Is the December presidential election going to be more of the same? Lukashenka has been president for 16 years, but this time he is playing at democracy. Could his game get the better of him? Olga Birukova fears probably not, but a recent survey might be cause for hope.
On 19 December Belarusians go to the polls to elect a new president. Or perhaps not. After the 2004 rigged referendum allowing him to run as many time as he likes in perpetuity, Lukashenka has stood (and won) in 1994, 2001 and 2006 (though the last two elections were not considered either fair or free). This time he is trying to make himself as popular as possible with the West, so he is playing at democracy and there are 10 handsome wannabe presidents. The campaign is quite lively, but the weakness of the alternative candidates is a great disappointment. There's also a lot of uncertainty about future relations with Russia and how dependent we will be on the Kremlin.
The unrest, which is both openly expressed and simply muttered, means that all is not plain sailing for Lukashenka. Reading the Belarus opposition websites, I, as an outsider, have the impression that the current regime is about to collapse - in just days, or possibly a few weeks. Full of hope, I ask Belarus journalists who they think is likely to be the next leader of the country. They smile politely and say quite frankly that Lukashenka is heading for his 4th term. All the other candidates are just playing their parts in the performance across the nation so as to create a picture of relatively fair elections, and to discourage protest voting.
'The West has not provided enough funds for a really serious single alternative candidate to mount a campaign,' the most cynical of them say. As if Washington or Brussels should be financing local opposition. This belief reflects the view that a country on the crossroads between Russia and Europe with one potash field, two oil refineries and some industry should be the focus of everyone's interest and Belarusians should avail themselves of every opportunity to milk the situation.
But the election story is not actually about money, the PR-magic of British lords or oil supplies from Russia, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Sudan or any other place in the world.
According to Radio Liberty there was a crowd of several thousand in The Square on 24 November, 2010, though the Ministry of the Interior number was 250.
The militia colonels have more than once been quoted as saying 'We shall not be able to ban or disperse any rally if there are more than 10,000 protesters, and we shall not even try to do so'. So 0.5% of the population of Minsk (2 million) could change the situation. Or at the very least they could try.
During my last years in Minsk I made desperate efforts to count how many people took part in street demonstrations. I also took note of the police trucks waiting for those who had been arrested and buses full of policemen fully equipped for street battles, all hidden in neighbouring courtyards. Sometimes even their bosses were there: men in uniform watching attentively from their cars with tinted windows, parked discreetly to one side of the central square.
Numbers varied: 15-50 young people e.g. at monthly protest meetings to remember the disappeared, or call for the release of current political prisoners to 5 - 6,000 on marches or rallies related to big political events. My colleagues and I would often hotly dispute the numbers, but my most optimistic calculations never exceeded 7,000 at any one gathering.
The Chernobyl March, which takes place every year in April, traditionally attracts considerably upwards of 2,000 people (in 2006 possibly as many as 4 - 5,000). The police usually try and force them out of central Minsk to more remote areas, though the protesters have no political agenda. The march goes through the capital, escorted by numerous policemen and policewomen (at least 1 every metre). The marchers shout to the police, inviting them to join in. All they are doing is remembering the tragedy and the point at which it became clear just how dangerous official lies can be. Many lives could have been saved at Chernobyl, if only the communist officials had not hushed up the real information about what had happened, the possible implications and what could be done to minimise the risks.
Another top-level lie, which caused general indignation, led to a demonstration with about 5,000 protesters. It was after the October 2004 referendum, referred to above. The police tried to keep the crowd in the central square, which is called October Square, but it was suddenly much too small. After clashes with the front ranks of protesters, however, they had no option but to allow the march to proceed along the main avenue. After that 'The Square' came to mean the protesters that gather there, a few hundred metres from the parliament building, the presidential office and the KGB, always under the watchful eye of the police.
No crowd in New York, London or Paris would have been so intelligent and so easy to organise as it was in 2004. I was working as a fixer for the BBC, squeezing through tightly packed crowds and watching what was happening. When someone accidentally hit me, he actually stopped and apologised. I then stepped out into the road and many others did the same. Cars in the traffic jam started hooting the rhythm of the opposition slogan 'Long live Belarus' - 2 long, 3 short. The police finally decided it would be better to stop the rush-hour traffic in the centre of Minsk, so we had the much-needed extra space for the march. The crowd left no rubbish behind - no bottles, cigarette ends, no packing, nothing - as if they had been priests and well-mannered schoolteachers. In fact all social groups were represented and the inspiration on the faces was something I had never seen before in Minsk. Our city.
The crowd then moved spontaneously toward the KGB building. They had no very clear idea of what they were going to do next, but the head of the KGB suddenly and unexpectedly invited crowd representatives in 'for talks'. This was obviously intended to calm the situation. The opposition leaders had no pre-arranged plan and ended up agreeing that it had been a great meeting, but it's dark and late, so let's go home and meet at the same place tomorrow. So this incredible march of thousands was wasted. Why come to the Square every day, if there's no action?
