Dictator puts on a good show

By Shaun Walker

Tanks and missiles rolled through the streets, military aircraft roared in the sky and thousands of troops marched past the podium saluting the President. Later, columns of costumed schoolchildren stretching as far as the eye could see danced in formation to the tinny refrain of Belarus! My homeland! coming from the loudspeakers.

The huge military parade put on by President Alexander Lukashenko to mark Belarusian independence day appeared designed to show that he will not relinquish control over his country easily. Dressed in full military regalia, and flanked by his 6-year-old son wearing a matching uniform, the man who has frequently been called the "last dictator in Europe" gave a speech drawing parallels between the Nazi onslaught which the country suffered during World War II and the protest movement his Government is facing.

As Belarus has plunged into a severe economic crisis that has halved the average person's spending power in a matter of months, the mood of dissent in the country has grown, with thousands of people taking to the streets in "silent protests" where they simply smile or clap.

Lukashenko said the protesters were working according to plans that had been drawn up "in the capital cities of certain foreign countries" and were working to "bring us to our knees and destroy our hard-fought independence".

But while Lukashenko has successfully used such rhetoric in the past, there is a sense in Minsk that his time is running out. A protest group set up on the Russian social-networking site Vkontakte has more than 200,000 members and news is spread about where the weekly protests will take place and people swap tips on how to avoid arrest.

A combination of preventive arrests, internet attacks and the presence of hundreds of black-jacketed young men with earpieces meant that "clapping protests" planned to disrupt Lukashenko's independence day speech did not get off the ground. But in an evening protest, plain-clothed police used tear gas and violence to arrest dozens of people, taking them away in military trucks.

Independent polls show Lukashenko's approval ratings have dipped and while protesters concede there is not yet the critical mass for a revolution, it is clear that public opinion is changing fast.

"Until about a year ago, I was totally apolitical," said Zhenya, a 26-year-old accountant. "But the more I've started noticing what is happening in the country and reading stuff online, the more I've realised we need to change things."

A devaluation of the Belarusian rouble combined with inflation has meant that people's salaries can buy half as much as they could at the beginning of the year. "Hard currency" has all but disappeared, in a return to the Soviet system, with exchange booths and cash machines out of euros and US dollars. Lukashenko's much-vaunted economic stability, which won him genuine support for years, has gone up in smoke.

"People are slowly starting to realise that there was never any stability, that it was all just a myth," said journalist Irina Khalip. Khalip's husband, Andrei Sannikov, was one of Lukashenko's challengers for the presidency in December. The moustached incumbent won a huge majority in a count that international observers said was neither free nor fair, and thousands protested on the night of December 19. Hundreds of arrests were made, including those of Sannikov and his wife.

Khalip spent weeks in jail and months under house arrest. She has now been given a suspended sentence but for two years is not allowed to leave Minsk or go outside after 10pm.

Sannikov, instead of the five-year presidential term he had sought, was given a five-year prison sentence for "organising illegal protests".

During a meeting in a Minsk cafe this week, Khalip tears open a letter from her husband, the pages stamped with purple ink to show they have received the approval of the prison censor. A number of political observations are couched in allegorical language to flummox the censor, before a heart-rending personal ending. "I think of you all the time," writes Sannikov. "How difficult it is to be without our son."

Khalip fights back tears. Often, she says, her husband sends stories written for their son, which are always about a pair of heroic mice, fighting a battle against a giant, evil rat. "The allusions are pretty clear, I think," she said.

Minsk can be a disorientating place. Until you hear stories like Khalip's it is easy to forget just how the regime operates.

The broad streets are lined with monumental Stalin-era buildings, the pavements devoid of litter and lined with carefully tended flower beds. Families stroll in the sunshine, groups of young people drink beer in pleasant outdoor cafes and it can be hard to believe that this is a brutal dictatorship.

At certain critical times, such as elections, there have been mass arrests, beatings and suspicious deaths, but most of the time, the regime runs on "low-level fear", says a Western diplomat based in Minsk. Workers in state-run enterprises are kept on one-year contracts and are easily got rid of if they step out of line politically; the same is true for students. But the number of people willing to risk problems to have their voices heard is growing.

When Monday's parade was over, Lukashenko shook hands with the military generals while his son Nikolay strutted around in his military uniform.

The appearance of the 6-year-old at state events, and Lukashenko's hints that he is grooming the child to succeed him, signify for many Belarusians just how out of touch their leader has become.

Respect for Lukashenko has turned to widespread distaste; some in the opposition say it will mature into a revolution.

The victims

Irina Khalip

Journalist for Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper and wife of the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov

"There were threats initially that our 4-year-old son would be taken by the state. When I was released from prison, I was kept under house arrest. I had no telephone or computer, couldn't leave the flat and had two KGB men inside the apartment. I'm staying away from protests for now. Andrei told me that my main task is to look after our son."

Olga Bondarenko

Wife of Dmitry Bondarenko, campaign manager for Andrei Sannikov

"When Dmitry was in KGB detention, they tried to get him to give evidence against others and to write a personal letter of apology to Lukashenko. He didn't do either. He has a spinal injury and limited movement in his right leg. While he's been in prison, his left leg has got bad too. I have no doubt about his psychological state, he's strong and he's ready to suffer for his country, but I worry about his illness."

Alexander Feduta

Adviser to opposition presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev

"They came for me at home at 5am on December 20. I was in prison for 109 days. There was no physical torture - I'm not well and I guess they didn't want me dying on their hands. But there was a lot of psychological pressure. For half the time, I was in solitary. After awhile, you start to think you are going mad."

- Independent

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