30 March 2005

Beating the Grass to Scare the Snake

by Alyaksandr Kudrytski

In Belarus, an ex-fireman blows on the small flame of domestic revolt as officialdom blasts the Kyrgyz uprising.

MINSK, Belarus | There were fears - trumped up or real - that the day would see Belarus go the way of Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia. Instead, only a few hundred demonstrators gathered on 25 March near the presidential palace and were soon dispersed by riot police. But for the unconventional oppositionist who threatened to turn Minsk into another Kyiv or Bishkek, this may be just the first step.

Belarusians refer to 25 March as Freedom Day to commemorate the declaration of what turned out to be a short-lived independence on that date in 1918. Never an official holiday, the day instead typically sees unsanctioned opposition protests. This year, however, the major opposition political groups openly rejected street action. Even the Belarusian People's Front, usually the mainstay of Freedom Day demonstrations, said it would refrain from open-air rallies this year. Instead, party leader Vintsuk Viachorka celebrated the day with Belarusians in Prague, home to a small but vocal band of Belarusian exiles. The opposition leaders' call to avoid "any provocations" apparently sprang from concern over the authorities' reaction to the "Belarusian revolution" announced for 25 March by Andrey Klimau.

Among all opponents of the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Klimau may be the most eccentric. A fireman by profession, he went into the construction business in the 1990s and even for a time produced an eponymous publication, Andrey Klimau's Newspaper. He was elected to parliament and was among the deputies who tried to impeach Lukashenka when president and parliament clashed over constitutional changes in 1996. In February 1998, Klimau was arrested and spent the next four years in prison on charges of embezzlement and forgery. After his release in 2002 (on 25 March, no less) he dedicated himself to political prose. At the launch party of his book Uprising 2005 last December - an event that more resembled a gathering of rebels than of bibliophiles - he urged Belarusians to oust Lukashenka through massive street protests on this year's Freedom Day.


Klimau's tactics appeared to spook someone. In late December, the Minsk prosecutor threatened to put him on trial for libeling the president in two of his books. As Freedom Day drew nearer "reliable" information about a planned neo-Nazi rally on 25 March was leaked to the independent press, in an effort, some said, to scare off non-violent protestors. For several days stories about the rally appeared in the papers, but on the day not a single skinhead showed up at the reported gathering point in front of the General Prosecutor's Office.

Klimau said that he expected his rally to draw up to half a million people to October Square in the center of Minsk, but was prepared for a smaller turnout. "Even if I'm the only one who comes, it will only prove that the revolution is already here," he told the independent newspaper Belorusskaya Gazeta on 14 February. "Chess players say that threat is more powerful than attack. To defeat a tiger, you must lure it from the mountain to the plain. You have to beat the grass to scare the snake."

When the rally got under way at 3 p.m., Klimau was not alone, but his grandiose vision of a mass uprising remained unfulfilled. Some 1,000 protesters showed up to blow whistles and wave blue paper European Union flags. Opposition party members generally followed their leaders' instructions to keep a low profile, and there were no party banners in sight, but in addition to Klimau supporters and activists from across the political spectrum, several leading opposition figures could be seen, including United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka.

Riot police prevented most of the crowd from entering the square, which faces the presidential palace. Several hundred passive but sympathetic bystanders looked on from Francysk Skaryna Avenue, between the palace and the square, as police scuffled with demonstrators. On the avenue at the corner of October Square, shaking his fist, Klimau called for the people to hold out till 8 p.m., promising, "Then the workers from Minsk's state factories will join us."

Some in the crowd clamored for the release of jailed regime opponents, including market vendor leaders Anatol Shumchanka and Valery Levaneuski, and former cabinet minister Mikhail Marynich, a Lukashenka ally turned foe. Market vendors - a vital cog in the economic system, though often disparaged by Lukashenka - have staged a number of work stoppages and rallies in the past year, forcing the authorities to make concessions on such issues as record-keeping and VAT regulations.

