he staged on eliminating presidential term limits received only 48 percent support. Ignoring reports of massive fraud by international observers, the regime duly announced that the referendum had passed with 77 percent, making it possible for Lukashenko to stay in office indefinitely. But he still must avoid the election-linked popular uprisings that in the past four years have ousted autocrats in Serbia, Georgia and now Ukraine.
Lukashenko's answer to that threat appeared three weeks ago in the sinister form of Viktor Sheiman, who was abruptly named head of his presidential administration. Two Belarusan prosecutors who fled the country fingered Sheiman as the architect of a death squad that between 1999 and 2001 murdered four of Lukashenko's most prominent political adversaries. "The latest events in neighboring countries have shown the importance of a strong and authoritative power as a factor for preserving stability," Lukashenko said in appointing Sheiman. "Once the authorities begin to display hesitancy, passivity and weakness, destructive forces immediately make use of this. Young people led by them, the crowd, and endless rallying paralyze the state and lead to anarchy and a grave crisis for the entire society."
Lukashenko clearly has absorbed Ukraine's lesson; so has Zubr. How about President Bush? In October he signed the Belarus Democracy Act, which mandated tighter sanctions against the Lukashenko regime and stepped-up support for the democratic opposition. Congress passed the act by unanimous vote. Yet if he acts forcefully on that mandate, Bush will risk the fury of his "friend" Putin, who considers Belarus his last foreign line of defense. Two months ago, the White House could dismiss the dilemma on the grounds that a Belarusan democratic uprising was anyway implausible. The orange revolution casts that judgment in a different light.