Minsk Square Buzzes As Activists Press On

By MARIA DANILOVA Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus - Long after Minsk has gone to bed, October Square is alive with rock music and chants of "long live Belarus." It's a spectacle rarely seen in a country under iron-fisted rule, but so far the riot police on watch seem most concerned with cutting off food to the crowd of protesters.

Apparently with little success, however. "Here we have sweets, here's ham, over there we have salads, tomatoes and cucumbers _ we've got everything," a 23-year-old economics student named Natasha Tarasova proudly tells me during a night spent at the square.

In case activists run out of tea and coffee, there's a McDonald's a block away, serving protesters and cops alike. Its plastic cups are the only visible thing both sides have in common.

The reason the capital's main square resembles a big outdoor party all through the freezing night is the election Sunday that handed President Alexander Lukashenko a third term with 83 percent of the vote. Western monitors have judged the outcome fraudulent, and the protesters are hoping to stir up the same people power that overturned governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

At the square, about 15 small tents are festooned with the red-and-white flags that were Belarus' national banner until Lukashenko, who hankers for the days when his country belonged to the Soviet Union, replaced it with the Soviet-era flag. Some 200 protesters stand around the tents, elbows locked in a human chain in case police or provocateurs move in. The place is lit with candles because authorities have turned off the lights.

The government had threatened to respond with force to any attempt to rally street protests over the election result. But so far it has confined itself to hampering the flow of food and other provisions. On Wednesday, city workers welded shut a manhole the activists had opened to create a makeshift toilet.

Once I show my journalist's ID, the protesters are happy to welcome a Western reporter, having been portrayed in the Belarus media as drunken 14-year-olds in the pay of the West.

A few of the protesters are middle-aged, but most are Belarusian students _ or former students expelled from universities for political activity.

There are also Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and at least one American _ Wendy Taylor, a student from the San Francisco Bay area who came here to study Russian. She's amazed at how well the crowd behaves.

"Nobody has gotten angry with anybody, nobody's drinking, everybody is being very lively, everybody is being super-polite and helping each other and giving each other food, giving each other cigarettes," she says. "People are going around to the edges of the circle to make sure that people are going to have warm drinks and food. In fact, I have to bring someone a sandwich."

Hundreds of people have gathered, many wrapped in blankets and stamping their feet to keep warm. In the evening the crowd swells to thousands.

As I walked here, a policeman stopped me and searched my bag, apparently looking for food to confiscate. At the square, a taxi occasionally slows down and its occupants dump a bag of supplies from the window before the police shoo them away.

The music, dancing and balloons create a benign atmosphere, but the security officers with their videocameras are a silent reminder that it's no joke.

A month ago, police beat and detained about 200 activists at a candlelight commemoration of vanished opposition figures. Since the election protests began, they have been seen arresting people going to and from the square and seizing their food and blankets. Protesters show bruises they say were inflicted by police. In the evening, busloads of police in helmets and camouflage uniforms move into neighboring streets.

The big test may come on Saturday, when a large demonstration is planned at the square.

Zhenya Kudyanova says she's staying with the crowd. "I am here to prove to all people that we can be free," she says.

At about 4 a.m., October Square is visited by 58-year-old Alexander Milinkevich, the soft-spoken former physicist who was Lukashenko's main opponent in the election on a platform of democratic reforms.

He overnighted at the square after the tent camp was set up on the second day of the protest, and comes back every few hours.

He and Inna, his wife, are quickly mobbed by protesters eager to talk to strategy.

Most want to stay until Lukashenko agrees to a rerun of the election. Milinkevich says they have achieved plenty just by defying the government.

He hopes the protesters' presence here will embolden more people in the city of 2 million. Gazing at the young people huddled in the bone-chilling wind, he remarks: "These are people who got rid of fear."