September 25, 2005

In Belarus, Battle Lines Are Drawn but Revolution Is Still a Tough Sell

A united opposition could rout Lukashenko, some say. But first it has to sway a complacent public in 'the last dictatorship in Europe.'

By David Holley, Times Staff Writer

MINSK, Belarus - Student activist Iryna Toustsik recalls with pride how a little bit of playacting that lampooned President Alexander G. Lukashenko briefly landed her in jail.

Protesters dressed up as doctors and patients, with the patients wearing imitations of the Belarusian president's prominent mustache - and alluding to suspicions that authorities were responsible for the disappearances or deaths of several opposition figures.

"We had this skit where I was Dr. Zubr, and I had a queue of Lukashenkos coming to see me," said the 23-year-old, who is a member of the Zubr pro-democracy student group. "They were saying, 'Doctor, I don't know what's wrong with me. I constantly jail people. I kill them. I don't want to keep doing this, but there's nothing I can do to stop myself. What's wrong with me? What do I do?'

"And I would reply to them, 'Well, it's clear that you can no longer govern the state. You should step down.' After I diagnosed two patients, I was just taken away."

Youth activists like Toustsik have headed a string of largely nonviolent people's revolutions against entrenched post-Communist leaders and election fraud in recent years: Yugoslavia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, Kyrgyzstan this spring. Belarus, with a record of holding elections judged by outsiders as neither free nor fair, could be headed toward its own showdown in the streets.

Rarely have the battle lines for this sort of confrontation been drawn so publicly, so far ahead of time. Presidential balloting isn't until next summer.

President Bush threw down the gauntlet last October when he signed into law the Belarus Democracy Act, which authorized millions of dollars in assistance for independent media, human rights organizations, election monitoring and other democracy efforts.

In May, Bush denounced Lukashenko for running "the last dictatorship in Europe." He added, "One of the roles that the United States can play is to speak clearly about the need for Belarus to be free."

But Lukashenko, a former state farm director with a populist touch, is no pushover. He came to power 11 years ago as an anti-corruption crusader with 80% of the vote, and even his fiercest domestic opponents don't question the accuracy of independent polls that rate him the most popular politician in this country of 10 million people.

His critics also say, however, that Lukashenko's backers now make up less than half the population, and that his position depends on relentless pro-government propaganda on state-run television and highly effective repression of opposition. He could be vulnerable to defeat in an honest election, they argue, if the opposition were united and had fair access to media. None of Lukashenko's critics expect the election to be fair, but some still hope it could lead to his fall.

Lukashenko has bitterly denounced the Western effort against him.

Upheavals such as those in Georgia and Ukraine "are plain banditry disguised as democracy," Lukashenko said in an annual address to parliament in April.

"No amount of money will be able to topple the existing authorities in Belarus," he said. "I want those who carry this money in sacks and suitcases through embassies to Belarus to hear this message."

Belarus lacks television channels that might spread opposition viewpoints, and nearly everyone in the country gets the news from state-run media controlled by the president. Critics of Lukashenko are largely dependent on a single daily newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, or People's Will, with a circulation of 30,000.

"The big problem is that 99% of the population here are zombies," declared Narodnaya Volya's editor, Iosif Seredich, whose biting words and tendency for hyperbole help drive his points home.

"Round the clock, the broadcast media work toward the common goal of turning people into zombies. I wouldn't be surprised if Lukashenko comes out on central television tomorrow and announces he's gotten a scientific report that walking on all fours improves digestion. And I wouldn't be surprised if people got down on all fours and started to crawl."

Lukashenko holds what can seem like a hypnotic spell over many Belarusians.

Lybov Shapyko, 65, and Svetlana Shapyko, 57, are sisters-in-law and neighbors who live in the rural outskirts of Dzerzhinsk, 30 miles southwest of the capital, Minsk.

Their homes are neatly painted, with pleasant vegetable and flower gardens. But they have no indoor plumbing, instead getting water from a public pump on the other side of the dirt road in front of their homes. Three years ago, their houses were hooked up to a natural-gas line, but other than that, they say, nothing has changed for better or worse since Soviet times.

They are big fans of Lukashenko.