An East-West struggle for the soul of Belarus

Opposition presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich in October Square. He has said he will launch a "For Freedom" movement to try to unseat the regime

President Alexander Lukashenko (casting his vote in Minsk): An apparently unshakeable position

Despite their enthusiasm, the mostly-young protestors who spent freezing days and nights on the main square of Minsk last week could do nothing to shake the regime of the Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Hundreds of them spent the nights in October Square, playing music and dancing to keep awake, and chanting: "Freedom!" and "Long live Belarus!"

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who says that Lukashenko's re-election the previous Sunday was a "power-grab", has said a major rally would take place with the launch of a new movement "For Freedom".

But protestors' numbers were dwindling each day and many looked tired from the sub-zero temperatures and nights spent awake in anticipation of a violent police raid.

There was no sign that Lukashenko feels pressured or that Belarus will see a people-power revolt along the lines of Ukraine's "orange revolution".

"Such scenarios happen only in dreams, or in the bedroom", mocked the official Sovyetskaya Belorussiya daily. "In the real political world they are suffering total defeat".

"One can only feel sorry for those who voted for the unlucky, or, as they are called in literature, the losers. But what can you do?"

Official results from the presidential election gave Lukashenko 82.6 percent and Milinkevich just six percent. The opposition want the election -- which has been branded illegitimate in the West -- annulled.

In a sign of defiance, the Belarus Foreign Ministry called in European ambassadors to inform them of Minsk's rejection of a critical report on the election by international monitors.

Several EU ambassadors had earlier gone to October Square in what they said was a show of support for the right to free speech.

The protests began as soon as polls closed, with more than 10,000 people gathering in the square.

Since then, each evening has seen a progressively smaller gathering -- 5,000 on Monday, 3,000 to 4,000 on Tuesday -- although the hard-core group spending the whole night outside rose from 300 to a thousand on Tuesday.

Food supplies at one point markedly improved at the tent camp, with bags of fruit, biscuits, sandwiches and sugar. Volunteers passed around hot tea and coffee from a dozen thermos flasks. Much of the food had been brought in by elderly men and women who sympathized with the protestors.

Police had so far refrained from carrying out Lukashenko's threat to "break the neck" of the protest. But at least 108 people had been arrested in separate incidents.

A Minsk court sentenced a newspaper editor in Belarus and nine others to jail sentences of seven to 10 days on charges of hooliganism, although relatives said the real reason was bringing food to the protestors.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said at least 110 people had been arrested in the streets around the main square trying to join or feed the demonstrators, and called on the Belarussian authorities to allow the peaceful demonstrations.

Western powers have spoken out in support of the protests and criticized what they say was Lukashenko's rigging of the election to win a third term.

In the latest salvo, EU member Poland said it would impose sanctions on officials from its eastern neighbor, and urged "the immediate release of political prisoners".

Analyst Oleg Manayev, at Minsk's Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, said that despite obvious passion, the opposition is unable to challenge the ex-Soviet state's powerful leader.

"The expectation that this could lead to [revolution] is an illusion"...

The opposition says it is almost unable to communicate with the population, given that all television is under state control. The authorities also mounted a scare campaign warning that demonstrators could be executed as terrorists.

The fact though, analysts say, is that Lukashenko really enjoys some solid support, while another portion of society is apathetic, preferring stability to revolution.

In his 12 years in power, Lukashenko has steadily eroded freedom of speech and political activity, but, thanks to a close relationship to Russia, has managed to steady the economy and ward off poverty.

Milinkevich appears to recognize his weaknesses, but says he will play a long game. "I don't think such actions will crack the regime, but they put down the seeds of resistance", he told reporters.

Nostalgia for the Soviet past

Alexei Shkurino has never been to the West, but as he stood in the snow in Minsk protesting against Lukashenko, he felt a little closer.

"Alone we can't force change, but if the US and Europe help us, we can win", the 20-year-old law student said, waving the blue flag with gold stars of the European Union over Minsk's October Square.

People like Shkurino, with idealistic views of the West and hatred of Belarus' Soviet-style rule, filled the ranks of demonstrators braving snow and arrest to protest Lukashenko's controversial election.

They wear armbands reading "Belarus in Europe!" and many speak English, even if, like Shkurino, only to read on the Internet.

"We don't want to live the way our parents did in Soviet times", Stas, another law student, said. "We want European values -- those of a free society".

But such sentiments are far from unanimous among the 10 million Belarussians living sandwiched between Russia and the European Union. Many share Lukashenko's view that Belarus is an outpost against a Western imperialist tide.

State television offers nightly reports about Western plots to foment revolution in Belarus similar to the people-power uprisings in the other ex-Soviet republics of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.

State television has claimed that opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich "receives his instructions" in Brussels and Western journalists were "bribed" to write critical articles about Belarus.

The television then highlighted the student riots in Paris as an example of Western chaos. "France is in crisis" and Paris "resembles a war zone".

Many Belarussians seem convinced that their highly managed system, in which Lukashenko was able to campaign for re-election almost without debate, is superior to Western democracy.

"We have real democracy", said pensioner Alexander Garelikov, 62. "Unlike in Paris, I can walk the streets without getting hit on the head".

Others are so nostalgic for the Soviet past that they look on the rag-tag army of pro-democracy protestors on October Square with horror.

"Stalin is what we need! They should all be sent to Siberia!" fumed an elderly man passing the protestors' camp.

An equally angry and elderly woman shouted at the young people: "You're fascists!"

The fact that this East-West struggle goes far beyond the icy concrete of October Square was underlined in the stark difference of world reactions to the Belarussian presidential election.

Washington has not accepted the election results and has praised protestors' "courage and peaceful stand", while European countries denounced the lack of press freedom and the pre-election arrests of opposition activists.

Even NATO -- the ultimate bugbear in Lukashenko's view -- weighed in, saying that voters' rights had been "denied".

In Moscow, though, the head of an observer mission from ex-Soviet countries complained about "unprecedented external pressure" against Belarus, while the Russian Foreign Ministry said the "legitimacy of the results is not in doubt".

President Vladimir Putin, who has come under fire in the West for his own vision of democracy, sent congratulations, noting "the confidence of the electorate" in Lukashenko.

Analyst Oleg Manayev at Belarus State University said that Lukashenko has deepened a natural divide in Belarus by pushing his pro-Russian, Eastern-oriented view, while demonizing the West.

"If this policy with its anti-Western propaganda continues, and if those people on the square are marginalized further, then we could end up with a country of mass emigration or social conflict".