Behind the Crackdown in Belarus

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Police guard the empty tent camp, erected by protestors who had been demonstrating Lukashenko's re-election, after clearing it out early Friday

After five days of protests against the reelection of Alexander Lukashenko as President of Belarus, police early Friday morning arrested hundreds in an improvised tent camp in downtown Minsk, installed there as a token of popular protest against an election widely described as fraudulent and unrecognized by the U.S. TIME's Yuri Zarakhovich discussed the overnight crackdown in a phone interview with Professor Alexander Kozulin, a presidential candidate from the opposition Social-Democratic Hramada party and one of the two top opposition leaders in Belarus.

TIME: The authorities have been promising not to crack down on what they called "a pathetic tent camp." Why such a change of heart on their part?

Kozulin: Lukashenko's lost his nerve. Tomorrow, Saturday, March 25, is a major national holiday, albeit unrecognized officially — the anniversary of the Belarus People's Republic, our independent state, proclaimed back in 1918 and destroyed several months later. Lots of people always gather to mark this day. Now, the anniversary coincided with mass election fraud protests. The opposition has called upon the people to come to the square en masse to protest. The authorities were scared that this "pathetic tent camp" worked as a toehold for the dozens of thousands who would show up tomorrow — and turn Minsk into a free city. So they moved to remove it.

TIME: How did the crackdown happen?

Kozulin: As the night was falling, most people left the square. Just some 300 kids were staying there to keep vigil overnight. Most of them students. When the police surrounded them, the kids just sat on the ground in a circle, holding hands. They did not resist. First, the cops removed all the media from the vicinity of the square, then they started carrying the protesters to prison wagons bodily. My two nephews were among those arrested in the square. They are still in jail.

TIME: How do the people react?

Kozulin: My mom, who survived the Nazi occupation, says that Lukashism is worse.

TIME: How so?

Kozulin: What happened last night is just a part of a general crackdown. They have been picking up people individually — not just opposition activists, but many of those who as much as dared bring food to the tent camp. Same as the Nazis arrested those trying to bring some food to concentration camps inmates. In just three days after the election, they have arrested close to 1,000 people, including the kids in the square. They had also arrested some 500 activists within the week before the election. They destroy this country's future when they stifle the people's right to self-expression and protest. They destroy this country's future when they thrown the young in jails. This is Lukashism.

TIME: What now?

Kozulin: Now they will cordon the square off and try to keep the people out. But the people will be coming tomorrow anyway. We have always called for peaceful protests, but now Lukashenko provokes violence. He will bear the entire responsibility, should it happen. The authorities should have learned to listen to their people. But they are provoking violence instead. This only proves once again that they are illegitimate, and that this "election" was a fraudulent farce.

TIME: Why?

Kozulin: A legitimately elected President does not have to react so cowardly. Lukashenko has overstepped all the boundaries. He is a menace to his own people. He has been scared of a revolution, but what he does not understand is that he has triggered that revolution himself. His abuse of power has triggered the most important revolution of all — the one in people's minds. Even many of those who had sided with him are now indignant at this rape of the Constitution and crackdown on the people.

TIME: What do you think of the world's reaction?

Kozulin: The U.S. and the E.U. stands have been very encouraging. However, it is important that they remain consistent positions, rather than just one-time declared stands. All the possibilities of talking with Lukashenko have been exhausted; he understands only the language of force. He is not a menace just to his own country; he is a menace to the world. If the international community wants to defuse this menace, the Belarusian issue must be brought to the U.N. Security Council and raised at the G-8 summit, planned in St. Petersburg, Russia in July. Otherwise, this summit will be just so much mockery of the G-8 principles.