Belarus President Aims to Head Off Opposition

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, bans pro-democracy groups from accepting money or technical assistance from outside the country. The strategy seems to be an effort to head off the kinds of popular democratic movements that toppled governments in Ukraine and Georgia.

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The president of Belarus has banned pro-democracy groups from accepting money or technical assistance from outside the country. The strategy seems to be an effort to head off the kinds of popular democratic movements that toppled governments in Ukraine and Georgia. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Aleksandr Lukashenko evidently learned a lesson from the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia to be aware of groups that organize around the idea of free and fair elections. His decree cuts off a major source of support for such groups--money, training and advice from other countries. Walter Stankievich is the editor of the Belarus Review. He says Lukashenko's government exaggerates the amount of aid pro-democracy groups receive.

Mr. WALTER STANKIEVICH (Editor, Belarus Review): Well, according to the Belarussian television, the official television, it's millions and millions of dollars crosses the border in support of the opposition, which, of course, is a fairy tale. But thousands do cross, and people find ways of getting through.

FLINTOFF: There are plenty of people willing to help them. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have institutes that support democracy building, as do the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House and the Eurasia Foundation. Many sponsor seminars to bring together pro-democracy activists from different countries, train people for election monitoring and `get out the vote' drives. Walter Stankievich says there are clandestine means for activists to get that information and training.

Mr. STANKIEVICH: In some instances, it means going out of the country and being able to secure assistance in that way and then finding a way to get back into the country.

FLINTOFF: Eric Chenoweth is the director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. He says support groups strive for openness but that they don't want to put pro-democracy activists in jeopardy. Chenoweth notes that pro-democracy activists in Belarus are already in danger because of their opposition to the government, so accepting foreign assistance isn't much of an additional risk.

Mr. ERIC CHENOWETH (Institute for Democracy): What is necessary is to have partners in the country who know what they're doing and who themselves tell you and make clear are willing to take the risk.

FLINTOFF: Dissidents say the reason Lukashenko is cracking down on foreign assistance is that he wants to clear the way for his re-election in next year's presidential vote. His bid for a third term was made possible after the country's constitution was changed last October in a referendum that was tainted by allegations of vote fraud. Ken Wollack of the National Democratic Institute says Lukashenko's current crackdown isn't the lesson he should be taking from the revolutions in other former Soviet countries.

Mr. KEN WOLLACK (National Democratic Institute): The lesson that should be learned from what took place in Georgia, what took place in Ukraine and what took place in Kyrgyzstan is to conduct elections that reflected the will of the people. The reactions of citizens, average citizens around the country, in each of these places was in reaction to elections that were stolen.

FLINTOFF: Despite the tightening of government controls, Lukashenko's opponents are hoping that Belarus will eventually have a revolution of its own. They've even picked a color to follow the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia. It's white. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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