Speaking out for Belarus
12:06, 23/02/2006, By Elaine Monaghan, Times Online
This incongruity grows even more unfathomable when you meet President Alexander Lukashenko`s perfectly reasonable opponents, who recently launched an international day of protest that is held every month on the 16th and spread to the Belarusian embassy in Washington last week. They included a 27-year-old newspaper editor and student at John Hopkins University who was recently threatened with six years in prison for supposedly printing her newspaper with "dangerous ink" and the widow of a businessman who vanished six years ago along with the deputy speaker of parliament, another critic of the regime.
Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan Republican and member of the House of Representatives` International Relations Committee, was the star visitor at the event. He wore jeans in honour of the "Denim Revolution" called by the opposition ahead of the elections on March 19th. The polls are widely expected to be rigged and to extend another term in office to the man whose leadership style since 1994 has won his country the label of Europe`s last dictatorship.
Most experts agree that the chances of pulling off the Belarusian equivalent of Ukraine`s "Orange Revolution" are slim: Lukashenko kicked his opponents out of parliament long ago, the state apparatus is extremely well-oiled and the president last month promised that there would be "no disturbances" like in other former Soviet countries, where opposition leaders were recently brought to power. If there were, he said, "we`ll give them such a going over they won`t know what hit them." He signed a chilling law in December that promised up to two years` imprisonment for discrediting the state and its authorities, membership of a liquidated political party or training people to participate in mass protests.
American politicians from President Bush and Condoleezza Rice downwards have lavished more attention than ever before to the state of Belarusian democracy. Since Bush took office, the State Department has openly accused Lukashenko of running a death squad. However, the US prerogative still seems to be to avoid ruffling feathers in Moscow, which continues to support Lukashenko with cheap energy and by not stifling his experiment in post-Soviet Soviet-ness.
So, other than the eloquent Mr McCotter, the protesters had to satisfy themselves with an occasional pro-democracy "honk" from a passing car, the devotion of a few American students and some like-minded Baltic Americans, and the enthusiasm of a mixed bag of others including Alice Kipel, whose grandparents fled Belarus for the United States at the end of World War Two. Both her grandfathers served time in the GULag, which may explain her rather philosophical remark that compared to Stalin, life in Belarus is not bad. The war slaughtered one in four Belarusians, so it is hard to disagree that things have improved since the middle of the 20th century.
It can also be assumed that the protesters enjoyed the attention of the embassy, which was rumoured among the crowd to be the home of a new KGB officer employed specifically to keep track of Lukashenko`s critics.
So who exactly are these dangerous people?
One of them is Irina Krasovskaya, whose businessman husband Anatoly vanished, along with Victor Gonchar, on their way home from a bathhouse on September 16, 1999.
Her calm, smiling exterior belies the brutality of the burden she bears, which puts her in a club of wives of the disappeared who have brought their case to anyone who will listen. The faces of their husbands looked out from a banner at the passing cars. Anatoly Krasovsky, with his neat philosopher`s beard and angular looks, the beaming Mr Gonchar, Dmitry Zavadsky, a serious-faced Russian television cameraman and Yuri Zaharenko, the former interior minister.
Alongside them appeared the faces of political prisoners, all of them commemorated in the denim pins the protesters wore on their lapels with the number 16, to mark the date of the monthly protest.
The Belarusians in Washington only had to worry about being arrested by DC police, who typically employ rather draconian measures against demonstrations in the vicinity of embassies, but in this case actually pointed out that up to 10 protesters, or about half the crowd, could legally cross the street and march up and down in front of the embassy door. A group of protesters promptly did so enthusiastically, waving their flags and chanting anti-Lukashenko slogans.
People in Minsk were less fortunate. In an attempt to win more support, the opposition has asked people simply to light candles in their windows, a move they assume will not get them arrested. Going out onto the streets is only for the pluckiest.
Irina Krasovskaya acquired an anxious look as she contemplated what might happen to them. As it turned out, she was right to be worried. About 20 people were arrested in Minsk for violating a ban on protests and the following day, 100 opposition supporters were detained because their cars were in bad shape or for other minor infractions en route to a gathering to mark the registration of Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition leader, as presidential candidate. But as Iryna Vidanava, the student publisher, put it, the opposition is in for the long haul. "I`ve been having difficulties for more than 10 years," the diminutive 27-year-old said. "We are not scared."