Prominent Belarus exile thrilled by Minsk protests

By David Ljunggren

GATINEAU, Quebec (Reuters) - After spending decades in a heartfelt and often frustrating effort to gain independence for her native Belarus, prominent Canada-based exile Ivonka Survilla finally thinks events might be turning in her favor.

The recent protests in the former Soviet state are "a big revolution" which will inevitably lead to the defeat of hardline President Alexander Lukashenko, she told Reuters in an interview on Monday night.

Survilla heads the governing council of the long-defunct Belarusian Democratic Republic, which existed briefly as an independent state from March 1918 to January 1919 until Moscow's troops marched in and took control.

The governing council, or rada, fled into exile and lost all influence. Today it lives on as a small group of emigres badgering the West to break what they see as Russia's stranglehold on the nation.

Survilla said she was thrilled the world was finally paying attention to events in her homeland, where around 10,000 people have been protesting in the capital Minsk against Lukashenko's reelection victory in a March 19 vote.

"It's a big revolution -- they're the first who have the courage to do this. Belarusia lives in terror. People are afraid for their jobs, their studies, their liberty, for everything," said Survilla, a retired translator who runs the rada from her small house in French-speaking Quebec.

Lukashenko, a pro-Russia figure who western activists say ignores human rights, has clamped down on the protests and some opposition leaders now face jail sentences.

"He (Lukashenko) has all the advantages except the people, who have woken up. I think these are people who have sworn on their honor that they will never be afraid, that they will fight until the end. He will lose," said Survilla, who fled her homeland as an eight-year-old with her family in 1944.

Survilla says the rada will continue working "as lobbyists for the liberation movement" and plans to ask western governments for money to fund radio transmissions.

She lamented what she saw as Russia's excessive influence in Belarus and a century of Western indifference.

"The world has woken up to Belarusia. The world has suddenly understood that this country exists and also understands the misery of this oppressed people -- it's absolutely extraordinary," she said delightedly.

The big question now is whether the West will continue to pressure Lukashenko to ease his grip or whether attention will move elsewhere. This brings back bad memories for the exiles.

The nascent Belarus, Survilla says, did not have any allies at the 1918 Versailles peace talks which divided up Europe after World War One. Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic republics were given their independence but no one protested when Russia swallowed up Belarus.

"I think our main task is to make friends for Belarusia in such a way that history does not repeat itself," said Survilla, also unhappy at what she sees as a lack of western support in December 1991 when Belarus gained its independence again.

"If we'd had friends who'd helped us in 1991, perhaps we wouldn't have Lukashenko ... The world neglected Belarus and therefore Belarus turned toward the east."

Her great fear is that Lukashenko -- who has talked of a merger of equals with Russia -- will agree to reunification.

"If Lukashenko pulls this off it will be the end of Belarusia ... Russia would never let it go again," she said.

She also has a dream: "I would like to see Belarus look like Denmark -- a country with a hard-working, intelligent people."