Have you heard this one from America's leading post-Soviet expert and my colleague Paul Goble? "Elections in Belarus are like the Rocky films: with each new one, the main hero gets a little older but he still defeats everyone."
But Minsk ain't Hollywood. Many people have had enough of sequels. There is a counter-revolution churning against the post-Communist system: on the streets and in factories. The Kremlin vows to shore up the Belarus regime.
Waves of demonstrations have swept Belarus since the presidential elections of August 9. Last weekend in the capital city alone 250,000 people marched against the self-anointed winner, President Alexandr "Daddy" Lukashenko.
The opposition claims he falsified the vote and wants him to step down. "Go away," they chant. "Freedom!" "We believe, we can, we shall win!" "We shall neither forget nor forgive!" "Long live Belarus!" And also: "Get into a police van!" That is actually an appeal for the dictator either to scram or to allow himself to be arrested and go to jail voluntarily.
A willing departure from the scene of the dictator is the least likely outcome. True, a week or so ago, after days of scornfully dismissing the demands to step down, Daddy momentarily backtracked. He proclaimed that he would allow new elections, if there was a new constitution. But that would have to be approved by the parliament he controls.
But no sooner did he nod tentatively to his detractors, did the dictator bristle in anger again: no concessions!
Belarus is under a threat of foreign subversion and invasion. Apparently, he means NATO, Lithuania and Poland in particular. For now Daddy has hunkered down in a bunker at the presidential palace, waving a gun in a Saddamesque gesture of defiance. The dictator will not go gently into the night. He is not going to wait out the storm passively, either.
As far as civil disobedience, the response of the Lukashenko government has been consistently ruthless and brutal. The authorities interrupt internet service, blocking about 50 news sites, and endeavor to prevent any form of independent media coverage. Newspapers and television are mostly government owned and controlled so they sing a predictable tune.
However, lately the regime has been censoring and confiscating a few remaining, and embattled, independent newspapers. In desperation, their publishers threaten to move their operations to Russia to print there and smuggle the output back in over the eastern border. A few days ago 25 journalists were arrested and taken in to prevent them from covering riots in Minsk. The police claimed it was a simple procedure to check press credentials.
But it is the Belarusian people who truly get the short end of the stick. About 6,000 individuals have been arrested so far. The riot police attack the demonstrations with water hoses and tear gas, beat the participants, and disperse the crowd. The secret police infiltrates the throngs and kidnaps alleged leaders.
Reportedly, the KGB also snatches suspects off of the streets irrespective whether they participate directly in demonstrations or not. This is an old technique to terrorize and intimidate. More ominously, there are rumors of torture and death squads.
To thwart the regime's ferocious crowd control techniques, the opposition has resorted to two main tactics. First, it has called for industrial strikes and the response has been encouraging. There are reports of labor unrest throughout Belarus. On August 17, work ground to a halt at the crucial oil refinery in Novopolotsk, which processes U.S. crude; the workers demanded that Lukashenko resign. The next day Mozyrzh refinery struck. Even the iconic Minsk tractor factory is on strike.
There are more than just passing similarities to Poland's "Solidarity" in 1980. The strikers and other opposition leaders have created a Coordinating Committee. It is unclear how effective this particular ad hoc body is, but it is apparently in touch with the presidential elections runner up, Svetlana Tikanovskaia, who was forced into exile in Lithuania a couple of weeks ago. Lukashenka has duly taken note: the KGB "disappeared" at least two of the Coordinating Committee members.
Second, the opposition have decentralized their marches and demonstrations so that, for example, after being prevented from assembling in the center of Minsk, they assemble separately in smaller crowds in all other parts of the city and then they try to converge in the middle of town.
Even when they fail, the demonstrations mushroom and attract ever more people. For instance, in imitation of Cuba's Damas de Blanco, 3,000 Belarusian women dressed in white formed a human chain to defy the dictator in Minsk on August 16. Provincial towns, where the police tend to be arguably even more savage, witness similar civil disobedience tactics at work.
In one instance, in western city of Grodno, by the Polish border, after an initially ruthless reaction by the riot squad, the city fathers and the policemen apologized publicly and the protests go unimpeded. This is an anomaly in stark contrast to Minsk, where thousands have been beaten and arrested. A number have disappeared.
At least one of the vanished, a 28-year-old man, has been located dead in a suburban forest; the Belarusians blame his death on the KGB and the tragedy has fueled the angry resolve of the anti-Lukashenka crowds. More people have turned out to protest.
Grodno is notable also because the demonstrators there wave Polish white-and-red flags in addition to the Belarusian nationalist red-white-red banners. Lukashenko not only banned the nationalist flag, but to add insult to injury, he wraps himself up in a modified version of the old Soviet one for his country.
Further, Daddy is livid at the Polish motif and claims that the flags signify NATO subversion to incite separatism. His defense minister Viktar Khrenin publicly announced that the Poles were going to invade. Grodno does have a significant Polish minority, but the demonstrators fly the Polish symbol in solidarity with the civic protest movement rather than in their anticipation of a non-existing Polish army invasion.
Most frighteningly, Russia's Vladimir Putin wants to capitalize on the situation. He cheers the Lukashenko government on and promises fraternal assistance in case of foreign (aka NATO) aggression. And even if there is none, Russia stands ready to move in. Once the Muscovites are in, they prefer to stay indefinitely.
For now, however, Daddy does most of the overreacting. A few days ago, democracy sympathizers in Lithuania – taking a leaf from a Cold War operation – released children's balloons decorated with anti-dictatorship motives. Lukashenko dispatched military helicopters to deal with the balloon armada. Reportedly, one of the gunships, in hot pursuit of a balloon, violated Lithuania's air space.
I do not think NATO will find that grounds for invoking Article 5, but U.S. State Department meditates about extending targeted sanctions to more thugs in the Lukashenko regime. So does the European Union. There is talk of more funds to train the opposition and such. America's Radio Liberty and Polish-backed Belsat continue churning out news for Belarus.
Not much more can be done lest the Kremlin renders fraternal assistance and Putin gobbles Belarus up. Even Rocky won't save the day.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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