Blog: Political Protests in Belarus

By The Associated Press

Saturday, March 25, 2006; 4:28 PM

-- AP correspondents Maria Danilova, Jim Heintz and Steve Gutterman have been covering the political protests in the Belarus capital of Minsk.


Saturday, March 25, 6:30 p.m. local

At a press conference where journalists are not allowed to ask any questions, Belarus top police official Vladimir Naumov tells the nation that protesters had thrown rocks and bottles at police officers, injuring eight of them. He says explosions heard around the protests were of "an unknown character," but surely were not set off by police. He says only one protester had a "light head injury."

In fact, police officers have clubbed protesters, injuring at least three. One middle-aged lady dressed in a light blue coat was kicked by several police officers as she tried to help another protester, who had been knocked to the ground. One victim was taken away in an ambulance.

Belarus state television calls the protesters members of "radical groups."

-- Maria Danilova


Saturday, March 25, 4:20 p.m. local

The chants "We are not afraid" sound quieter and less certain when demonstrators are faced with multiple rows of riot police who advance on them beating their shields with truncheons.

"What does it mean?" I ask my news editor.

"It means 'Get the hell out of here!'"

We turn back, but unlike us, the protesters do not seem to get the message and continue marching toward police lines. My editor and I decide to climb a hill on the side of this avenue where the confrontation is about to happen, to be able to see it from up above. We climb a steep, muddy and slippery hill _ so slippery that a protester on the top lends me a hand.

Once we are up on the hill, we relax a bit, feeling ourselves out of danger, but a few seconds later, BANG! A blast rings out. People start running away in panic _ some simply screaming, others shouting "Fascists!" On the hill, panic has also set in and those who had managed to climb there are also fleeing.

Then another blast. Then still another.

My editor tells me it's a percussion grenade meant so scare off the protesters. And scared they are. We all are. I flee through a narrow street at the end of the hill, but I cannot see my editor. Turns out, he figured the crowd on the hill wasn't running away from police quickly enough and simply slid downhill.

-- Maria Danilova


Saturday, March 25, 3 p.m. local

October Square had been cleared, but a crowd of up to 7,000 rally unimpeded at the Yanka Kupala park.

The main opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich, called on his supporters to continue the struggle to liberate Belarus from oppression and urged them to go home, saying the next rally will be held in one month.

But the other opposition candidate _ whom many consider to be a straw man paid by the government or even neighboring Russia to discredit the opposition _ has different plans. He urges activists to march to a jail where authorities are keeping protesters detained in last night's sweep of their tiny tent camp to express solidarity with them _ and free them.

About 1,000 protesters _ inspired by the unhindered rally they had just held, the crowd's energetic chants and probably the smell of spring in the air _ heed his call and begin their march. Even though their plans are clearly doomed.

On their way to the jail they urge passersby not to remain indifferent, shouting "Join us!" They also chant "We are not afraid!" when buses full of black-clad riot police drive by _ many smiling cynically _ apparently headed in the same direction.

Saturday, March 25, 1 p.m. local

While they managed to keep protesters off the square, several thousand people occupy both sides of Minsk's main avenue, which leads to the square. The majority of the protesters are grouped around a McDonald's restaurant. They chant "Shame" and "Long live Belarus."

But even that is deemed by authorities as illegal and dangerous. Police now try to push protests even farther away from the center and disperse the crowd.

My colleague and I stand across the street from McDonald's but cannot see much because of hundreds of protesters in front of us.

"Uh-oh," my colleague says. "The bad boys are moving in."

The authorities have now deployed their elite troops _ entirely black-clad and helmeted security officers with shields.

We cannot see much from where we're standing, but I think I have an idea how to get a better view. I go inside the courtyard of a neighboring apartment compound and try figure out which flats should overlook the avenue. I ask a woman to let me into her apartment to be able to see what's happening, but she looks at me with mistrust.

"Go your way," she tells me. An elderly lady says she would've let me in, but I wouldn't see much from her windows.

