Friday May 6, 2005

Europe's 'last dictator' defies calls for change

Opponents of the Belarussian president look to George Bush to step up pressure on the regime in a tour of the region this weekend

Nick Paton Walsh in Minsk

Friday May 6, 2005

The Guardian

"Today Ukraine - tomorrow Belarus," cried Igor Guz as he marched with hundreds of protesters in Minsk, the Belarussian capital, on last month's 19th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It wasn't much of an outburst by the Ukrainian town councillor, but it led to his arrest by riot police. Yesterday he was still in jail and on hunger strike with 12 others, including four of his countrymen.

"They were not the first such arrests in Belarus, and they won't be the last," said Artur Finkevich, 20, the organiser of the protesters, who complained of the state's poor healthcare response to Chernobyl.

The arrests, for an "unsanctioned rally", have sparked furious protests from Kiev and the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko. It has also fuelled calls for a Belarussian version of the "Orange revolution" that led to the electoral defeat of neighbouring Ukraine's authoritarian government last December.

Such calls have been loudest in Washington. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, recently gave Belarus's fragile opposition a boost by meeting key members in neighbouring Lithuania.

She called President Alexander Lukashenko's administration the "last true dictatorship in Europe", and said it was "time for change to come to Belarus".

President George Bush is also expected to increase the pressure for "regime change" when he visits the capital of Latvia tonight.

"I hope Bush will say something in Riga," said Svetlana Zavadskaya, whose husband, Dmitry Zavadsky, a television cameraman, was one of four opposition figures allegedly murdered by Mr Lukashenko's regime in 2000.

Ms Zavadskaya, who met Ms Rice in Lithuania, added: "Lukashenko deserves the same fate as [Serbia's Slobodan] Milosevic."

However, any White House effort to export democracy to Belarus would put an extra strain on Mr Bush's fraught relationship with President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader, who is still reeling over the recent fall of the former Ukrainian administration that he supported, will meet Mr Bush on Monday during Moscow's Victory Day celebrations. The encounter could be tense. Sergei Yevtushenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian foreign minister, said he was "sure" Mr Bush would speak about the detention of the Ukrainian demonstrators in Belarus.

But he said a Belarussian revolution "would be disastrous for Putin", who retains a brittle alliance with Mr Lukashenko.

The Belarussian leader, a 50-year-old skiing fan who micromanages his tight regime, will not give up power easily. He has described the recent revolutions in parts of the former Soviet Union as "banditry", and has scorned Ms Rice's remarks.

"It's good that she knows there is such a country as Belarus," he said. "She was recently flying above us, and she must have seen that there are no terrorists here."

This "last European dictatorship" has become the final battleground for Moscow in its attempts to retain what is left of its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union - as the Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan have turned away from authoritarianism, towards the west.


A senior western diplomat in Minsk said: "The key player is Putin. He retains imperialistic ambitions and still sees Belarus as part of his backyard. For example, if Russia turned off the gas tap to Belarus in winter, it would literally freeze within two days."

He added: "Moscow has apparently looked around for possible successors to Lukashenko [to run in presidential elections expected before June next year] but decided they would all be too pro-western.

"Putin has lost Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, so he is not going to rock Lukashenko's boat. Some think Putin is trying things out here to see what level of dictatorship would be acceptable for former Soviet citizens."

Minsk retains all the trappings of its Soviet past. There is little public advertising on its well-swept streets. The state accounts for at least 80% of GDP, according to diplomats, and is the only real employer in town, keeping civil servants loyal through renewing their contracts each year.

One of two remaining independent opinion pollsters operating in the capital was closed by the state last month, partly because it did not have the words "social organisation" in its title. Demonstrations are swiftly swooped on by riot police.

The opposition had yet to unite around a single leader owing to their "student" nature, said one western diplomat, adding: "They spend more time fighting each other than Lukashenko."

Some key figures are in jail. One staunch opposition figure, Andrei Klimov, has been charged with "slandering the president", which carries up to five years in jail. His wife, Tatyana, described his closed court appearances as being "like Kafka's Trial". She added that he had not used Mr Lukashenko's surname when referring to "a maniac, a killer and a little Hitler" in a satirical fable he wrote. She added: "I fear for his life. In my dreams, I see [war crimes prosecutor] Carla del Ponti arrest Lukashenko."

Most of the media is under tight state control. Even rock music, which buoyed opposition crowds during the uprising in Kiev, has faced a crackdown. Lyavon Volski, a singer in the band NRM, who are barred from concerts and the radio for their opposition support, said: "Banning us was a big mistake by the authorities as they force [our fans] who were indifferent to politics to join the opposition. We will go underground."

He said a new law requiring 75% of music on the radio to be Belarussian in origin had taxed DJ playlists. "Now they are starting to look for Belarussian roots among western singers. Apparently, Aerosmith's Steve Tyler has some."

Opposition efforts are focused on the forthcoming presidential elections, which western diplomats and critics of the regime say they fear will be falsified.

"Lukashenko plans the date of the election and we plan the revolution," said Vlad, 33, from the youth protest movement Zubr. "People can already smell future change. There has been an internationalisation of [our] conflict. I hope Bush will say something."

Yet many fear that unrest in Belarus could result in the kind of bloodshed that Ukraine somehow avoided.

"Putin does not like Lukashenko, but he dislikes Orange revolutions more," said the head of the opposition United Civic party, Anatoli Lebedko. "Lukashenko sells himself as a 'Berlin Wall' to protect Russia from revolutions. I really fear it could be like the fall of Ceausescu in Romania. Lukashenko would not want to give up being president, even for three hours."

Lukashenko's world

There will not be any rose, orange or banana revolutions in our country. We will preserve peace, calm and stability - after the Ukrainian electoral crisis last year

They tell me: you are a dictator. Am I a dictator? My position and the state will never allow me to become a dictator ... but an authoritarian ruling style is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it - Belarussian radio, August 2003

They've gone totally nuts. Those dumb-asses don't know what they're doing - On the US Congress after President Bush signed a law in 2004 imposing sanctions on the Belarussian regime

The history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus. Germany was raised from the ruins thanks to firm authority, and not everything connected with that well-known figure Adolf Hitler was bad. German order evolved over the centuries, and under Hitler it attained its peak - Russian television, November 1995

There will be no [Vojislav] Kostunica here. No way! This must be clear to you and all those who count on it - to "opposition scum" after the revolution in Serbia in 2000, Belarussian TV, July 2001