With Simple Tools, Activists in Belarus Build a Movement
Friday, September 23, 2005
MINSK, Belarus -- On Saturday, July 9, Belarusan special security forces burst into the home of Uladzimir Kishkurna, an opposition political leader. Neither he nor his wife was home.
They arrested Kishkurna's 22-year-old son, Anton, and claimed later that he had drugs and ammunition in his possession. But the real target of their raid appears to have been a printing press, a potent weapon in the hands of those seeking to topple the country's autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko. The press, confiscated by the authorities, was one of fewer than 10 of professional quality outside control of the state and was useful for printing tracts and posters against Lukashenko, opposition leaders said.
Around kitchen tables, in parks and fast-food joints, and sometimes in the forests of this thickly wooded country that lies between Poland and Russia, a revolution is being planned, and Lukashenko's government is determined to stop it. Inspired by the Orange Revolution last winter in Ukraine, Belarus's neighbor to the south, opposition leaders here hope to use next year's presidential election to oust Lukashenko.
The authoritarian president has shut down so much of civic life that the opposition has been forced to use tools that are primitive in comparison with those of democratic movements elsewhere. Cell phones, satellite television, the Internet and instant messaging -- all of which played a role in popular uprisings in Ukraine, Lebanon and Georgia -- are too closely monitored by the government to be reliable, opposition figures said. The Belarusan upheaval, if it comes, will be built on printing presses, shoe leather and face-to-face campaigning, they added.
As many countries in the former Soviet bloc have chosen democratic rule, Belarus has gone the other direction. Colin L. Powell, while secretary of state, called it Europe's "lone outlaw," and Freedom House, which monitors civil and political rights throughout the world, ranked only Turkmenistan lower on its 2005 democracy ratings for former Soviet bloc countries. Belarusan authorities last month arrested two young democracy activists from Georgia, who were held for more than a week.
In July, as word of the Kishkurna raid spread, a reflexive caution rippled through the small group of people opposing Lukashenko. Nervous activists recalled that they changed their daily schedules, avoided usual meeting places and scrubbed computers of dangerous information. In the shabby office of a human rights organization, the group's leader, Alies Bialiatski, tried to calm the terrified wife of a political prisoner on a hunger strike. In another room, a young man sat on a sofa, mechanically shredding papers into long strips and throwing them into a plastic bucket.
"To have a printing press, you need special permission of the Ministry of Information and Press," said Bialiatski, who rushed to the Kishkurna home after hearing about the raid. "That machine was illegal in the best tradition of Soviet times."
Immediately after the raid, the younger Kishkurna came under attack from government media. "Contours," a television news magazine, declared the discovery of "anti-state" materials in the house, showing leaflets bearing pictures of opposition political candidates, and an announcer opined that the "so-called opposition" was "often connected with criminality." The program then turned to coverage of a large public concert, attended by Lukashenko, who spoke to a massive crowd of smiling people.
Although elected as a reformer in 1994, Lukashenko, a onetime collective farm director, soon became the leading exponent of Soviet-era politics in the post-Soviet world. The economy of Belarus is still state-controlled. The nation's food is grown on collective farms; its media and educational institutions are closely monitored. Lukashenko has used violence and harassment to eliminate serious opposition, and propaganda to convince his people that they are surrounded by spies, subversives and external enemies.
Opposing him is a fractious and disparate group of politicians, civic leaders and students. They have little in common, except for the conviction that Lukashenko is driving their country back to the dark age of Stalinism. Throughout the summer, they worked more closely together than in the past to plan a democratic convention, tentatively scheduled for October, likely to be held in Ukraine. But when they met one morning not quite two weeks after the Kishkurna raid, the strains in their loose coalition were clear.
Sergei Kalyakin, a robust man with sausage fingers, powerful arms and a stentorian voice who is the head of the independent communists, spoke vigorously for drafting a concrete agenda for whoever was chosen to lead the fight against Lukashenko. As Kalyakin spoke, Anatol Lyabedzka, a veteran political operative from the United Civic Party who had come dressed in a suit, typed on a laptop and tended to a cell phone that rang frequently throughout the meeting.
Across from Lyabedzka, around an oval table in a room filled with old photographs of democracy protests in other countries, was Alexander Milinkevich. Milinkevich, dressed in jeans, has drawn his support from a network of nongovernmental organizations, largely funded from the West, and has distanced himself from the organized political parties, which are not popular in Belarus.