Daring to criticise Belarus' president

By Steve Rosenberg

BBC, Belarus

Next week, the people of Belarus go to the polls to vote for a president. But opposition candidates face a tough battle if they are to prevent the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, from winning a third term in office.

You can tell a lot about a country from the kind of jokes being made about its leader.

Take this one, doing the rounds in Minsk at the moment: "At the start of the presidential election campaign, Alexander Lukashenko promises to ban censorship in the press if he's re-elected.

"He wins the vote and immediately issues two decrees - one banning censorship, the other banning the press."

Judging from the selection of newspapers on sale in Minsk, the independent press has already been banned.

The only papers I could find were government ones.

That is because in the 12 years that President Lukashenko has been in power, he has turned Belarus into a police state which, among other things, has cracked down on criticism and public displays of dissent.

Most independent newspapers are denied the right to publish and circulate.

Some still exist online, others have gone underground.

Unusual broadcast

As for radio and television, well, government control of them is even greater.

Belarusian State TV pumps out praise for the president.

Belarus is portrayed as a land of economic achievements.

There is no mention of Mr Lukashenko's political opponents who have been imprisoned, or vanished without trace.

In one news bulletin I saw, a Russian tourist was waxing lyrical: "Thanks to Lukashenko, your country is so successful, so wonderful," she gasped, "I'm so envious".

So you can imagine the shock that viewers had one evening last month, when they switched on their Belarusian "telescreens" and saw - not Alexander Lukashenko - but a man sitting in a studio denouncing the president.

The unthinkable

For 30 unedited minutes, Alexander Kozulin tore President Lukashenko's image to shreds.

A former university dean, Mr Kozulin accused Mr Lukashenko of being a liar, a dictator, of robbing his people - and that was just for starters.

The president, he informed the nation, had a lover and an illegitimate child.

And he finished by ripping up a copy of the main government newspaper, with President Lukashenko's photo on the cover.

And all this on one of the most highly censored, tightly controlled television channels in the world.

Alexander Kozulin had done the unthinkable, he had said the unspeakable.


Next morning in a radio phone-in, one caller asked nervously: "That speech, what does it mean? Has there been a coup?"

There had not been a coup.

As one of four presidential candidates, Alexander Kozulin had the right to limited airtime.

Most of his campaign broadcasts on state TV and radio have been heavily censored but, for some reason, this one was not.

The rumours began swirling.

Who put it on air? Were the censors asleep? Was it sabotage?

Everyone seemed to be talking about that speech. "It's like a giant bomb has just exploded," one man explained to me, "and no one knows how much damage there's going to be."

Public support

I met Mr Kozulin in his tiny campaign headquarters in the centre of Minsk.

He looked different from the TV. His lips were puffy, his head bruised.

The day before he had been beaten up by plain clothes police officers, bundled into a van and detained for hours.

Several journalists had been injured in the same incident, which happened when Mr Kozulin was refused entry to a people's congress organised by the president.

"Our country might be steeped in fear," he told me, "but Lukashenko's regime is a house of cards and it's about to come crashing down."

But is it?

After all, even Alexander Lukashenko's fiercest critics concede that at least a quarter of the population still support the president, inspired by his iron rule and anti-Western rhetoric.

What is more, opinion polls suggest that most Belarusians are unlikely to take to the streets after the elections, even if they conclude that President Lukashenko has rigged the vote.

And yet there are signs of growing public opposition to the authorities.

Political combat

On the day that Mr Kozulin was taken into custody, thousands of people rallied in the centre of Minsk in support of another opposition candidate - Alexander Milinkevich.

It was one of the biggest opposition gatherings in Belarus for a long time.

The authorities declared it illegal and sent in hundreds of riot troops to disperse the crowd.

"It doesn't matter, who wins - me or Milinkevich," Alexander Kozulin said.

"The main thing is to make sure that Lukashenko doesn't get re-elected."

If he does, then Mr Kozulin could face reprisals.

President Lukashenko has already called for his opponent to be driven from the country.

But Alexander Kozulin says he is ready for a fight.

"I couldn't give a damn what Lukashenko is planning to do with me," Mr Kozulin told me.

"I'm not scared of prison or my own death."