Later on I asked one of the activists: 'why was this fantastic rally organised the day after the referendum, rather than on the actual day or just before? Why didn't people stay in the Square, when they were all ready to protest against this lie?" At the moment this particular guy is in the team of one of the presidential candidates, so I won't name him. He was embarrassed and took a long time to reply. He finally came up with the reason that it would have been too dangerous. I didn't ask who it would have been dangerous for, as it was all too obvious. For a few hours in central Minsk that day the crowd was in control and no one could have touched them. There could have been attacks on individual politicians. One of the organisers was actually badly beaten up a few days later.
So I realised that for them it's not 'do or die', but more of an 'adapt to the situation and do what's allowed'. This is not difficult to understand in a country with the machine of repression constantly at the ready. But if even the opposition leaders play by the rules, how can you expect any determination or even confidence from the average man in the street?
I was not in Belarus during the 2006 presidential elections. It was difficult to work out from CNN and BBC reports how many people were in the Square then and how many subsequently stayed in the tent city. Some local sources reported that almost 10,000 people had demonstrated on 19-20 March 2006. But the opposition leaders were not courageous enough: they called on people to go back to their warm kitchens. They later explained that no one wanted bloodshed - or frostbite. The young protesters were very upset. 'The politicians are just cowards. They won't take any risks, which is why they are well known in Brussels or Washington, but not in Minsk,' they said.
Zenon Paznyak was a Lukashenka rival in the 1994 elections and leader of the Popular Front. He now lives in exile in the USA. He maintains that the Belarus opposition in its entirety is completely under the control of the Belarus and Russian KGB. His call is to boycott the election, but this is not a very popular view.
Will people in Belarus trust the official election results, or will they take to the streets? In a recent survey conducted by the think tank IISSEPS (Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies), 59.3% of respondents thought that all, or most, Belarusians are too scared to express their political views openly. The number of people who think that 'ALL are scared' has tripled since 2001 (18/8%). 19.9% of even those people who openly support Lukashenka think that everyone is afraid to speak out.
The young protesters are not very happy with the opposition politicians. 'They are politicians are just cowards. They won't take any risks, which is why they are well known in Brussels or Washington, but not in Minsk.'
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that 46.8% gave a definitive 'yes' to the question 'will the coming presidential elections will be free and fair?' but 32.9% openly said 'no'. 52.4% said they would believe the official results, 30.1% said they wouldn't, and the don't knows were 17.5%.
43.6% of respondents consider that it's now time to give a new president a chance. 44.6% have no objection to Lukashenka being elected for another term. 43.6% to 44.6% allows for some hope that the result of the upcoming elections is not yet clear, especially if one takes into account that many people were simply too scared to express their opinion frankly.
The marker question in this survey was 'if you think elections results are rigged, will you protest openly?' 40.5% said they would accept that change is not going to happen. The explanations for such passivity were that street demonstrations are not effective (28.2%), fear of future repression by the regime (18.3%) and even that there aren't so many demonstrations, so there's no point in taking part in them (11%).
If the results are thought not to be representative of public opinion, 24.5% don't know what they will do. 24.1% will stay at home, though they are 'distrustful and deeply disappointed'. 10.9% would be ready to carry on protesting until a full review of the results had been carried out. If this percentage were to be extrapolated to the whole country, it would mean that more than 1 million people (of a population of 10 million) is already determined to fight for democracy. In Minsk alone the number of protesters could reach an unheard of 200,000. This would be a serious challenge for Lukashenka.
It is, of course, impossible to predict whether the most active minority will do as they say and how many people will actually come to the Square.
On 17 November hackers got into the website for the Syhodz (go away) movement, but information about the joint initiative and the first demonstration scheduled for 18.00 on 24 November in October Square had already spread like wildfire. According to Radio Liberty there was a crowd of several thousand in The Square on that day, though the Ministry of the Interior number was 250. Opposition leaders and other well-known politicians carried white-red-white flags and the emblems of the political party Belarus Christian Democrats. Nikolay Statkevich read out a list of requests to the Central Election Committee. The crowd then marched to Independence Square, where Statkevich stuck the list of requests on the sign at the entrance of the parliament building. The police issued warnings, but didn't try and stop the demonstration.
Two days before that the police had warned that any action in October Square would be considered illegal, so organisers and participants alike could be prosecuted. The Prosecutor General personally notified presidential candidates Vitaly Rymashevsky and Nikolay Statkevich that any mass protest could lead to them being deprived of their status as candidates in the election.
What feeling will unify the Belarusian people on election day? The need to protest against one more big lie? A resounding 'yes' for any particular candidates? Indignation at the rigged election? Indifference? Depression in every kitchen? Blind confidence in any result announced?
These are open questions. No one actually knows what the level of protest could realistically be in a fully developed dictatorship in a country squeezed in between Russia and Europe.