Bringing Down Europe’s Last Ex-Soviet Dictator
The New York Times: Magazine
By Steven Lee Myers

On March 19, Aleksandr Milinkevich will not be elected the next president of Belarus. He campaigns anyway, but with something else in mind. Through the winter he has traveled from city to city in clattering rented vans, meeting would-be voters in the bleak cold, gathering signatures and speaking about the social, economic and, above all, political neuroses that afflict this small nation at the eastern edge of a new Europe. “I am Aleksandr Milinkevich,” he recently assured a worker outside an auto-parts factory in Borisov, a gritty industrial city northeast of the capital, Minsk. The man seemed genuinely stunned to find this stranger greeting him.

“It is impossible to win at the elections, because there are no elections,” Milinkevich told me the first time I met him in a dim, three-room apartment in Minsk in October. “Nobody counts the votes.” It was my first realization that a presidential campaign in Belarus, a former republic of the Soviet Union, operates with a logic outside any traditional notion of democracy.

Milinkevich had just been selected, narrowly, during a congress of democratic opposition leaders to serve as a unified candidate against the country’s authoritarian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a former collective-farm boss who, over nearly 12 years in power, has defined democracy to mean not the people’s choice but the people’s acclamation — orchestrated by his government, including the ubiquitous security services, and enforced by a pervasive sense of fear.

“We go into these elections not because we believe in their fairness, but because this is a chance to go to the people, to conduct a campaign door to door,” Milinkevich explained through an interpreter. “I will not say that at every door people will become less fearful immediately. But very many people, when they see others who are not afraid, who dare to tell the truth, they will start to have more courage.” For now, many people react uneasily when they encounter him, as if he were an apparition. In the consciousness of a people saturated with state propaganda and ideology, he appears as the shadowy leader of a revolutionary cadre financed by big powers abroad and committed to the overthrow of the government.

Belarus, with about 10 million people in a landlocked mass not quite the size of Kansas, is a new nation and, even in the European mind, an obscure one. (A Belarussian acquaintance told me recently that a border guard at Stockholm’s airport did not recognize his passport.) The country’s fate has rarely been more than an afterthought in the larger struggles of competing European empires. At best it is considered the western appendage of Russia, which is what it has been historically. Its modern borders date only to the end of World War II, and except for a brief period between World War I and the consolidation of the Bolshevik revolution, it has known independence only since 1991, when the demise of the Soviet Union was officially declared — in Belarus, in fact.

With the presidential election scheduled for next month, though, Belarus is now the battleground for a new struggle, not between empires exactly, but over competing notions of how democracy should work in the nations that emerged from the Soviet wreckage. Following popular uprisings against authoritarian leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, those who would like to break Lukashenko’s iron grip, from President Bush to leaders across Europe, have thrown their support — and money — behind Milinkevich and an array of democratically minded activists determined to wake up a populace considered too passive, or too afraid, to challenge the state.

The activists are headed for a confrontation. Milinkevich, a 58-year-old physics professor and the unlikeliest of revolutionaries, is campaigning not for the presidency but for an uprising. “If our campaign is successful, then we will get people out into the street,” he told me last December in Brest, a city of about 200,000 near the border with Poland. “This is the last chance, the last battle. If we shall not stand out in the streets, the long polar night will descend on Belarus.”

Lukashenko is prepared for unrest. Last year he eliminated a legal provision that allowed members of the police force and security services to disobey what they considered an unlawful order. A new law pushed through Parliament late last year makes organizing a public protest — or making statements that discredit the state — punishable by three to five years in prison. Lukashenko’s interior minister recently ordered new measures to increase security before the election. A European diplomat told me that if Milinkevich’s supporters gather in numbers in Minsk to protest an electoral result that is already a foregone conclusion, Lukashenko will not hesitate to disperse them forcefully. “There is no doubt Lukashenko will issue the order,” he said.

