Friday, May 20, 2005

Meet the Belarussian Opposition

By Peter Sadovnik

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko says there won't be any "banana revolutions'' in his country. But a hodgepodge of activists is hoping to prove him wrong. Here are glimpses of three whose names you will see often in the months ahead.

Anatoly Lebedko: Lebedko is not yet known outside of opposition circles. Unlike the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, Lebedko is not wealthy and has never been prime minister. But he does share one experience with the Ukrainian: Both men have come close to death at the hands of foes.

Last Oct. 18, Lebedko joined 5,000 protesters on Minsk's October Square demonstrating against elections that were marred by ballot-box stuffing, intimidation of candidates and falsification of election returns.

Lebedko was an obvious target: At 43, he heads the pro-free-market United Civic Party and is the front-runner for the democratic Five-Plus Coalition's presidential nomination.

Lebedko says security agents forced him into a pizza parlor across the street from October Square. They beat him for several minutes, then he fell unconscious. He remembers waking up in the restaurant and the police chief slapping him in the face. Then he blacked out again and awoke in a moving car. After arriving at the police station, he said, he felt ill and was taken to a hospital.

Nurses urged Lebedko's wife Svetlana not to leave the patient's side. "They said someone should always watch what medicines they were putting in me,'' Lebedko said, alluding to the secret police lurking in the hospital corridors. After five days in the hospital, Lebedko spent three weeks at home recuperating. The attack - and his ongoing perseverance - elevated him from a cerebral, almost gentle former student of French history to a serious political contender.

Sergei Kalyakin: Kalyakin would probably suffocate Lebedko if he hugged him too hard. The former apparatchik is avuncular and bearish. When he serves his guests dinner, he expects them to eat and drink until they collapse. He learned politics in the Soviet Union the way big-city mayors did in the United States: rising through party ranks, cobbling together allies, learning how to give and take political jabs. He is convinced that most Westerners don't understand Marx and that, if they did, the world would be a better place. He remains a devout communist - albeit one who believes in free elections, the fourth estate and equal justice under the law. He is loved by people who hate his politics.

The 52-year-old former radio technician and Communist Party recruiter would like to be president. Apparently the Lukashenko government doesn't like that idea. On Oct. 17, 2004, the day of the elections, three government-issue cars tried to run Kalyakin off the road. He filed a complaint with police but later received a letter telling him he was imagining things.

So far, Kalyakin said, no one has harassed his family, although many other democratic activists contend that because of their political activity, their spouses have lost jobs and their children have been denied admission to universities.

Stanislav Shushkevich: The 70-year-old nuclear physicist and former speaker of the parliament is still a force in democratic circles, revered and in some cases reviled for his role in ushering in Belarussian democracy in 1991 and then, cataclysmically, losing it. Shushkevich helped forge Belarus' first liberal government in the immediate post-Soviet period.

But in 1994, democratic leaders became enmeshed in a nasty squabble that paved the way for Lukashenko's populist, backward-looking presidential bid.

Today, Shushkevich is no longer considered a viable candidate. But he still has the presence of someone who matters. Unlike Lukashenko, who has few dealings the rest of Europe and the United States, Shushkevich has spent time on the world stage.

In 1991, it was Shushkevich, together with Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, who formally dissolved the Soviet Union. Today, he sounds bitter. "If one one-thousandth of what goes to Iraq went to Belarus,'' he said in a recent interview, "we would have a democracy.''

Peter Sadovnik, political editor of the Hill newspaper in Washington, contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times, where it appeared in longer form.