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

Times Staff Writer

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.

“We get our small pension, but it’s enough,” Lybov Shapyko said.

“Lukashenko raises the pensions from time to time. He’s doing a good job. He takes care of us,” her sister-in-law added.

“He flies around in a helicopter and makes sure the fields are all right,” Svetlana Shapyko said. “We’re going to keep on voting for him. We’re happy with him and with what we have.”

In the capital, Lukashenko’s supporters appreciate that under him, Minsk has not been engulfed by the raucous capitalism of flashy advertising, fierce competition, high-priced boutiques, all-night discos and heavy traffic seen in cities such as Moscow.

Central Minsk is clean, with moderate traffic, broad sidewalks, tree-lined streets and a pleasant riverside promenade. Ordinary citizens still address each other as “comrade.” A bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the dreaded founder of the Soviet secret police, stands in a small park across from the headquarters of the security service that still proudly bears the name KGB. There is little nightlife, and stores close by early evening. The streets are virtually deserted by 11 p.m.

But some say that downtown Minsk is intended to give visitors an unrealistically positive view of the country.

“The local authorities take a lot of measures to ensure that the city stays very clean,” said Galina, 69, a retired economist who was critical of Lukashenko and was afraid to give her surname.

“But if you go around some of the areas farther from the center, you’ll see it can be just as dirty as Moscow.”

Galina cited a Soviet-era joke to express how life was not nearly as sweet as the state-run media suggested: “If you want things to be good, hook up your refrigerator to the television antenna,” so your fridge will be overflowing with the same abundance shown on television.

She said she has joined anti-Lukashenko protests, “but right now there’s been such a clampdown that much of the opposition has been cowed.” The chance of the opposition coming to power next year is very low, she said.

“Never in a million years,” interjected her friend Erna, 70, a retired doctor who also declined to give her surname. “Everyone is being destroyed.... Under our president, there’s a real dumbing-down of the country. He’s a man of low culture, and it’s reflected in the people.”

No date has been set for the election, which must be held by late July.

Polls indicate that if the pro-democracy opposition could unite behind a candidate, that person could hope to win about 35% of the vote, with Lukashenko taking about 55%, said Oleg Manaev, director of the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies. Those figures are based on a reasonably accurate vote count but unequal campaign conditions.

Although that might look like failure for the opposition, it actually would be an enormous triumph that would hold out hope for future democratic evolution, Manaev said. This is because until now, Lukashenko has been able to argue that there is no alternative to him.

If the opposition makes a strong and united showing, “the hope is that the political landscape of the country will change the next day,” Manaev said. “People will understand that they have their representative.”

Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civic Party, is among those who hope to lead a unified opposition, and he argues that in the right circumstances, a majority will vote for change.

Lebedko is working with other Lukashenko critics to hold a congress of opposition forces this autumn aimed at picking a candidate and endorsing a shared program. Requests to rent a meeting hall in Belarus have been rejected, and organizers have said the congress will probably take place in a neighboring country.

The opposition in Belarus can be divided not into left and right, but into pessimists and optimists, Lebedko said. “The ones who will bring change to Belarus are the optimists,” he said, describing himself as part of that group.

But even he doesn’t expect the opposition candidate to be declared the winner when the votes are counted next year.

“In my opinion, the strategy for the election campaign is to mobilize people so they are ready and willing to defend their choice,” Lebedko said. “On the day after the voting, if there are 100,000 people on the street, then we have a chance of defending our victory.”

Lukashenko, however, has made it clear that, faced with protests challenging his grip on power, he would crack down with all the force available.

“I will defend my people, my state and my power with arms in my hands -- alone, if necessary,” Lukashenko told Moscow’s TV-Tsentr in July. “I will not flee the country even if they shoot at me.”