Finally, I see a man and a little boy come out of an apartment building. "I'm a journalist, please let me in," I say.

"Sure," he says. He gives me his apartment number, tells his wife to let me in, and in a minute and I have the full view of an angry crowed being shoved by riot police.

The authorities act swiftly _ and frighteningly _ jogging up to the protesters, pushing them away from all the streets in the vicinity of the square until the streets are almost empty and only their shields and helmets shine in the spring sun.

-- Maria Danilova

Saturday, March 25, noon local

Across the street from the October Square in Minsk three retirees exchange whispers. A fourth elderly man approaches them: "Don't worry, I am one of us." Then he smiles shyly.

"OK, I'll tell you then," one of the old ladies whispers to him. "It won't be held here, but at the Yanka Kupala park. I've have learned that by word of mouth."

The opposition had planned to hold a major rally at one of Minsk's central squares to yet again express their disdain for last Sunday's presidential election, in which the 12-year iron-fisted rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko was extended by another five years. The opposition claims the vote was rigged.

However, unlike the past several days, when authorities have unexpectedly been allowing demonstrators _ at times swelling to thousands _ to hold rallies and even camp out on the square, what the elderly women and I now see makes it clear that no such gathering will take place today.

Hundreds of black-clad riot police stand in multiple rows on the edges of the square, preventing would-be demonstrators and simple passersby from entering.

Leonid, a 70-year-old retiree who wouldn't give me his last name for fear of reprisals, says he cannot believe what he is seeing _ beefy police armed with clubs pushing people off the square where they wanted to gather to express their opinion.

"I survived war, I survived the Nazi concentration camp, but what I am seeing now is even more outrageous," he says.

And then he says something which makes my heart sink: "Thank you for your help, Masha (my nickname)." As if there is something I could do.

Several minutes later, those beefy police push me and the elderly people off the street where we stand.

The square is empty.

-- Maria Danilova


Friday, March 24, 4 a.m.

As big as the protesters' tent camp in October Square was in symbolism, it was physically small and the police raid that shut it down took only a few minutes.

Around three in the morning, when the protesters were down to only about 200 core participants, a half-dozen olive-green heavy trucks with detention cabins on their beds pulled up, along with buses carrying riot police in visored helmets and with long truncheons that hung from their belts down below their knees.

There had been police at the square all through the five days of protests and more than 100 opposition supporters had been arrested, but this clearly was the end. The bell had tolled; authorities had reached the end of their grudging tolerance of the encampment.

A squad moved in and grabbed some of the protesters, who fought back as they were wrestled aboard one of the detention trucks. The rest saw that resistance was useless and filed aboard the other trucks, quietly and glumly.

Police who had been keeping journalists on the fringe, staring at them, suddenly shrugged, turned their backs and dropped the blockade. Reporters and photographers strode into the encampment, looking for anybody who might have escaped arrest, for clues, for something.

All that was left were about a score of tents _ most of them flattened as if a gale had hit _ soggy blankets, flags and banners discarded in despair and some thermoses for tea that had briefly kept the demonstrators warm.

A stray dog slunk in to forage for food _ but he ran off in alarm at the noise of two front-loaders coming in to scoop up the camp's remains.

By dawn, the square was clean.

-- Jim Heintz


Thursday, March 23, 8 a.m. local

My turn for a freezing shift at the tent camp. I head to the square and once again I spot policemen checking other people's bags and looking suspiciously my way. I freak out. I had brought two sandwiches and a yogurt to work and forgot to leave them at the office. They are in my backpack. Now I will be taken for an opposition supporter.

Like that girl, Inga, who said that she made a stack of pancakes and went to the square to give them to the protesters. Only she was stopped by three police officers. She says they dragged her into a detention cell and made her eat all the pancakes she had prepared. All ten of them. She said she cried but that only infuriated the policemen even more. They called her an insulting name and laughed at her. She was eventually let go but she told her story on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisal.

