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Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko takes the presidential oath during an inauguration ceremony at the Palace of the Republic in Minsk on Jan. 21.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko takes the presidential oath during an inauguration ceremony at the Palace of the Republic in Minsk on Jan. 21. Sergei Grits/AFP/Getty Images
In recent weeks, news of protests in favor of democracy has focused on the Arab world. But protests are taking place outside this region as well. In December, officials in Belarus squashed demonstrations following an election.
The government cracked down, rounding up opposition candidates. Since then, the U.S. and European Union have pressured the former Soviet republic with sanctions and travel bans on Belarussian officials. But the country's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, remains firmly in power.
In this authoritarian state, the political opposition — an outspoken bunch — has been all but silenced. The most recent crackdown fell on election night, Dec. 19, 2010 — and on opposition figures including Vladimir Neklyayev.
Neklyayev is a 64-year-old poet whose words have long captured the imagination of Belarussians. During his campaign for president, he appeared with a musician and sang about dreams of freedom. On the night of the election, his supporters took to the streets, crying out that the election had been rigged by longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.
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Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in Minsk on Dec. 20. Tens of thousands of protesters rallied against elections swept by President Alexander Lukashenko.
Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in Minsk on Dec. 20. Tens of thousands of protesters rallied against elections swept by President Alexander Lukashenko. Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images
Police beat Neklyayev, and he was rushed to a hospital. He didn't stay long, because men in black masks carted him out of the emergency room in a bedsheet. Neklyayev landed in a prison run by the KGB. This former Soviet republic still has an agency by that name.
The dissident poet is now under house arrest.
"He can't talk on the phone, and he's not allowed to write anything," his wife, Olga, says.
Two KGB agents are in her two-room apartment 24 hours a day. They bring their own tea and just sit.
Neklyayev is charged with "organizing a mass riot," and he faces 15 years in prison. On Thursday, one of his aides was sentenced to four years in prison. He was convicted of breaking a window on election night.
Neklyayev is not the only opposition member to bear the brunt of Lukashenko's regime during the recent crackdown. Alexei Mikhalevich — another presidential candidate — was arrested and remains in a KGB jail.
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Belarus presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev wrote "New election without Lukashenko" on his ballot at a Minsk polling stations Dec. 19.
Belarus presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev wrote "New election without Lukashenko" on his ballot at a Minsk polling stations Dec. 19. Maksim Malinouski/AFP/Getty Images
His wife, Milana, says she's allowed to drop off basic foods for him, such as white and brown bread.
"There is a list of 10 food items which could be passed on to the prisoners of the KGB detention center," she says.
Milana Mikhalevich, who teaches linguistics at a university, has talked to her husband by phone. She and Alexei have a 1-year-old daughter. Milana says he sounds like he's speaking from a script, urging her to keep silent.
"That's what they want us to do. To keep silent, to hide. To pretend we don't exist," she says. "We do exist."
The United States and European Union have demanded that Belarus release its political prisoners. But Lukashenko's administration doesn't characterize these prisoners as such. According to Andrei Savinykh, communications director for Belarus' Foreign Ministry, opposition leaders are facing trial not because of their politics but because their style of organizing was illegal.
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Belarussian authorities arrested more than 600 people on the night of Dec. 19 after a massive rally gathered in central Minsk to protest the presidential elections and call them illegitimate. This Dec. 23 photo shows a man held in Minsk prison.
Belarussian authorities arrested more than 600 people on the night of Dec. 19 after a massive rally gathered in central Minsk to protest the presidential elections and call them illegitimate. This Dec. 23 photo shows a man held in Minsk prison. Viktor Drachev /AFP/Getty Images
Savinykh, a longtime Belarussian diplomat, says protesters provoked the violence.
"Democracy is not just 'You do whatever you wish,' " he says. "Democracy is the rule of law, and that's exactly the case."
He also says there's no chance in Belarus for the kind of uprising that forced a change of power in Egypt or for the "color revolutions" that swept countries such as Ukraine and Georgia.
"Belarus is probably the only country where colored revolutions are not possible," Savinykh says, "simply because the state — the government — takes care of the people."
During his 16 years in power, the authoritarian Lukashenko has found a recipe for keeping salaries stable and unemployment low. Among the ranks of the gainfully employed is a cook in Minsk who won't give his name for fear the government would punish him for meeting with a reporter.
"I work in a good place and have a good job," he says.
The man, 22, says he lives under a repressive regime but is not about to hit the streets to fight for something different.