Lukashenko himself said as much in a TV interview on Jan. 27: “Any attempt to destabilize the situation will be met with drastic action. We will wring the necks of those who are actually doing it and those who are instigating these acts. Embassies of certain states should be aware of this. They should know that we know what they are up to. They will be thrown out of here within 24 hours.”

Lukashenko, first elected in 1994 as a corruption-busting reformer in the country’s last truly free election, acts as if the world were plotting to overthrow him. It is central to his cultivation of popular support and is a regular theme of the steady stream of propaganda on state television, which reports extensively on nefarious American and European — even Russian — schemes to subordinate Belarus. Lukashenko’s speech last September to the United Nations General Assembly was a jeremiad against a unipolar world dominated by the United States and included defenses of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. “If there are no pretexts for intervention, imaginary ones are created,” he said in remarks shown repeatedly in Belarus. “To this end a very convenient banner was chosen — democracy and human rights. And not in their original sense of the rule of people and personal dignity, but solely and exclusively in the interpretation of the U.S. leadership.”

In a sense, Lukashenko is right. The policies of the European Union and the United States — supporting free news media, sponsoring civic organizations and providing assistance to the country’s democratic opposition — all seek to undermine his hold on power. With the election approaching, foreign aid has jumped in ways reminiscent of the cold war. In January the European Union awarded a two-year, $2.4 million contract to a German organization, Media Consulta, to coordinate the broadcasting of news into Belarus, hoping to break an information blockade that has left most Belarussians isolated from, and ignorant about, even neighboring countries.

The Bush administration, which has labeled Belarus the only “outpost of tyranny” left in Europe, spent $11.8 million last year on democracy promotion and plans to spend $12 million in 2006. The National Endowment for Democracy, the Congressionally financed nonprofit organization that promotes freedom overseas, is spending $2.2 million more on 49 grants related to the Belarus election.

For some time the United States spent this money openly in Belarus, as it has and still does in other countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia. Lukashenko’s government, however, has tightened controls over organizations that received American and European funds, closing many of them down. When 70 Belarussians met in a Minsk movie theater in October to hold a founding congress of an American-supported election-monitoring group called Partnership, the police arrived and arrested them all. Three organizers were sentenced to 15 days in jail; a fourth was fined.

The money, like the organizations themselves, has now gone underground or abroad. In December, 50 representatives of foreign ministries and international groups that support democracy gathered in Vilnius, the capital of neighboring Lithuania, to try to coordinate — and divide up — millions of dollars of aid. Thomas C. Adams, the State Department’s aid coordinator for Europe and Eurasia, described the meeting to me as a gathering of “the Belarussian freedom industry.” In a long day of discussions and presentations, the slickest appeal came from four young men belonging to a group calling itself Khopits, or “enough” in Belarussian. Using a computer and a projector, they proposed launching a secret information war, distributing leaflets, stickers and newspapers — mostly satirical — as well as ribbons and scarves emblazoned with the colors of the European Union.

Khopits does not, officially, exist. In Belarus, a month after the meeting in Vilnius, I met one of those who made the presentation, who described the group and its work on condition I identify neither him nor the city he is from. He is 23 and baby-faced. “It would be better if you described me as a woman,” he said. Three days before our meeting, three Khopits members were arrested and jailed.

Khopits, according to its members and sponsors, is a network of cells with dozens of activists in 60 cities and villages. It has no vertical structure or leadership. On a clear, icy day, the unnamed 23-year-old and I met at a bustling restaurant named 0.5, meaning half-liter, the size of the typical glass of beer. As we sat down, he disassembled his two cellphones, taking out the cards and the batteries as a precaution against surveillance, said to be possible even with a phone switched off. “They listen to us, 100 percent,” he told me, underscoring a fear of eavesdropping that is widely shared in Belarus.

Khopits’s information war is well under way. The National Endowment for Democracy, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (the N.E.D.’s British counterpart) and the Foreign Ministry of Germany are paying for it — with cash smuggled into Belarus in small amounts in ways he asked me not to disclose. (Representatives of Westminster and the German ministry declined to discuss their support for Khopits; the N.E.D. asked that I not disclose the amount of the assistance.)

