Friday, September 23, 2005

With Simple Tools, Activists in Belarus Build a Movement

By Philip Kennicott

Washington Post Staff Writer

MINSK, Belarus -- On Saturday, July 9, Belarusan special security forces burst into the home of Uladzimir Kishkurna, an opposition political leader. Neither he nor his wife was home.

They arrested Kishkurna's 22-year-old son, Anton, and claimed later that he had drugs and ammunition in his possession. But the real target of their raid appears to have been a printing press, a potent weapon in the hands of those seeking to topple the country's autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko. The press, confiscated by the authorities, was one of fewer than 10 of professional quality outside control of the state and was useful for printing tracts and posters against Lukashenko, opposition leaders said.

Around kitchen tables, in parks and fast-food joints, and sometimes in the forests of this thickly wooded country that lies between Poland and Russia, a revolution is being planned, and Lukashenko's government is determined to stop it. Inspired by the Orange Revolution last winter in Ukraine, Belarus's neighbor to the south, opposition leaders here hope to use next year's presidential election to oust Lukashenko.

The authoritarian president has shut down so much of civic life that the opposition has been forced to use tools that are primitive in comparison with those of democratic movements elsewhere. Cell phones, satellite television, the Internet and instant messaging -- all of which played a role in popular uprisings in Ukraine, Lebanon and Georgia -- are too closely monitored by the government to be reliable, opposition figures said. The Belarusan upheaval, if it comes, will be built on printing presses, shoe leather and face-to-face campaigning, they added.

As many countries in the former Soviet bloc have chosen democratic rule, Belarus has gone the other direction. Colin L. Powell, while secretary of state, called it Europe's "lone outlaw," and Freedom House, which monitors civil and political rights throughout the world, ranked only Turkmenistan lower on its 2005 democracy ratings for former Soviet bloc countries. Belarusan authorities last month arrested two young democracy activists from Georgia, who were held for more than a week.

In July, as word of the Kishkurna raid spread, a reflexive caution rippled through the small group of people opposing Lukashenko. Nervous activists recalled that they changed their daily schedules, avoided usual meeting places and scrubbed computers of dangerous information. In the shabby office of a human rights organization, the group's leader, Alies Bialiatski, tried to calm the terrified wife of a political prisoner on a hunger strike. In another room, a young man sat on a sofa, mechanically shredding papers into long strips and throwing them into a plastic bucket.

"To have a printing press, you need special permission of the Ministry of Information and Press," said Bialiatski, who rushed to the Kishkurna home after hearing about the raid. "That machine was illegal in the best tradition of Soviet times."

Immediately after the raid, the younger Kishkurna came under attack from government media. "Contours," a television news magazine, declared the discovery of "anti-state" materials in the house, showing leaflets bearing pictures of opposition political candidates, and an announcer opined that the "so-called opposition" was "often connected with criminality." The program then turned to coverage of a large public concert, attended by Lukashenko, who spoke to a massive crowd of smiling people.

Seeking Unity

Although elected as a reformer in 1994, Lukashenko, a onetime collective farm director, soon became the leading exponent of Soviet-era politics in the post-Soviet world. The economy of Belarus is still state-controlled. The nation's food is grown on collective farms; its media and educational institutions are closely monitored. Lukashenko has used violence and harassment to eliminate serious opposition, and propaganda to convince his people that they are surrounded by spies, subversives and external enemies.

Opposing him is a fractious and disparate group of politicians, civic leaders and students. They have little in common, except for the conviction that Lukashenko is driving their country back to the dark age of Stalinism. Throughout the summer, they worked more closely together than in the past to plan a democratic convention, tentatively scheduled for October, likely to be held in Ukraine. But when they met one morning not quite two weeks after the Kishkurna raid, the strains in their loose coalition were clear.

Sergei Kalyakin, a robust man with sausage fingers, powerful arms and a stentorian voice who is the head of the independent communists, spoke vigorously for drafting a concrete agenda for whoever was chosen to lead the fight against Lukashenko. As Kalyakin spoke, Anatol Lyabedzka, a veteran political operative from the United Civic Party who had come dressed in a suit, typed on a laptop and tended to a cell phone that rang frequently throughout the meeting.

