Febraury 05, 2005

Belarus hardman drowns out the sounds of revolution

By Jeremy Page

President Lukashenko is even banning rock groups to stifle any ideas of an Orange Revolution

LYAVAN VOLSKY'S eyes light up as he recalls taking the stage with his band, NRM, in front of 250,000 people at the peak of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine last year.

It was not just the biggest crowd the Belarussian band had ever played to; it was also the fact that they were playing at all. At home in neighbouring Belarus, NRM are enemies of the State. Their music is banned from radio and television. They cannot perform in public. They even rehearse in secret.

"We wanted to help the Ukrainian people," Lyavan Volsky, NRM's lead singer, said in Minsk. "We thought what was happening in Kiev was a good thing and that it should happen here in Belarus. We'd like to see it happen in our lifetime."

For more than a decade Aleksandr Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, has ruled his ten million people with an iron fist, resurrecting Soviet-style economic controls and silencing critics in the media and Opposition, often with brutal force.

Since the Orange Revolution, the man dubbed Europe's last dictator has tightened the screws even further to avert a copycat upheaval when he runs for another term next year.

His paranoia apparently deepened after Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, listed Belarus as an "outpost of tyranny" in January.

Officially, Minsk is not ruffled. "The President relies on the common people and the common people support the President, so you'll never find the Ukrainian situation in Belarus," Andrey Savinykh, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Yet in the past few weeks, President Lukashenko's biggest potential rival has been jailed, the KGB chief sacked and new restrictions placed on nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and political parties.

Even music, it seems, is now considered a threat. Last month Mr Lukashenko decreed that 75 per cent of songs on local radio should be Belarussian. The only problem was that NRM and the 11 other most popular Belarussian groups had already been banned from the airwaves for playing at an opposition rally.

"There just aren't enough good Belarussian bands left," said one exasperated radio programme director. "We have to play the same records over and over. This simply shows we are going back to Soviet times."

Instead of listening to subversive foreign music, the young are pressed to join a Soviet-style patriotic youth union that promotes a wishy-washy state ideology based on the supremacy of the President. At the same time, the Government is introducing tighter restrictions on working and studying abroad.

Critics see a pattern of increasingly xenophobic policies designed to stifle the ideas, the money and the music that fuelled the Orange Revolution.

As well as NRM, dozens of young Belarussian activists took part in the protests in Kiev. "The most important thing we gained was the conviction that such changes in post-Soviet countries are not only possible but inevitable," said Vladimir Kobets, a co-ordinator of Zubr, a Belarussian pro-democracy youth movement, who joined the protests in Ukraine.

There he developed links with Pora, the Ukrainian youth movement that spearheaded the protests, and Otpor, the Serbian group that helped to bring down Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr Kobets declined to identify Zubr's sponsors. But as in Ukraine, Western governments have poured millions of dollars into NGOs promoting democracy in Belarus.

We must prepare for the next time the authorities falsify an election," Mr Kobets said.

However, even opposition leaders concede that Belarus is very different from Ukraine. Civil society is weak, independent media gagged and opposition parties neutered. Under new regulations, foreign funding to NGOs has to go through state banks and political parties must be registered in offices, not apartments.

There are no local oligarchs to fund the opposition, as 80 per cent of the economy is state-controlled. And there is no single figure such as Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko to challenge the incumbent.

Several potential candidates disappeared in 1999 and 2000. One of the few remaining ones, Mikhail Marynich, was jailed for five years on December 30.

His son, Igor, said: "We have a very tough dictatorship here. They don't play games here with opposition leaders. They simply kill them."

Last Sunday about 150 people protested in central Minsk to demand the elder Marynich's freedom. But such protests seem unlikely to gain momentum. A more realistic scenario is that Russia will topple Mr Lukashenko and install a pro-Moscow figure to prevent a Western-minded leader from sweeping to power further down the road. That is thought to be why Mr Lukashenko replaced his KGB chief, fearing Russian infiltration.

Either way, few expect Mr Lukashenko to go peacefully.

"Lukashenko leaves less and less chance for this," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civic Party, who was beaten up last year after protesting against a rigged referendum extending Mr Lukashenko's rule indefinitely.

"He's sick with power," Mr Lebedko said. "He'll defend it by all possible means."