In cold, dark Belarus, an opposition is born

By C.J. Chivers The New York Times

MINSK, Belarus By midnight, as the temperature dropped ever lower and dawn was still five hours off, one core of Belarus's public opposition assumed its shape in the darkness.

It was about 300 people, arms interlocked to form a small, dense square, stomping on the frozen ground under a police cadre's contemptuous gaze.

Behind them, inside their human box, another group of demonstrators held their banned flags overhead, a thicket of banners over 20 small tents.

At any moment, the demonstrators said, they expected the police to rush forward, beat them with clubs and drag them off to detention cells. And then their protest would end in blood.

"They may attack and beat us and inflict great trauma," said Stepan Svidersky, 18, a student. "But we have already achieved a result: we have shown our country that we are not afraid to stand against arbitrary rule."

Since a presidential election on March 19, the capital of Belarus has seen a protest like none other in 12 years of President Aleksandr Lukashenko's autocratic grip. For four consecutive days, protesters have defied warnings of arrest and bloodshed and stood in a corner of October Square to demand a new race.

Their numbers rise to several thousand each evening, as they form a rally and impromptu dance party on the edge of an ice rink, and then they dwindle, hour by hour, until midnight, when this core stands through the night in two ranks, to hold the place for the next day.

It is a frigid, risky vigil, given the Belarussian weather and the government's history of reflexive brutality against those who dare to stand and call for better lives than Lukashenko's island of Soviet nostalgia and corruption has been able, or willing, to provide.

Mostly they are young men in their twenties. A few look too young to shave. But since Tuesday night, when the opposition's leaders have disagreed about how best to proceed in their effort to unseat a president they do not recognize, this all-night core has become an independent force in a quixotic struggle.

Their influence emerged when one of Lukashenko's two principal challengers, Alesksandr Kazulin, urged the protesters to disband and save themselves before the police crackdown.

"There is no sense in keeping them on the square," Kazulin said. "We should think about our children, protect them, and not keep them in front of us."

The protesters refused to go. And they rejected being labeled as children as they crowded together in the plummeting temperatures.

One rank faced out of the camp, to warn of any advance by the police, the other inward, to keep an eye on the behavior of the demonstrators, ensuring that no provocateurs had slipped inside.

After midnight, they occupied a portion of Belarus, a country of 10 million people, no larger than 40 square meters, or 425 square feet. It was a country within. They danced on its cold stone. They handed out tea. They said they would not give up.

"We consider this camp to be the only means to defend our position," said Vitaly Korotysh, 22, one of the coordinators of the rally, at 3:30 a.m. "If necessary it will stand for years. And if they break it up, I think on the next day the people will be back."

It is too soon to know whether this is foolishness or resolve.

But their position has been matched by Aleksandr Milinkevich, the second- place finisher in the election, with 6 percent of the vote, far behind the incumbent's 82.6 percent, a result which the protesters see as a cynical fraud.

Milinkevich has said he will be with the demonstrators until the end, whatever shape it may take. It could end with a dwindling of interest, he said, or in a state of violence. But inevitably, he said, the feelings here will grow.

"We live in a country of total fear, and very few people are brave enough to come out like this," he said, standing at front of the ranks at 4 a.m., as the temperature dropped to minus 12 degrees Celsius (10 Fahrenheit). "This action destroys fear inside the country because it tells people it is possible to fight for your own destiny."

The protesters see little chance of changes in government any time soon. To the extent this is a revolution, Milinkevich often says, it is a revolution not on the streets, but in the mind.

How widely this feeling is spreading is unclear. The students have left their camp and posted rallying cries on the Internet. They have sent text messages via their cellphones to friends.

And they venture away a few hours a day - risking arrest when alone or away from the foreign journalists here - urging others to join them.

They hope for a massive rally on March 25, an unsanctioned celebration of Belarussian independence that Lukashenko despises but this year falls on a Saturday, when potential opposition supporters will not be at work.

But their efforts are squelched by pinpointed arrests when they leave the square, and by state television coverage that has portrayed them as homosexual, drunk and, in the words of one riot police commander, "pathetic."

But ultimately, Milinkevich said, a message exists here that cannot be missed by Lukashenko and his security apparatus, which retains the name KGB. "We are not cattle anymore," he said.

That sentiment was repeatedly expressed here in the darkness, as demonstrators made it clear that it was not merely the election they protested but the entire form of government Lukashenko has built. They decried the arbitrary detentions and smothering of political and economic freedoms, including the freedoms of assembly and speech. And they decried the paired inefficiency and corruption they said were at the center of the administration.

"Those who have a higher education understand that Lukashenko is a commodity profiteer," said Maxim Grechkoyedov, 25, an engineer who said that the government accepts natural gas from Moscow at below-market pieces, part of Russia's subsidy of the Belarussian state, and then sells a portion at market prices, keeping the difference for the president and the elite.

Grechkoyedov said the protesters were here because they are part of Belarus's "lost generation," those who have attended universities since the Soviet Union's disintegration and have languished in low-paying jobs and under repression for their adult lives.

Many have had enough, he said; Europe is not supposed to be like this.

An opposition has been born. It is small, but one sign of its early resolve is that almost everyone who stands until dawn not only gives their last name for publication, but insists that it is written down, knowing then that the authorities will see who they are.

"I am tired of the lies," said Aleksandr Zhukov, 21, a student. "I am no longer afraid."