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Going ‘Bananas’ in Belarus

Peter Savodnik is political editor of the Hill newspaper in Washington. He traveled to Belarus in 2004 on a German Marshall Fund fellowship.

President Bush’s visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia last week served as a reminder that the United States is working to foment peaceful (and not so peaceful) democratic uprisings throughout the region.

U.S. tax dollars helped further the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan this year. Now U.S. aid is helping train democratic leaders for 2006 presidential elections in Belarus, with the hope someone can topple President Alexander G. Lukashenko, a tough, Soviet-style leader with close ties to Moscow.

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 of his country. Worse, he’s short for a politician. But Lebedko does share one experience with the Ukrainian: Both men have come close to death at the hands of foes. Poison left Yushchenko disfigured. Lebedko had a run-in with the authorities last Oct. 18.

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That night, 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 Kaliakin: Kaliakin would probably suffocate Lebedko if he hugged him too hard. The former apparatchik is avuncular and bearish. When he serves his guests dinner -- for instance, salmon in a mushroom-cream sauce, chicken breasts laced with vegetables, black bread and beef broth with sour cream -- 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 (to say nothing of Lenin or Bakunin) 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.

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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 Kaliakin off the road. He filed a complaint with police but later received a letter telling him he was imagining things. No one in the opposition believes that he was imagining things.

So far, Kaliakin said, no one has harassed his family, including his wife, Tatiana, 50, 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.

Stanislaw Shushkevich: The 70-year-old nuclear physicist and former speaker of his country’s parliament, is still a force in democratic circles, revered (in some cases, reviled) for his role in dismantling the Soviet Union, ushering in Belarusian 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, including Shushkevich, 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 with Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine who formally dissolved the Soviet Union. Today, ruminating about what might have been, 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.”

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TWO JOKES

"[Last week] President Bush gave a speech in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and he said, ‘The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone.’ Apparently, the president’s speech was written by Yoda.” -- Conan O’Brien

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President Bush and Russian President Putin discussed a plan to create a permanent cease-fire in the Middle East. If it works there, they might try it out on the Hollywood Freeway.

-- Jay Leno


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