It is hard to gauge how effective this furtive campaign is, but the 23-year-old activist explained that even a trickle of oppositional information would seep into the cracks in Lukashenko’s rule, weakening it, if not by the election, then sometime later. “This country is not Cuba, surrounded by water,” he told me. “It is surrounded by civilized countries.” Unless the borders are sealed entirely, information will still get through. “Sooner or later we will open people’s eyes, and this regime will crash.”

The cloak-and-dagger precautions undertaken by the Belarus opposition are necessary because Lukashenko has rebuilt the security apparatus that existed in Soviet times — the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, or K.G.B. Fear in Belarus is pervasive: fear of the police, fear of the secret service, fear of the bureaucracy at work or school that punishes any sign of antigovernment activity. This fear extends even beyond Belarus’s borders. While I was in Vilnius, a dozen young students gathered in front of the Belarussian Embassy to protest the expulsion a week earlier of Tatsiana Khoma, a fourth-year student at the Belarussian State University of Economics. Khoma was expelled for having attended a meeting in France of the National Unions of Students in Europe.

Among the demonstrators was a young Belarussian who introduced herself, improbably, as Jane. After a while she confided her real name but begged me not to disclose it or the university she attends. She was there, she said, to try to draw public attention to Lukashenko’s assault on higher education, including limiting study-abroad programs and even trips, which now must be approved by the Ministry of Education. But for her to speak openly would be to risk the fate that befell Khoma. “It is difficult for us to do anything,” she said, warily eyeing the embassy before rushing off.

Later that night I received an e-mail message from her, imploring me in the subject line, “Please, don’t mention my name.” “Because of the law we have in Belarus, we can’t say anything we think about Belorussian politics,” she wrote in earnest, imperfect English. “I saw you anderstant this, but I’m a little afrait.”

That week, Milinkevich’s senior campaign aides gathered in a basement office in Vilnius. They included Milinkevich’s rival as the democratic opposition leader, Anatoly Lebedko, who narrowly lost in the opposition’s congress in October. The office — modern and sleek, with projectors and equipment for video conferences — was unlike anything the opposition had in Minsk. (In fact, by January, Milinkevich’s campaign still did not have an official headquarters.) The meeting took place on the day Belarus’s lower house of Parliament adopted the amendments to the criminal code lengthening jail terms for those convicted of fomenting protest or criticizing the government.

Lebedko, a former school director and parliamentary deputy, has been one of Lukashenko’s fiercest critics and has paid the price. In October 2004, as protesters rallied in Minsk after the fraudulent referendum extending Lukashenko’s terms, secret service officers chased him into a pizza restaurant and beat him so badly that he nearly died. Outside the restaurant several elderly women on the sidewalk chanted: “Fascists! Fascists!”

Lebedko, who barely conceals his disappointment at having lost to Milinkevich as the opposition candidate, has nevertheless become the campaign’s chief strategist. He denounced the new amendments as an effort to instill fear and called them a sign of Lukashenko’s desperation. “Despite propaganda reminiscent of Hitler’s, half the population still wants change,” he told me, citing polls, as he and the others loaded paper plates with Chinese food provided for the meeting. “Fifteen percent say they are willing to take to the streets. That is one and a half million people. This is our chance.”

The meeting began. The leaders of the democratic opposition of Belarus were there to discuss politics with Terry Nelson, the national political director of Bush-Cheney 2004. In that campaign, Nelson oversaw the president’s strategy of creating a vast get-out-the-vote network by organizing volunteers. “We have neighbors talking to neighbors, and that’s the way to win a close race,” he said at the time.

