Protests planned against Belarus vote

By Adrian Blomfield in Minsk

Their teeth chattering with cold and fear, the teenagers moved silently towards the Russian embassy in Minsk. The four knew they had very little time; they could see police advancing on them.

Having unfurled their banners and flags, they held them aloft between jerky hands. "Shame on those who support the dictator," they shouted at the diplomats inside.

In Belarus, a country the United States describes as an outpost of tyranny in Europe, it was a courageous if brief display of defiance. Within seconds, the teenagers, aged 16 and 17, were arrested and taken away for interrogation by the KGB.

That acronym has disappeared into history everywhere in the former Soviet Union except here, where it is used by President Alexander Lukashenko, head of state for 12 years, to crush dissent.

On Sunday Mr Lukashenko supposedly submits himself for re-election again, something he is able to do after changing the constitution to abolish all term limits. Mr Lukashenko is not bothering to campaign. The posters of his main rival, Alexander Milinkevich, are torn down moments after being put up.

Belarus is the only ex-Soviet satellite in Europe not to turn westwards. The Baltic states, by contrast, are members of the EU, while Ukraine broke with Moscow during its 2004 Orange Revolution. Communist Moldova has also turned its back on the Kremlin.

There is no doubt where Mr Lukashenko's loyalties lie. A former collective farm boss and an open admirer of Stalin, he has tried to turn Belarus into a living museum of its Soviet past.

Over 80 per cent of the economy remains under state control. Statues of Lenin adorn the capital, Minsk, and Mr Lukashenko has introduced a national flag almost identical to the one that flew over Belarus in Soviet times.

He has revived Soviet-era repression too, shutting down pressure groups, throwing opponents into jail and bringing most of the media under state control.

State employees, almost everybody, have been put on one-year contracts, leaving them in perpetual fear of the sack if they speak out of line.

The pro-western opposition is hoping to put its supporters on the streets on Sunday night to protest against what is likely to be a rigged vote.

The opposition has chosen denim as its symbol. But it is most unlikely that Belarus will emulate the coloured revolutions of Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

The opposition has been seriously disrupted, with more than 300 campaigners arrested since November. Yesterday the KGB warned that anyone at the protests would be arrested as a terrorist and could face the death penalty.

Despite the threats, thousands like the teenagers outside the Russian embassy, most of them members of a youth organisation called Zubr, are determined to take to the streets.

"It's going to be much more difficult in Belarus because the situation is very different," said Alexander Otrashchenko, a 24-year-old Zubr leader.

"In Georgia there was no dictatorship. In Ukraine they had pro-opposition radio stations. There was an opposition in parliament and the level of repression and fear was much lower."

Some independent polls suggest the opposition's voice is being heard. Support for Mr Milinkevich has climbed to 30 per cent.

But despite the repression, Mr Lukashenko is very popular. Liberal reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union brought economic chaos that he reversed by freezing the past. Pensions have stabilised and salaries have grown. Such stability is built on gas subsidies from Russia that allow Belarus to sell refined oil to Europe at a vast profit. Some economists warn of a crash within years.

Mr Milinkevich freely admits he does not expect to win the election.

"For us, the election has given us an opportunity to meet people, to give them information, to take away their fear and to tell them that those who want change are in a majority," he said.