Klimau explicitly linked the rally with the mass uprisings in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and this month in Kyrgyzstan. ''Today's gathering must send a signal to the West, Russia, and our own bureaucrats that Belarus is ready for a serious change," the AP quoted Klimau as saying. His aim, he said, was to "force the resignation of Lukashenka, the last dictator of Europe."

Freedom Day rally in Minsk, 25 March. Courtesy of

It was a vain hope. Police skillfully divided the crowd and pushed demonstrators off Skaryna Avenue into side streets. After a group of youths began tossing snowballs at police, they counterattacked and threw a couple of dozen protesters into buses. Finally, demonstrators were pushed to the Palace of Sport, about a kilometer away from October Square. The crowd dispersed and police boarded buses and left with about 30 detainees, some allegedly seriously beaten. About a dozen people were jailed for up to 15 days, according to press reports. Klimau was not detained.

Some protestors at the scene were not impressed with Klimau's "revolution." One, 32-year-old Ihar, who said he often took part in opposition rallies and visited Kyiv during the recent street protests there, went further. "I think this is our death, the death of our movement," he said. "Just compare this to what happened in Kyrgyzstan! Nothing similar here, no result."

"An attempted revolution - I can hardly believe it is possible," said Pavel, a 20-year-old student from Brest who came to the capital for the event. "But we should get the experience. We should show the rest of the people that we still exist. The revolution did not happen today, but it is coming."

The authorities had several months to prepare for Klimau's announced uprising, but the unscheduled regime changed in Kyrgyzstan came as an unpleasant surprise. On 24 March, the day Kyrgyz leader Askar Akaev was ousted, the Foreign Ministry in Minsk announced, "The events that took place in the capital of Kyrgyzstan caused great anxiety in Belarus."

But anything like what happened in the Central Asian republic "is impossible in Belarus," parliamentarian Siarhey Kastsian said, as reported by RFE/RL. "The government, the president of Belarus - these are not some financial clans. They were chosen by the people. Akaev swung between America and Russia. As a result, neither side needed him anymore."

State media took a more dramatic line. "In just a matter of hours Bishkek became the victim of looters and arsonists," wrote the pro-presidential Sovetskaya Belorussiya on 26 March. More than simply disputing the color or flower name for "their revolution," the rebels "also raised a wave they couldn't control."

An analytical program on state-owned First National Television, At the Center of Attention, painted an equally grave picture. Without physically leaving Belarus, the show's correspondent Yury Prakopau conducted a "journalistic investigation" of Kyrgyz events entitled "What color are tulips in Bishkek, and who profits?" In Prakopau's view, the Kyrgyz revolution was inspired by Americans eager to control the country's oil and gas resources. "If it were not for the police's well-coordinated action, events in Minsk as well could have turned into a nightmare," he said, drawing a parallel to the 25 March protests. "That's the kind of democracy our domestic revolutionaries thirst for: anarchy in the country, people seeking refuge from bullets and gangs of looters."

The Belarusian opposition expressed a very different view, generally praising the change of regime in Kyrgyzstan. "I think these events are very important for Belarus: Tbilisi, Ukraine, now Bishkek. For Belarus this is the example that only people, not fraud, should decide the result of elections," Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the Belarusian People's Front candidate to challenge Lukashenka in next year's presidential election, told RFE/RL.

"Nobody expected such a chain of revolutions," Alyaksandr Dabravolski, deputy chairman of the United Civic Party, said. "Obviously, the post-Soviet ... period of history is coming to an end, and a new one beginning. In these conditions Belarus will surely not be an exception. Sooner or later something like that will happen in Belarus."

Perhaps in 2006? This year's Freedom Day proved to be far less dramatic than Andrey Klimau hoped, but he says it went according to plan. He says the 25 March demonstration was to demand Lukashenka's resignation and new presidential and parliamentary elections. If Lukashenka ignores the ultimatum, a new and much bigger act of civil disobedience will take place on that date next year, Klimau says.

For a week leading up to Freedom Day, dozens of people gathered every evening on October Square to remember those politicians and journalists who have been murdered or disappeared without trace, and to support those imprisoned on what they see as political charges. And they are still there. The revolution did not catch fire, but the coals are live.