The office in Vilnius belonged to the International Republican Institute, which is partly financed by the National Endowment for Democracy. The institute’s director for Belarus is Trygve Olson, a bearish campaign operative from Wisconsin who previously worked in Poland and Serbia. He went to Belarus in January 2001 and was denied a visa by April. He has worked in Vilnius ever since. On Belarussian state television, Olson has been singled out for organizing seminars like these. As the narrator of one 2004 documentary put it, “We found out that these technologies of educating provocateurs in Nazi schools and educating the opposition leaders in Belarus are very similar.”

Terry Nelson’s presence in Vilnius underscored the depth of American support for Belarus’s beleaguered opposition, but that support is not limited to Republicans. The National Democratic Institute operates from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, its workers having also been barred from Belarus. The two American organizations, with a bipartisanship that is increasingly rare at home, have divided their labors: the N.D.I. works with regional groups, the I.R.I. with the national campaign.

Nelson listened as Lebedko, Sergei Kalyakin (leader of the Communist Party of Belarus) and Aleksandr Dobrovolsky (a Milinkevich advisor) discussed the results of a poll, paid for by the I.R.I., that showed the ratings of Milinkevich and other opposition leaders all in single digits. “You need to reach those people to reach your goals,” Nelson said.

The question was — and remains — whether an American-style campaign can work in a place like Belarus. Nelson and Olson discussed, then ruled out, such highly refined campaign tactics as microtargeting of voters based on databases with precision information about income and habits. Still, they went over the categories of likely supporters — students, small-business men and Protestants (who face restrictions on worship in an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country) — that Milinkevich had, somehow, to reach. Kalyakin said that a majority in Belarus favored a new president, but faced with almost daily warnings on television, feared the instability or economic chaos that could follow.

Dobrovolsky predicted that the campaign was prepared to mass 15,000 to 25,000 young people to protest the results on March 19 — or possibly a move to disqualify Milinkevich even before the vote. He said that gathering 50,000 could prove sufficient to inspire more people to mass.

“Is that enough?” Nelson asked.

“We will see,” Dobrovolsky replied.

‘Only dictators fear revolutions,” said Vladimir Kobets, who is essentially a political fugitive in his own country. He is a leader of Zubr, a youth group whose name means “bison,” a symbol of the country, though not one the government embraces. Lukashenko has instead revived those of the Soviet era, including the green-and-red flag of the Belarus Soviet Socialist Republic.

If people are going to protest the election results, Zubr will provide most of the early protesters. It claims 5,000 active members and 10,000 more “volunteers.” Forty young people founded Zubr in a secret meeting in a national park in January 2001. Its protests — often antigovernment antics like street performances in Lukashenko masks or graffiti campaigns — have landed dozens of the group’s members in jail. According to Kobets, nearly 100 have been beaten.

Meeting Kobets was not difficult, but it required certain precautions. We would meet in front of a green wooden house on the banks of the Svislach River, which wends through Minsk. The house, now a museum, is where the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, a precursor of the Bolsheviks, held its illegal founding congress in 1898. From there we wandered aimlessly along the wide esplanades beside the river in Gorky Park before heading into a cafe, presumably safe from any unwanted listeners.

Kobets is round-faced and wears glasses. He is no longer so young. He has a wife and two children. He has no regular job. He was arrested last August when he met two activists from Georgia, though he was released within hours. The Georgians, part of the Kmara youth group that has provided inspiration and training to Zubr, were released 10 days later, after Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and Viktor A. Yushchenko of Ukraine intervened personally with Lukashenko.

Kobets, like Milinkevich, doubts the possibility of having a legitimate election, largely because Lukashenko’s apparatchiks control every part of it, most important the election commissions that will count the votes and report what the federal election chief in October 2004 called “an elegant victory.” That was when Lukashenko announced a snap referendum amending constitutional term limits and allowing him to seek re-election indefinitely. The vote was widely denounced in Europe, and an independent exit poll suggested that the referendum actually received the support of less than half the voters. But it stands anyway.

Kobets, over coffee, said that Lukashenko’s power was not as formidable as it seemed. As evidence he gave the steps the government has taken to suppress dissent: arresting protesters, expelling students from universities, banning the distribution of independent newspapers, requiring state workers to sign yearly contracts, which can be revoked after any sign of disloyalty.

