Belarus demonstrators ponder future

By Michael Mainville

The Washington Times

MINSK, Belarus -- The mood is festive inside the tent camp on October Square in central Minsk. Protected by a human chain around their camp, more than two dozen youth activists sing songs, play guitars and share black tea and biscuits. They stomp their feet and dance to ward off the bitter cold.

But outside the barrier of supporters, the atmosphere is more ominous. Black-clad agents of the Belarusian secret police -- still known by their Soviet name of KGB -- scan the youths with video cameras, recording the faces of those who dare to protest against five more years under President Alexander Lukashenko.

Three days after protests began against suspect elections in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed a landslide third term, there is no sign he will bow to domestic and international pressure for another vote. Meanwhile, fears are rising over what will happen to the tent dwellers if their demonstrations fail.

"Everybody will suffer. They will be arrested and jailed, kicked out of universities and schools, and they won't be able to find jobs," said Alexander Astrochenko, a spokesman for the opposition youth group Zubr (Bison), which has members inside the tent camp. "This is going to be a black mark against them for years."

More than 10,000 protesters rallied Sunday against the election results, which gave Mr. Lukashenko nearly 83 percent of the vote, against 6 percent for the leading opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich.

Between 6,000 and 7,000 protesters showed up for evening rallies yesterday and Monday. During the day yesterday, only about 300 diehard activists remained on the square.

The opposition still hopes to emulate the weeks of protests that led to peaceful revolutions against authoritarian regimes in two other former Soviet republics -- Ukraine and Georgia.

Mr. Milinkevich called last night for a major show of strength Saturday, the anniversary of the declaration of independence of the first, short-lived Belarusian republic in 1918. March 25 is an unofficial holiday celebrated by the opposition but not recognized by the government, which retains close ties with Moscow.

"We will come here every day until March 25 to speak about freedom. Come on March 25. Bring your friends and acquaintances. We will gather many people," Mr. Milinkevich told the crowd.

While it may be too early to write the opposition movement's obituary, its condition certainly appears critical. If Saturday's protest fails to attract large numbers, that could mark the end.

Authorities appear to realize this and, despite a massive police presence, have done nothing to remove the protesters. Mr. Lukashenko had previously said he would violently disperse any demonstrations, and protesters would face terrorism charges punishable by life imprisonment or even death.

In an interview yesterday morning on the cold steps of the neo-classical Palace of Trade Unions overlooking the square, Mr. Milinkevich conceded he was worried.

"I don't think such a demonstration can crack the regime," he conceded, looking out over the roughly 15 tents on the square.

Without a power base or access to the news media, the opposition was finding it difficult to muster support, he said. "In Ukraine, they had a chance. It was a bad government, but not a dictatorship like we have."

Both Washington and the European Union have said they do not recognize the results of Sunday's election and are threatening sanctions. Yesterday, five European ambassadors visited the opposition tent camp in a show of support for the protesters.

But Mr. Lukashenko retains the backing of Belarus' most important partner, Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has warmly congratulated him on his re-election.