At first glance, some twenty multi-colored tents that popped up in Minsk's downtown Oktyabrskaya Square on Monday night looked the next bright morning like merry little stalls offering hot tea and cakes to those enjoying the square's small outdoor skating rink. But the tents were covered with the national white and red colors of Belarus, frowned upon since President Alexander Lukashenko officially reintroduced the Soviet-era symbols back in 1995, and the 1000 or so people standing vigil around the tents didn't look like they were enjoying a day out with the family. Having spent a freezing night in the square, exhausted by sporadic scuffles with the police, or fighting back bulldozers threatening to erase their makeshift abodes, they could have used some hot food if only the police who cordoned off the square would not harass those trying to bring it in.
Before the now much-disputed election that brought these hardy souls to stand vigil, people in Minsk were making bets on how resounding a victory Europe's "last dictator," as Lukashenko is widely known, would claim in his third presidential race. Pessimists expected him to win hands down with some 78%, while realists expected Russian President Vladimir Putin to instruct his vassal to restrain his usual bad manners and go with a more reasonable 56% to 60%.
Both schools, however, agreed that Lukashenko was growing more tense and unsure of himself than ever and, as a result, was even more unpredictable and dangerous than ever. And both camps, as it turned out, proved wrong on the returns: in the end, Lukashenko claimed almost 83%. "This is not an election," quipped Vladimir Ryzhkov, an Independent Liberal deputy in the Russian Duma, who came to Minsk as a journalist, because the Belorusian authorities would not accredit him as an observer. "This is some other phenomenon."
The indignation with that phenomenon grew so high that some 35,000 people according to internal police projections gathered in the square Sunday night. Considering that opposition rallies over the last several years had been unable to attract more than 4,000 to 5,000, it was an astounding figure for the usually reserved and detached Belorusians. Many fewer showed up on Monday night, leaving only some 1,000 standing vigil Tuesday morning. But by the evening, as five EU ambassadors came to rub shoulders with opposition candidates Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kozulin, more people slipped through the police lines, bringing the number of protesters back up to around 7,000. Most importantly, they vowed to heed Milinkevich's call to stay through Saturday which happens to be Liberty Day, the anniversary of the Belarus People's Republic, an independent state, proclaimed in March 1918 and crushed by the Bolsheviks when the opposition now plans another mass protest rally. "This regime understands only the language of the street," summed up Milinkevich, a mild-mannered scientist-turned politician, who has demanded new elections.
Still, despite the Belorusians' surprising resolve and the predictable Western denunciations of the election as "invalid" and "illegitimate," Lukashenko won't let go of his grip on power easily or quietly. Leading opposition candidate Milinkevich confirmed to the visiting diplomats at the square that "a big grab" had indeed occurred, with more than 100 key opposition leaders, activists and staffers detained. "The Opposition has been beheaded," Milinkevich said. For his part, Lukashenko announced that "the revolution that was so much talked about failed," and dismissed any talk of economic sanctions as empty threats that would be too costly for European nations that trade with Belarus (which exports potash fertilizers, chemical fibers and crude oil products).
With an upcoming G-8 summit of Western leaders scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg, anger in Belarus is only beginning to buildnot just against Lukashenko, and Putin, too, but also towards the West's lip service to freedom and democratic values. "Does it make any sense to have been carrying the now three-year-long bloody war in the Middle East for the sake of freedom and democracyand let Putin and his proxy Lukashenko stifle these values right out here in Europe in the meantime? " asks Andrei Sannikov, International Coordinator for Chapter 97, Belarus' respected human rights group.
It isn't just the rigged election that got so many Belorusians riled up it has been the extent of the intimidation campaign that led up to it. The night before the election, all mobile phones in Minsk received text messages to the effect that those gathered in the square would be butchered. Earlier General Sukharenko, head of the Belarus KGB (which still goes by that notorious title), explained publicly that all those taking part in the street protest would be considered terrorists and get up to 20 years of jail under new anti-terrorist legislation. He claimed that his secret police had uncovered plots to overthrow the legitimate government with the help of Ukrainian, Georgian and other hit men, all trained in secret camps, funded by the West, and invoked opposition plans to blow up four school buildings on the election day.
Accordingly, border guard patrols with police dogs inspected trains inbound from Ukraine, detaining many Ukrainian and Georgian citizens. Even allied Russian citizens were deported from Belarus, if their connection to Russian liberal parties or groups was established. Shortly before the election Belarusian and Russian TV stations showed one such terrorist who "confessed" to have been trained how to poison a city's water supply system planting a dead rat. But even many of those who had previously supported his Boss smelled the rat. "You listen to thisand you think: one of us must be an idiot," said Vasyl Koktysh, a construction worker, on the morning of the election. "But I know I'm not." Always an ardent Lukashenko supporter, he said he would not vote for him anymore.
Despite the parallels, the Belorusians' fight will be nothing festive and colorful like 2004's so-called Orange Revolution in nearby Ukraine. More likely it would be a smoldering, painful and drawn-out affair, not unlike that of Solidarity in Poland over 30 years agoBelarus has slid that far back under Lukashenko's decade-long reign. And a bloody backlash at some point remains a serious possibility; despite all his bravado, Lukashenko is cornered and nervous. The election, he said soon after, had "convincingly demonstrated who is the master of our house." And he isn't eager to hand over the keys.