“The problem is not Lukashenko,” he said. “It is the fear.”

Zubr’s newest project is to organize protests on the 16th of each month. The date commemorates the night — Sept. 16, 1999 — that Viktor Gonchar, once a deputy prime minister and election commissioner who became a popular opposition leader poised to challenge Lukashenko, disappeared along with a businessman who financed the opposition. On that night the two men went to a banya, the public bathhouse that is a ritual part of Slavic life. They were evidently abducted and probably murdered. The idea is to remind Belarussians of the darker episodes in Lukashenko’s rule.

On Jan. 16, several dozen young people gathered on Independence Street in the center of Minsk, which used to be named after Francis Skaryna, a Renaissance-era scholar and printer who is an important figure in Belarussian identity. (Lukashenko changed the name last year.) A kind of flash mob gathered, though unlike those stunts elsewhere the organizers refuse to use text messages. “The K.G.B. reads them,” a young woman named Marina said.

They rely on word of mouth instead. Marina came to Minsk from Mogilev in the east. On the way, the police stopped the minibus she and her companions were riding in, ostensibly for a traffic violation. Two members of the group were detained. Marina and four others bolted into the forest, she told me, where officers searched for them with dogs. They avoided capture, hitched a ride and made it to the protest. She refused to give her last name.

Marina passed out torn shreds of blue jeans; denim is now the color of this revolution in the making. (It was settled on after a Zubr activist, Nikita Sasim, waved his jeans jacket as the police broke up another 16th protest.) After 15 minutes, the Minsk protest was over, and the crowd drifted into the dark, snowy night.

Kobets told me that Belarus’s democratic activists took their inspiration from the unlikeliest of sources: a Kevin Costner film. “The Postman,” adapted from a novel by David Brin in 1997 and critically panned, depicts an apocalyptic America where the remnants of civilization live in terror of a brutal army headed by a sadistic general. Costner’s character, a drifter, delivers a bag of old mail — information — and becomes a symbol of hope for those hoping to restore their American democracy.

In this improbable metaphor, the postman would be Aleksandr Milinkevich.

It as midafternoon in January and minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit when Milinkevich drove up to the Soviet-era auto factory in Borisov, one still owned, like most everything else in Belarus, by the state. The wan winter light was already fading as the day shift filed out. Milinkevich’s campaign workers unfolded a small table, adorned with his portraits, outside the factory’s entrance. Going inside, of course, was out of the question, despite the weather. A few workers sidled closer, forming around him a broken circle of overcoats and hats — fur for the older men, knitted caps for the younger ones.

Hatless and gloveless, his bearded face reddening from the cold, Milinkevich tried to draw out these would-be voters with the mild, inquisitive manner of a professor, which is what he was until the state fired him in 2000 for joining the campaign of a Lukashenko challenger. What followed was what passes for a public discussion of politics in Belarus today.

“Many people want changes,” he said, refuting what these people are told when they watch television.

“Yes,” a voice in the circle agreed, “very many people want changes.”

“Something has to be done about it,” came a second.

In conversations like these, Milinkevich is asked about his policies, his prescription for jobs and wages, relations with Russia and the rest of Europe. Mostly, though, he is asked about the electoral process itself.

No one signed the petitions on the table. A portly woman on the factory steps, smartly bundled, murmured that she would. “No, don’t do it,” her companion said, tugging at the fur of her coat as she led her down the steps and away from the candidate. “They will take down your name.”

“They,” like the president, went unspoken, because they, like the president, are omnipresent and, at least in the public perception, which is what counts, all powerful. Two cars — one red, one white — followed Milinkevich’s vans wherever they went, as they always do. At each stop one or more of the men inside would emerge with a hand-held video camera and record the candidate and anyone with him — sometimes only steps away. They are — or at least they are presumed to be — officers of the K.G.B.