Across from Lyabedzka, around an oval table in a room filled with old photographs of democracy protests in other countries, was Alexander Milinkevich. Milinkevich, dressed in jeans, has drawn his support from a network of nongovernmental organizations, largely funded from the West, and has distanced himself from the organized political parties, which are not popular in Belarus.

All three men are candidates to lead the unified opposition, but they were still debating whether to forge a single platform that would appeal to a coalition encompassing middle-age intellectuals, committed old socialists and young people who yearn for the lifestyles and freedoms of Western Europe.

They have, however, agreed on a broad strategy: to unify behind a single candidate, who is pledged to dismantle Lukashenko's presidential system, to dissolve the rubber-stamp parliament and call new elections.

But the obstacles are formidable. They must collect 150,000 signatures to register their candidate. The government, they said, can disqualify Lukashenko's opponent on almost any grounds. Then, without access to state media, they must introduce their candidate to the electorate through word of mouth and printed bulletins. They also need a credible election monitoring system to challenge the government's vote tally. And if they win at the ballot box, they must gather enough protesters, and world outrage, to force Lukashenko from office should he try to remain.

Various Vulnerabilities

"If we can't solve the problem of printing by this fall, we'll have a problem in the election," said Lyabedzka. The opposition lacks access to independent radio and television, and although cell phones and the Internet are commonplace in urban areas, both are monitored by the government. The printed word is their only hope.

The loss of the printing press in Kishkurna's garden shed underscored the vulnerability of even small-scale efforts at mass communication. Vaclau Areska, who sits on the committee organizing the convention, said the opposition had been forced to smuggle printing material from outside Belarus, especially Russia, and bribe legal printing houses in Belarus to work off the books.

No matter how many copies are printed, almost all opposition leaflets and newsletters carry the subscription figure 299 (any higher figure requires registration with the state), and often a false address. Police check for these details first and confiscate publications without them. Mailing is often done in small batches, at different post office branches, to avoid suspicion.

Independent newspapers, of which only a handful remain, struggle to work around a labyrinth of restrictions. They are forbidden to use any information from unregistered organizations. So polls and statistics that contradict the official numbers are attributed to partner organizations in Lithuania or Poland.

The papers are also forbidden to announce opposition political demonstrations, which are routinely banned by the authorities. "We announce their actions through 'subways,' " said one editor. They will mention the application for the permit, with the time and place, then mention that the permit has been denied, again with the time and place. "We've announced it twice," he said.

Outside a McDonald's restaurant on a main street in the capital, Minsk, Belarusan militiamen keep constant eye on the swarms of people attracted to this rare icon of Western capitalism. Members of the Young Front, the largest opposition youth political movement, recently met inside, surrounded by the bustle of children waving flags with the chain's slogan, "I'm Loving It." The noise, two young members said, made it more difficult for the state security service, the KGB, to listen in.

Facing stiff restrictions, some groups find they have to operate illegally, without official registration. One young party leader who has worked as the treasurer for an opposition youth group said survival required creativity and improvisation.

"An NGO gets a grant, but they can't fulfill the terms of it," he explained, referring to nongovernmental organizations. "So they grant money to our party members -- the 'muscle' -- to do the work."

He said groups also barter work for access to office space, computers, the Internet and meeting rooms, a critical need when militiamen can close down any unauthorized gathering. Financial information is closely held. Unregistered groups cannot have bank accounts in Belarus and must find ways to bring money across the border. Subscriber lists for newspapers and membership rolls for organizations are carefully guarded.

Last spring, a few anti-Lukashenko posters on the walls of the offices of Zhoda, an independent newspaper, provided the pretext for a police raid. The charge was violating the dignity of the president. Four computers were confiscated but no subscriber lists or sources were lost. The paper began publishing again with computers donated by other groups.

But there is no eliminating the human cost of working with the opposition. Kishkurna, whose son was arrested in the July raid, said he was only storing the printing press, which is legal under Belarusan law. In an interview that began with the collection of all the visitors' cell phones -- fearful they could be used for monitoring, he turned them off and moved them to another part of the house -- he said it was unlikely that any names of opposition groups had been found in his house.

When he returned to his home a few days after the raid, to find locks forced, windows broken and papers and books scattered, he had more pressing worries.

"I am trying not to say anything that could damage him," he said of his son. "Why do they use Anton as a victim? He's very young. To break into his house while his parents are out, to scare him into giving information on his father? They can do anything with him now."