Idealists form core of protest in Belarus


Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus - Palina has just months to go before getting her master's degree at Belarus' top university, but she was ready to risk her diploma to participate in protests against a new term for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Activists who pressed their cause from a tiny tent camp face being expelled from their universities or fired from their jobs but many saw no alternative.

"The main risk is that this protest fails and we end up stuck with Lukashenko," said Palina, a 22-year-old language student who is due to graduate from Belarus State University this summer and declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals.

Early Friday morning, police stormed the tent camp and detained scores of demonstrators who had spent a fourth night in the capital's October Square. While there had been some earlier detentions, the arrests marked the first time police forcefully ejected the demonstrators en masse. They also dismantled the tent camp.

The activists had been demonstrating against alleged election fraud in Sunday's presidential election. Lukashenko, who has ruled this ex-Soviet republic since 1994, was declared the winner with 83 percent of the votes compared to 6 percent for his main challenger Alexander Milinkevich. Western observers have criticized the election as undemocratic; the opposition has called for a repeat vote.

Most of the activists had been confident that their rallies, despite drawing just a few thousand people, would pressure the government to annul election results. Others, whose opposition already has cost them their jobs, had nothing to lose.

Unlike popular revolts in Ukraine and Georgia that drew an array of supporters from various areas, the protesters in Belarus were mostly young Minsk residents who passed the time by trading jokes and dancing to rock music blaring from loudspeakers.

On the square, about 15 tents were decorated with the opposition's trademark red-and-white flags, which were scrapped by the president in favor of a Soviet-era banner in green, white and red.

The tents also had ribbons and balloons in blue - the color of denims and the hoped for symbol of what the students hoped to style a denim revolution. Denims were the symbol of progress and protest in Soviet times.

After Friday's arrests, city workers cleared the tent camp with bulldozers.

The Minsk activists were inspired by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, in which a sprawling tent camp became the center of protest that brought an opposition leader to power.

Lukashenko had said the Minsk effort has failed. The protesters had hoped a big turnout Saturday would make their case.

During their protest, many of the activists chatted among themselves in Belarusian, a language still rarely used in a country that had been subjected to aggressive Russification policies in the Soviet era.

Lukashenko is openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union and discourages the use of Belarusian, fearing it could fuel opposition forces who are passionate about their national identity.

Activists said their supporters from the provinces were prevented from coming to the capital, with train and bus services limited.

Some middle-aged Minsk residents also had spend nights at the camp, then rushed to work. Even elderly retirees braved freezing temperatures and the lack of basic amenities, such as a place to sit and a clean toilet, in the tent city.

Before the mass arrests, Larisa Bukhalenko, a 40-year-old doctor who has been unemployed since she tried to run against a pro-government candidate in 2004 parliamentary elections, said she though the protesters had a real chance at success.

"The authorities are stronger than us, they have riot police, but on a spiritual level, on a moral level, we will win," Bukhalenko said.

Valentina, a pensioner who wore a button that read "For Freedom," was less confident. The 68-year-old, who spent three days in jail for attending opposition rallies in the late 1990s, said she feared police would eventually break up the camp.

Tatyana Stepanova, a 39-year-old entrepreneur, risked detention and police harassment to bring homemade dranniki - traditional Belarusian potato pancakes - to the protesters. Many other supporters carrying food and warm clothing were prevented from entering the camp or detained on hooliganism charges.

"I am simply tired of being afraid," Stepanova said.