September 03, 2005

Next stop is the Belarus BlackBerry revolution

From Roger Boyes in Berlin

A NEW generation of revolutionaries, inspired by the Polish Solidarity movement and guided by slick marketing experts, is plotting to spread change to Belarus, one of Europe's last dictatorships.

At a pop concert in Warsaw to mark the 25th birthday of Solidarity this week, a Belarussian band, N.R.M, stole the show as the audience chanted: "Freedom for our neighbours!"

A coalition of veteran revolutionaries and clean-cut "democracy engineers" working for Western agencies gathered in the Polish capital to plot their next move. "Plenty still to do," said one woman, describing herself as a private political analyst of closed societies. "Belarus next, then Burma, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe." Hers was a busy schedule, but not pure fantasy, given events in some Eastern European countries.

The Serbian overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic (2000), the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) have created a class of revolutionary carpetbaggers who move from one vulnerable dictatorship to the next. Belarus, under President Lukashenko, is next.

The new revolutionaries are not wild-eyed and bushybearded. They are kitted out with BlackBerries rather than petrol bombs and their latest tool is a computer video game, called A Force More Powerful, that will be used to train budding Lech Walesas.

A Belarussian version of the game should be ready in the next few months. It will show Minsk street scenes, and pose questions and dilemmas useful to anyone trying to mobilise peaceful protest against Mr Lukashenko. It is, however, youthful energy rather than software that is exporting the revolutionary spirit.

Yesterday two activists from Kmara, the Georgian prodemocracy student group - one of the engines of the Rose Revolution - were deported from Belarus after making contact with Belarussian dissidents. Luka Tsuladze and Georgy Kandelaki, the latter an official in the administration of President Saakashvili of Georgia, had been jailed for 15 days last month on charges of giving "instructions for a revolution". On their release they were expelled to Ukraine.

Leaders of the Serbian group Otpor, the Ukrainian Pora and Kmara also met fledgeling protest movements from across Eastern Europe in Albania this summer.

"Revolutions in the modern age have to be marketed," Ivan Marovic, of Otpor, said. "We invented the corporate branding of politics - and our model was Coca-Cola."

Dissidents meet to decide the colour of the revolution, its anthem and logo. When some of these questions were thrown at Alexei Michalevic, the Belarus opposition leader, in Warsaw he looked baffled. It was all he could do to keep the Belarussian dissident groups together.

And where was the street protest supposed to come from? The biggest spontaneous demonstration that anyone can remember in Minsk was when a McDonald's restaurant opened in the city and failed to provide enough seating.

More to the taste of the Belarussian opposition is Miroslaw Chojecki, who in the 1970s and 1980s set up a huge underground publishing empire to undermine communism in Poland. Now Mr Chojecki is gleefully involved in subverting the Lukashenko regime. "We have pressed thousands of compact discs that are then infiltrated into Belarus," he said. "Our motto is: throw a CD at Lukashenko."

Much of the resistance work has to be kept quiet lest it embarrass the European Union or stir the anger of President Lukashenko's friend, President Putin. Relations beween Poland and Russia are frayed; the Kremlin believes Poland has become the spearhead of a Western attempt to establish friendly (and anti-Russian) governments along EU borders.

Opposition publications are being banned at dizzying speed in Belarus - the country lost 262 independent newspapers last year - and so Poland and Lithuania have become the printing works of free-thinking Belarussians. Funds have been raised to expand broadcasts from Poland into Belarus. When Mr Lukashenko shut a liberal grammar school in Minsk, it went underground, teaching pupils in private apartments. When the students finish their courses, they study in Poland: no Belarussian university will take them. Video smuggling is proving a most effective way of undermining Mr Lukashenko: it breaks the monopoly of state television.

Steve York, an American film-maker, has been producing a series of 25-minute films on Solidarity, South Africa, the Danish treatment of Jews in the Second World War, and racism. All are being dubbed in Poland and smuggled into Belarus. There they are copied and passed from family to family.

One of the masterminds of this technique is Peter Ackerman, a former Wall Street trader, whose film about Serbia, Bringing Down a Dictator, was shown repeatedly on independent television in Georgia in the tense days before the uprising. Now, in video format, it is on its way to Belarus.

Dr Ackerman was one of the authors of a study that looked at the mechanics of a modern revolution. Available online -Belarussian dissidents still have relatively free access to the internet despite a recent crackdown - it analyses the experiences of 67 countries that have tried to shift from an authoritarian regime over the past 30 years.

Its advice: the opposition has to unite around a single cause, work out non-violent strategies, find ways of communicating with or neutralising the police, maintain contacts with the foreign media, and take away fear of the dictator by openly mocking him.

Will it work in Belarus? Watch this space.