Another activist Irina Dorofeichuk, a 36-year-old management teacher, who was bringing food and warm clothes, said she was sentenced to a week in jail for "hooliganism."

Luckily my press badge saves me as well as my yogurt and sandwiches.

As I enter the tent camp I run into Nikolai _ a 22-year-old member of a banned youth opposition group, whom I had interviewed some time ago. He proudly shows me the tent city and asks me whether Russia is on their side. (I'm Russian). I am immediately invited to the tent's makeshift kitchen _ thermoses and bags of food piled on mats in the middle of the tent city _ and am offered hot coffee or tea. It's freezing and I happily accept a plastic cup of tea.

The protesters have been standing in a human chain to protect the camp of about 15 tents from police or provocateurs. The tents are 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 have ribbons and balloons in the opposition color, blue. Why blue? It's the color of denims, which were the symbol of progress and protest in Soviet times. The idea here was to have a denim revolution. President Alexander Lukashenko says it has failed. The protesters hope a big turnout Saturday will make their case.

-- Maria Danilova


Thursday, March 23, 6 a.m. local

The tedium of standing around in the cold makes my mind wander, and this morning it keeps drifting back to the kid on top of the bus.

It was the most vivid image of the first night of protests: a guy of 19 or 20 who climbed atop a trolley bus and rode on the roof past the demonstrators, pumping his fist. The crowd was still pretty small then and milling uncertainly, but this act of defiant high spirits seemed to excite them with the prospect of their numbers swelling. They cheered and someone passed him a pole bearing the banned red-and-white Belarusian national flag. He waved it as he rode down the avenue.

Now, with the protest down to a couple hundred diehards in the freezing dawn, I wonder where the kid went next.

Did he get off and come back to stay? Did he end up being among the more than 100 arrested and jailed throughout the protests?

Or did he have second thoughts, remember that he's in a country where protest often means getting dismissed from a job or a university, and decide to play it safer in the future?

I got a good look at his face and think I'd recognize him, but I don't see him in the group this morning. Most of them have their faces wrapped in scarves or pulled into their collars against the cold, and mostly I just see watchful and weary eyes.

-- Jim Heintz


Wednesday, March 22, 11:30 p.m. local

A young man approaches me, an obvious foreigner, and says he wants to warn me: there are a lot of plainclothes agents of the feared security services on the fringes of the protest demonstration, wearing telltale black leather coats and watch caps.

That's also what my informant is wearing.

Was he himself an agent trying to provoke a remark that could bring arrest, in a country where it's a crime to insult the president? Or was it a moment of inadvertent comedy -- black comedy, as it were?

Minsk, in these tense days, is full of ominous speculation and questions.

Alexander Kozulin, an opposition candidate whom many suspect of being in the pay of Russia, went through the crowd to suggest they go home because he had information of an imminent police attack. Was that credible, or an attempt to undermine the protesters who overwhelmingly adore opposition rival Alexander Milinkevich?

The endless uncertainty is tiring, so I tried to figure out one persistent rumor: that cell-phone text messages often arrive hours after you send them because the KGB is intercepting them.

I sent a couple of messages to Russian cellphone numbers, which the intended recipients say didn't go through. Messages to a friend in Sweden arrived almost instantly.

But those messages were in Swedish -- a language probably not widely spoken on the KGB night shift.

-- Jim Heintz


Tuesday, March 21, 10 p.m. local

_ On the third night of protests, the lights in the vast square were suddenly shut off, plunging the protesters into darkness. The opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich had to speak by the light of TV cameras, and flickering candles soon appeared.

The general darkness made the Soviet-era slogan on the top of a building on the side of the square that still had lighting stand out. The giant letters on the roof read: The Feat of the People Will Live Forever. It's a reference to the Second World War, when Belarus was overrun and much of Minsk was leveled _ but the Soviet Union prevailed and the Allies beat Hitler.

Victory in the war is still the proudest moment for millions across the former Soviet Union, and the veterans are hailed as heroes by everyday citizens and governments regardless of their political orientation.

