Belarus vows to squash protests

Activists face terror charges, KGB chief warns

Hundreds held ahead of Sunday's presidential vote



MINSK, Belarus-Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is still a country in the heart of Europe where four teenagers chanting anti-government slogans are considered enough of a threat to be hauled away by police.

The four, members of the Zubr opposition youth group, stood outside the Russian embassy in Minsk on Wednesday, shouting "Shame on those who support dictatorship," a reference to Moscow's backing of President Alexander Lukashenko.

But in the Belarus of Lukashenko - labelled "Europe's last dictator" by the White House and European governments - youthful rebellion is not to be tolerated. It took less than 30 seconds for state security forces to descend on the teens and take them to a police station to be charged with public disorder.

"My school told me I would be expelled if didn't stop my political actions," said 16-year-old Nastya, holding a traditional red-and-white Belarussian flag, which has been banned by Lukashenko in favour of the country's Soviet-era emblem. "But I'm not scared, I have hope and I believe in freedom, and that makes me strong."

A few kilometres across town, police were arresting a more seasoned rebel, Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party, one of the largest blocs supporting opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich in Sunday's presidential election here. After being stopped for a traffic violation on his way to a campaign rally, Lebedko was charged with resisting arrest and swearing in public. He was released after the intervention of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

In all, 35 opposition activists were detained across the country that day, and 11 of them were handed jail sentences ranging from seven to 15 days.

More than 300 opposition activists have been jailed in Belarus in the run-up to Sunday's vote, which is all but certain to result in a third, five-year term for Lukashenko. Many more have been threatened.

"The authorities are doing everything they can to hold on to power," Milinkevich said in an interview. "As the authorities do not want to have honest elections, people who want to fight for freedom will have no choice but to take to the streets."

Bolstered by unprecedented Western support, the opposition in Belarus is calling on people to take to the streets Sunday in public demonstrations inspired by the popular uprisings that overthrew authoritarian leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Activists from Zubr, which claims more than 2,000 members, are expected to be at the forefront of protests.

"It isn't going to be easy, the level of fear in Belarus is very high," said Alexander Astroshenko, a spokesman for the youth group. "If there are only 2,000 or 3,000 people then the police will use force against us and people will be severely beaten. If we can get 20,000, I think the police may be with us. They can always smell which way the wind is blowing."

Lukashenko has said that any demonstrations will be met with force and yesterday Stepan Sukhorenko, head of the Belarus security police still known by their Soviet-era acronym of KGB, warned that street protestors could face the death penalty, claiming the opposition was planning a "violent coup."

He said those "who take the risk of going out into the street to try to destabilize the situation will be charged with terrorism" and could face "sentences of up to 25 years, or life in prison, or capital punishment."

Lukashenko rose to power in 1994 in what is considered the last free election in Belarus, a country of 10 million wedged between Poland and Russia. Since then, the former collective-farm boss has reintroduced Soviet-style economic and political controls, removed all opposition voices from parliament and closed down nearly all independent media.

Michael Mainville is The Star's freelance writer in Russia