Belarus to See Large Protests Over Vote
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Belarus, a mass demonstration has been called for tomorrow against the country's president, Alexander Lukashenko. The opposition is organizing the protest just a month after police brutally put down a similar march. Organizers say the government's violent tactics show it's losing control.
NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
Opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko was arrested for 15 days after he joined thousands of people protesting Lukashenko's landslide reelection last month. He says police beat and threatened to kill many of the hundred jailed in overcrowded prisons.
Mr. ANATOLY LEBEDKO (Protestor): (Through translator) Young people were led out of their cells into the corridor. Guards used force to make them yell, Lukashenko is the best president.
FEIFER: Some protestors remain in jail, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin. But Lebedko says spirits remain high among the opposition. Like other organizers, he calls last month's demonstrations a revolution even though mere thousands, and not tens of thousands, protested the election.
Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic, known as Europe's last dictatorship, for 12 years. Western countries condemned last month's vote as rigged, and the European Union imposed a travel ban on the president and many of his advisers. Alexander Atroshenko (ph) of the opposition Zubr Youth Movement says the authorities have alienated many Belarusians.
Mr. ALEXANDER ATROSHENKO (Zubr Youth Movement): (Through translator) The majority of those who came out to protest the elections didn't consist of activists or members of Zubr or political parties. They were ordinary people, upset about what's happening in the country. It was the first step towards the creation of a widespread civil society in Belarus.
FEIFER: In the month since police broke up a peaceful mass street demonstration, small student groups have sprung up to organize spontaneous protests. Many communicate over the Internet. Actions have included releasing black balloons during Lukashenko's inauguration.
But the protests remain tiny and Lukashenko retains strong support. He claims 83% of the vote but an independent poll last week estimated the president really won around 63%. But sociologist Anyak Manyaf (ph), who helped conduct the survey, says at least half of those who voted for Lukashenko were intimated into casting their ballots for him. Manyaf says only a quarter of the population consists of true Lukashenko supporters, most of whom are elderly and rural dwellers.
Mr. ANYAK MANYAF (Sociologist, Belarus): Because they are not active in economic sense, most of them are pensioners, they completely and directly depend on the state. And because of their political character, while consistent, they identify the state as Lukashenko.
FEIFER: Seventy-six year old pensioner Nedia Evonovich (ph) says the demonstrators bring shame to Belarus. She repeats accusations in the state-controlled media that the protestors are drunkards and drug abusers.
Ms. NEDIA EVONOVICH (Citizen, Belarus): (Through translator) I'd never support them. Those types like to get drunk. They're never satisfied with anything. But we're the majority and we live well. All those protestors, they're paid American dollars and we don't need them.
FEIFER: But sociologist Manyaf says a full third of the population, most young professionals, supports protests against Lukashenko. Manyaf agrees last month's demonstrations have changed the country, by exposing deep cracks in society and demonstrating the opposition has concrete leaders and an organized platform.
Mr. MANYAF: From my point of view, it was and still is one of the most important result of this event, if this message is sent to the society and outside of the country.
FEIFER: Protestors have been banned from returning to Minsk's Central Square on Wednesday, and police will be ready to block them. But opposition leader Anatoly Lebedco said he's calling supporters to come out anyway, to build on last month's gains.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Minsk.