Democracy Advocates See Chance in Belarus
DAN GONYEA, host:
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, the man often dubbed the last dictator in Europe, is likely to win what he says will be free elections on March 19th. Democracy activists say there is little chance the vote will be free, but they hold out hope that the election could provide a spark to a beleaguered democracy movement just as rigged elections provoked revolutions of sorts in other former Soviet republics.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports the United States is supporting democracy activists in Belarus.
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
While Irina Vydonava(ph) finishes up her graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, she's managing to keep up her connections with political activists in her homeland, Belarus. At a recent rally outside the Belarus embassy in Washington, the energetic 28 year old talked about the youth magazine she edits from afar, a magazine that has been forced underground.
Ms. IRINA VYDONAVA (Political Activist, Belarus): It still exists. It's now on compact discs and I can sell it now. I couldn't a month ago. It's the first edition on compact disc and I believe it will break through in Belarusian media. It's still underground. It will be underground, but we will continue doing what we've been doing all these years.
KELEMEN: That is, to try to get young people to think about their future. Vydonava says young people need to know how isolated Belarus has become under Alexander Lukashenko's rule.
Ms. VYDONAVA: We have Lithuania, and Latvia, Estonia and Poland, our neighbors, who are part of European Union. They are part of NATO. We have Ukraine with few changes. We have Russia, there's a very sad situation there now; but it's very strange to have this kind of dictatorship in the very middle of Europe. It's a very diverse, very beautiful small country with great people in a very bad luck.
KELEMEN: She's among those hoping that luck will change, if Belarusians can take their queues from Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution. The U.S. has been spending more than $11 million a year to support democracy in Belarus and helps fund Vydonava's magazine. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of the State for Europe, Daniel Freed, says the United States is prepared for a long game.
Mr. DANIEL FREED (U.S. Assistant Secretary, State of Europe): That is to say I'm making no predictions about a so-called colored revolution in Belarus. You can't ever know when these things will happen. It's not up to us. Now, of course, the United States is sometimes accused of fomenting these things. But that's silly. That's silly.
KELEMEN: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko seems to be taking no chances. The U.S. State Department this past week accused Belarus authorities of harassing and detaining political activists. Assistant Secretary Freed also complained that he wasn't able to go on a joint mission with the European Union to appeal directly to Lukashenko to hold a fair vote.
Mr. FREED: At first the Belarusian authorities said that I couldn't go, but my European counterpart could. Then they said that I could go but my European counterpart couldn't. And we said, Look, we either come together or we don't do it at all.
KELEMEN: The trip never happened. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than decade and critics say he's becoming increasingly authoritarian. About seven years ago, several of his opponents mysteriously disappeared. Irina Krysophska's(ph) husband, a businessman, was among them, holding up a picture of him outside the Belarus embassy. She said she believes he was shot.
Ms. IRINA KRYSOPHSKA (Wife of Missing Businessman, Belarus): I know he was definitely killed. I know all this information from people who were involved in the situation. The only one thing we don't know now is where they buried him.
KELEMEN: Krysophska used this, her latest of many trips to Washington, to talk to U.S. officials about the upcoming election. She's hoping Belarus citizens will rally behind the main opposition candidate, Alexander Miliankavic(ph). But she knows it will be tough to get people out on the street.
Ms. KRYSOPHSKA: Most the people, the opposition are in their soul. They're kind of afraid to do a real action such as street action because, you know, after street action you can be beaten, you can be put in jail, you can be dismissed from your job.
KELEMEN: That's why democracy activists in Belarus have picked an easy silent way for their citizens to show support for their cause. Wear blue jeans. They're hoping they will be talking soon about the Blue Jeans Revolution.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.