In Belarus, Fear and Hope Collide

Celeste Wallander

In Minsk, where the weather is dour and the architecture is Stalinist monumental, the lights and colors of dissent are challenging the last dictatorship in Europe.

On the 16th of every month, thousands of citizens in the capital and other parts of Belarus turn off their lights at 8 p.m. and light candles as a symbol of freedom and democracy. They have chosen to do this on the 16th to commemorate the date in September 1999 when businessman Anatoly Krasovsky and politician Viktor Gonchar disappeared. Their bodies have never been found.

Belarus hasn't been a country for long. During most of its history, it was part of Lithuania, Poland or Russia. It declared independence during the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Since President Alexander G. Lukashenko was first elected in 1994, Belarus has become among the most repressive of the former Soviet republics.

The regime makes criticism a criminal offense, imprisons and terrorizes competitors and stands accused of causing the disappearance of political opponents and independent journalists. In addition to Krasovsky and Gonchar, as many as 100 other opponents of Lukashenko have disappeared, experts say.

Since 2003, Ukraine has had its Orange Revolution, Georgia a Rose Revolution and Kyrgystan a Tulip Revolution. The symbol of Belarusian resistance is denim. Young people have taken to wearing it to express their aspirations for a democracy integrated with Europe and the global community.

But there's no indication that such a change is imminent. Presidential elections are scheduled for March 19, but human-rights groups - and U.S. officials, speaking privately - warn that Lukashenko has shown every intention of doing whatever it takes to ensure himself a third term. He recently threatened, for instance, that if there were any "provocations ... we'll give them such a going over they won't know what hit them." Belarusian citizens have good reason to fear their president.

But the demonstrations have continued. On Feb. 16, several hundred demonstrators dared to hold candles in peaceful vigils on streets and in public squares. In a throwback to Soviet tactics, they were forcibly disbanded by paramilitary troops.

Last week, police beat and detained Alexander Kozulin, an opposition presidential candidate. Another opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, was told by officials that he could not meet voters in public that day. When he went ahead with a meeting of what turned out to be thousands of supporters in Liberty Square in Minsk, they were surrounded by 1,000 police in riot gear. The election rally continued nonetheless. By a number of such shows of defiance, Belarusian citizens are signaling that they will not be paralyzed by neo-Soviet terror.

The U.S. government has not been shy in criticizing the Lukashenko regime. Last week, President Bush hosted at the White House two wives of the "disappeared," Iryna Krasovskaya, wife of the businessman, and Svetlyana Zavadskaya, wife of journalist Dmitri Zavadsky. After the beating last week of Kozulin, national security adviser Stephen Hadley warned that "there is not enough outrage and international attention on Belarus."

He's right. Pay attention March 16 to the candles, the denim and the courage of Belarusian citizens. Shine the light of the international media and a concerned global public into the cracks in Lukashenko's authoritarian regime. Support the rights of Belarusians to choose their leaders with dignity.

We don't know whether Belarusian citizens will dare take to the streets to reject a fraudulent election, whether their protests will be crushed or when regime change may come to Belarus. But we should welcome the awakening of its citizens from a long winter of fear.

Celeste Wallander is director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.