Light the Candles Of Belarus

Europe's Last Dictatorship Will Not Endure

By Mikulas Dzurinda

On Sunday the people of Belarus will cast their ballots for a new president in what should be the first, tentative step of this unhappy country toward democracy. But sadly, in the past few months we have received nothing but reports of campaign violations, tightening control of the media, imprisonment of civic activists and gross intimidation of the opposition, culminating in the beating of an opposition candidate. Under these cruel circumstances, one can doubt that the people of Belarus will have a free and fair choice.

I believe that what the people of Belarus are likely to be denied is the most fundamental of human rights: the right to political choice. I believe this choice applies not only to the election of the president but also to the character of the nation's politics and its path in the years ahead. I believe that this coming weekend the people of Belarus have a choice between political darkness and the light of freedom.

Eighteen years ago, when Soviet communism still occupied Europe's East, people in Bratislava, the capital of my homeland, decided to light candles in the central square. They came simply to pray in the candlelight for religious liberty, for freedom and for an end to the tyranny of totalitarianism. On that day the regime crushed the protest, but somehow the flickering lights that had briefly rolled back the darkness were not extinguished. Twenty months later the regime fell and freedom came to Central Europe.

It has been a long road since those early days. As President Bush told my countrymen at the same square just a year ago, the road to liberty and prosperity has not always been straight or easy. But what began as little more than a prayer in the darkness has become a reality for the people of Slovakia. I am proud of Slovakia's achievements and its willingness today to support the cause of freedom and the advance of democracy around the world.

In my view, the historical forces set in motion by the aspirations of peoples yearning to be free are irresistible. Tyrants may well have acquired a new sophistication -- and certainly in Belarus a renewed ruthlessness -- but at the end of the day the attraction of freedom is a stronger force than the tactics of repression. This Thursday, and on the 16th day of every month, people in Belarus will be lighting candles as they did in the square years ago. They will be lighting candles and placing them in the windows of their homes for those who disappeared at the hands of the regime, for freedom, for a future without fear. And people of all ages will be wearing blue denim, the symbol of hope for a modern, European Belarus.

Last year, near the square where we lit candles, I introduced a special group of people to President Bush. These were civic leaders who championed freedom in their homelands. These were men and women who came from countries from the Baltic to the Black seas, from Georgia to Serbia and Montenegro, and, yes, from Belarus.

Later today Bush and I will talk about this meeting. Undoubtedly we will recall the bravery of these men and women and the solidarity we felt then with these extraordinary people. As the people of Belarus approach their nation's first attempt to make a free choice, we want them to know of our solidarity and that we wish them well.

A free and democratic Belarus will be a better home for its people and for their children. It will be a good neighbor for Europe and Russia, rather than the exporter of political refugees it is today. And a free Belarus would send a message to the world that the last dictatorship in Europe has finally come to an end.

What inspires such confidence in the people of Belarus? The same candles that lit the square in Bratislava now flicker in the apartment windows of Minsk and in small houses in the countryside. Perhaps, it is true, just one day of each month. But just as orange scarves and jackets began to fill the streets of Kiev, Ukraine, last winter, blue denim has become the fashion in the streets of Belarus and officials worry about the startling demand for candles. It all comes down to the inexplicable persistence of these tiny lights in the square. And this is the way the darkness finally ends and fear is forgotten.

The writer has been prime minister of the Slovak Republic since 1998.