“Yes, I know they are watching,” Milinkevich said earlier in another town, Zhodino, when a passer-by nodded in the direction of the stone-faced men.

In Borisov, the shift change ended, and the pool of potential voters shuffled into the city, dispersing without having ever really assembled. A uniformed officer of the Interior Ministry kept repeating into his telephone: “Everything is calm.”

To travel with the Milinkevich campaign is to experience an Orwellian version of democracy. In Brest, in December, he took phone calls on a fax machine from voters who had learned he would be at that number for one hour that evening; they discovered this from reading fliers that had been distributed furtively in apartment blocks.

Once, after Milinkevich met with students in front of Brest State University, I lingered to talk with a student, who gave his name as Pavel Dailid. Within minutes two officers arrived and demanded my documents and those of an interpreter. “This is the usual thing for us,” Dailid said when they left after taking down our names and passport and visa numbers. “I want to come out onto the street and say what I want.” Minutes after we parted, Dailid was stopped when he re-entered the university and threatened with expulsion. When Milinkevich tried to deliver a gift of books to an orphanage, a sign declared that it was closed. The director, Valentina Kratsova, said sheepishly that a quarantine had been declared.

Milinkevich tried to meet local activists in a community center, but that, too, was closed. They met instead in the old wooden house where he took calls the night before. The police came and threatened to call inspectors, saying an unsanctioned meeting was taking place and warning of violations of the building code.

As a result of all this, Milinkevich often meets no more than a few dozen people in an entire day. Deprived of access to the state media, unable to assemble large crowds of supporters, he says he hopes that he can spread a message of change almost voter by voter.

“Democracy is not only counting votes and not only the freedom of the press,” he told those who gathered in the old house. “It is what is in the minds of people.”

The meeting broke up early after the police warning. Irina Lavrovskaya, one of Milinkevich’s aides, asked everyone to leave in small groups of one or two people — “calmly, quietly” — and to head in different directions.

In January, in Borisov, Milinkevich received some parting advice from a worker at the auto plant. “Remember what happened to Gonchar,” the man told him. “Don’t walk alone.”

Milinkevich is running exactly the sort of campaign that Terry Nelson suggested in the meeting in Vilnius — the one that the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute have supported with their training programs. A recent poll by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys showed that three out of four Belarussians now know of him — compared with one out of four in September — and almost all of them have learned about Milinkevich by word of mouth. Trygve Olson said it was extraordinary that a little-known politician — a bearded, soft-spoken professor who once served as a deputy mayor in Grodno and was the president of a basketball team there — had made such inroads, given the pressures he faces on the campaign trail and the blackout in state media.

Of course, Lukashenko will win — with 75 percent of the vote, according to Milinkevich. “He does not like figures below 75 percent,” he said. Lukashenko, whose information apparatus portrays him as the last defense against chaos, might win in a free vote anyway. “What can you do?” Lukashenko told a gathering of voters late last year. “You will elect me.”

The secretary of the country’s election commission, Nikolai I. Lozovik, told me in an interview, “There is no basis for a mass protest vote in Belarus today.” He also excoriated foreign meddling. “The United States and Europe have already rejected the policy of exporting revolution,” he said. “I mean Lenin, Trotsky. I do not understand why these countries are now exporting democratic revolutions. What is the difference?”

Meanwhile, Milinkevich speaks of a victory over passivity and fear. “Our victory is more important,” he told a sparse audience outside a factory in Zhodino. “We want to have a victory in people’s minds. If we can manage to achieve this victory, then we can go out into the streets. We will not go out with guns or stones. We will go out and show how many we are.”

The historic model Milinkevich has in mind, which he and others repeat often, is Poland and Solidarity — not in 1989 when the Communist government crumbled under its own weight, but in the dark days of 1980, when Lech Walesa was only beginning his campaign of dissent.

“There was a powerful public protest,” Milinkevich told me in January. “The authorities could do nothing. Martial law was imposed. And that was the beginning of the end.”

Steven Lee Myers is the Times bureau chief in Moscow.


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