Will the people protesting in the square tonight be heroes in 60 years?

-- Steve Gutterman


Tuesday, March 21, 6 a.m., local

It is 6 a.m, my colleague and I are headed towards the square where hundreds of young opposition leaders camp out in the freezing cold in a desperate struggle against Alexander Lukashenko getting his 12-year rule of this ex-Soviet republic extended by another 5 years.

We run into three riot police officers who demand to see what's in our backpacks. My journalist's badge clearly identifies me as a reporter, plus its none of their business, but who am I to argue with beefy guys sporting truncheons? I show them my belongings _ a wool cap and a reporter's notebook. They appear displeased.

For the past several days police have been trying to get rid of protesters. But how? Instead of breaking them up they have been detaining, and often beating supporters who are carrying food and warm clothes to the camp.

Good thing I already had my Snickers bar.

-- Maria Danilova


Monday, March 20, 10 p.m. local

Pavel Gorbunov hustles into the ring of protesters, unsheathes a pup tent and starts putting it up next to handful of others that have already sprouted in the middle of the crowd in the square.

In the circle formed by the tents, a long-haired student strums a guitar and a young woman lies with her head on a young man's lap. California, summer of love? No, it's Minsk in a winter of discontent for thousands who are protesting another five years under President Alexander Lukashenko _ the winner of an election his critics call a fraud.

These are small tents, probably last used for some hiking trip in the woods. Now they're in the middle of the city _ and they look pretty vulnerable if you've seen the busloads of riot police parked on a side-street nearby.

Gorbunov says he hopes the crackdown won't come tonight, that he'll still be her tomorrow morning. But knowing the way Lukashenko's forces have reacted to much smaller shows of defiance in the past, he thinks the tents will be gone by midnight.

He's wrong. Four days later, Lukashenko is officially declared the victor with 83 percent of the vote, and he may be inaugurated before the month is out. But the tents are still in the square, and their number has grown to at least 20. But the main question on everybody's mind is the same: How long can this last?

-- Steve Gutterman


Monday, March 20, 2 a.m. local

If the police were going to attack or arrest the protesters who defied a ban on rallies, Victory Square would have been the perfect place.

The crowd of some 10,000 had initially gathered on another square, Oktyabrskaya, October Square, a vast, open expanse from which you could flee in many directions. Then they marched to Victory Square and the logistics looked more ominous.

The square, where a memorial column and eternal flame commemorate the soldiers who died in WWII, sits in the middle of a six-lane street and is accessible only by underground passageways. Once demonstrators crowded into the small island in the midst of heavy traffic, police could have blocked them off with a relatively small number of officers.

It looked like trouble and a lot of the marchers seemed to sense it. They had been lively and chanting on the march toward the square, but became much quieter as they neared. Thousands of them hung back on the sidewalk.

But others headed straight into the labyrinth subterranean passages and emerged on the square. A few laid flowers at the flame, others gathered around it for warmth _ physical or emotional.

The square is one of Minsk's most solemn spots, a reminder of the fighting that destroyed much of the city six decades ago. It's a place to contemplate the awesome issues of sacrifice and suffering.

So much blood was shed in Minsk in the war. No one, apparently, wanted to see more flow tonight.

-- Jim Heintz


Sunday, March 19, 8 p.m. local

Everyone is preparing to cover a revolution.

Belarus' main opposition leader had called on his supporters to gather in the center of Minsk and protest against the results of today's presidential election which the country's long-ruling strongman is sure to win. That may mean trouble.

In a country where even a dozen peaceful demonstrators standing with candles have been dragged into vans and beaten by riot policemen, the prospect of what they may do to thousands is daunting.

We are preparing to go to the square where the rally will be held. My news editor advises me to keep my hands visible at all times so that police don't think I am reaching for a gun. That's good to know! He also says that if I get a dose of tear gas in my face "you'll have two hours when you'll wish you were dead."

Off we go to October Square.

-- Maria Danilova