Politico’s Ben Smith Talks with Anatoliy Lebedko About Belarus

A Belarus spring?
By Ben Smith

With dictators falling across the Middle East and North Africa, one of Europe’s longest-suffering opposition leaders is in Washington this week seeking American support.*

I first met Anatoliy Lebedko ten years ago in Minsk, just before a rigged election that was immediately overshadowed by September 11. He was released after four months in jail protesting last year’s rigged election, and barely made it to the U.S. because the Belarusian KGB confiscated his passport, leading him to be detained at a Moscow airport.

“They only reason why they let me go was because Russian media started making noise about it,” he said in an interview from the office of the International Republican Institute today. The “most important thing that I’m talking about here is the release of all political prisoners in Belarus,” he said. He also said that any assistance to the impoverished country should only come after “reforms and change.”

And he said that, 17 years into Lukashenko’s rule, it’s a moment of opportunity.

“There’s a new and different quality to the situation,” he said. “The vast majority of people do not consider him the leader of the country. Despite the fact that the government controls all the media, he only has 30% appoval rating. And for the first time russia is not being perceived as a strategic partner of Lukashenko’s regime.

Meanwhile, he said, Qadhafi’s fall is resonating in Minsk.

“Government officials look at the situaiton in Libya, and they say if the sit of Muammar Qahafi is falling apart, what’s going to happen to us? It has an affect on the regular people too.”

*[I covered Belarus for a time in 2000 and 2001, and though it’s a bit off topic on this blog, it’s a compelling story that gets little attention anywhere else, so I revisit it in this space occasionally.]

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