Belarus: First Blood

By Anna Volk

MINSK, Belarus -- There may be snow in the streets, but Belarus is getting hotter and hotter. Last Thursday Alexander Kozulin, an opposition candidate in the upcoming presidential election and the ex-rector of the main university of the country (Belarus State University), was seriously beaten by government security agents after he tried to enter a World Belarusian Forum chaired by President Alexander Lukashenko.

According to the leading Belarusian independent internet press portal, Charter97 (websites of which, like other opposition websites, are under sustained attack and on that day were not accessible to the public), Kozulin was beaten by Dmitrij Pavlichenko, the head of the security agency. Pavlichenko is persona non-grata in the European Union and is suspected of involvement in the kidnapping and killing of Belarusian opposition leaders and a young journalist.

The authorities had no reason not to allow Kozulin to participate in the World Belarusian Forum. He and his team were sent to the event as delegates of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party. However, the administrator of the Forum denied Kozulin registration, after which the candidate was beaten and kicked out of the Palace of Culture.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, journalists of both Belarusian and foreign news media suffered physical abuse from national security agents during that incident and after it as well.

Journalists tried to photograph the beating and detention of the opposition candidate. However all who did were pressed against a wall and held by security agents. Sergej Gricc, the photographer from Associated Press, told the Belarusian Association of Journalists that he personally saw Kozulin knocked off his feet and beaten. According to Gricc, a Reuters cameraman was assaulted by the head of the national security agency as well. He suffered a slashed eyebrow and his camera was broken. Journalists were held in the building until Kozulin was taken away to a detention office.

On the same day, on the Belarus National Channel 1, pre-election speeches of both opposition candidates were aired.

Half-hour speeches by two opposition candidates, the first of their kind, were aired the week before and have been named by journalists the "60 minutes of freedom". Belarusians had never seen so much truth about what is going on in the country on their TV screens, not during the last 12 years. Of course, the authorities did everything they could get away with to keep people from watching those speeches (the time was deliberately selected to coincide with the evening commute from work). In many places of Belarus there were massive electricity outages during that 6-7 p.m. time slot. However, those people who managed to see the speeches on TV, each told ten others about them.

Throughout the week there were many debates in the country on the topic. Kozulin's standing in the polls jumped after his strong and courageous speech, in which he actually tore into pieces in front of the camera an issue of the main government newspaper Sovetskaya Belarus. He heavily criticized Lukashenko, highlighting the moral, economic and social problems which have faced Belarus for the last 12 years. Kozulin also criticized the legitimacy of Lukashenko's running for a third term. "The time of Lukashenko is over," he declared. "It has no future. Everybody who follows him is left in the past. His strength is based on lies, fear, threats, bayonets. But the strength is in the truth and in the strength of mind. And I have enough strength to tell you the truth!"

Not surprisingly, Kozulin's speech was heavily censored. His half hour was shortened by nine minutes. Remarks about the little known period from Lukashenko's past (before he was elected) and some information about the government positions his sons now hold (one of the sons is Lukashenko's right hand in the national security agency - a violation of national law) were cut. There had been almost no announcement about the speeches in the national press and TV channels. Lukashenko even used such cheap methods as ordering all school teachers in the country to organize parent meetings at the time when the speeches were aired on TV.

Lukashenko himself hasn't taken the time to speak to the nation about his election program. However, on the evening of March, 2, the opposition received an open letter from a source within the KGB, which showed Lukashenko's real "election program". According to that letter, after the televised opposition speeches in February, the KGB received a lot of messages from all corners of Belarus, stating that people support the opposition candidates and feel negative about current authorities. Last week, Lukashenko's rating fell sharply. Even in Mogiliov district, the most renovated district in the country (and home of Lukashenko), the president's approval rating is less than 23 percent.

The same KGB source reported on what to expect from the authorities in the next two weeks. On election day, candidates won't be allowed to speak in public. The Internet and mobile network will be shut down. The KGB has been ordered to do everything possible to restrain people from coming to the capital, Minsk, on March 19. All train and bus service will be halted. All cars will be thoroughly checked. The places where international supervisors will stay are already equipped with listening bugs. On the day of the election, all the public places in the capital will be closed, and people won't be allowed to gather. There is already a group of selected "sportsmen", who will get into a staged fight with the militia as supposed "drunk members of opposition." Also, there is a plan to "find" highly explosive shells in one of the opposition offices. These are only some of the points of Lukashenko's "pre-election" program, which, of course, he refused to share with the Belarusian people.

The evening of March 2, the other opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, organized a meeting in Liberty Square in Minsk. Around 3,000 people gathered to listen and support him and other opposition leaders. However, the authorities didn't allow them to enter the square. Still, the meeting was held in the street by the square. "They don't allow us into Liberty Square, but liberty - it's not the square, it's a state of the soul," Milinkevich told the people.

Both opposition candidates claim that they won't organize any revolution. However, the authorities themselves may be stirring up revolution with their massive provocations.

Lukashenko has recognized that not all is going smoothly for him in this election campaign. "If we give away our country without fighting, not only will we be cursed by our children-our grandchildren and our grandchildren's children will remember it," Lukashenko said in his speech in the World Belarusian Forum on March 2. "I don't know about you, but I will never allow that to happen in our country. We have invested too much in this country."

And the latest events show that he isn't joking. The same day on which he spoke those words, divisions of military trucks from outlying regions of Belarus started moving into the capital.

Anna Volk is a freelance writer in Minsk, Belarus.