NEAL CONAN, Host:
From NPR News in Washington, D.C., I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION. After an election they say was rigged, protestors camped out in the central square in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich.
ALEXANDER MILINKEVICH: (Through Translator) It's already perfectly clear there has to be another round of voting. Not the kind we had. It has to be a real election next time.
CONAN: But it's not yet clear whether the movement will catch fire or fade away. The future of the last dictatorship in Europe.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's just after nine o'clock at night in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and it's cold, well below freezing. For the fifth straight night there, a few hundred young protestors crowd together in October Square for warmth and protection, and to continue to protest the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. According to official estimates, Lukashenko won 83 percent of Sunday's vote. Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich came in second with six percent.
Russia called the elections free and fair. American and European leaders loudly denounced the results as a fraud. Once part of the Soviet Union, Belarus still retains a centrally controlled economy, censors the media, still calls its secret police the KGB, and until this week, allowed no public dissent. This current protest is the largest since Lukashenko was elected president in 1994. The protestors have declared a victory of sorts because they're still there. The police have not cracked down, but that could change at any time.
Today, we'll talk with two students involved in the protest, one in Minsk and one here in Washington, ask about the American role in the opposition, and about the stakes for Washington, for Moscow, and for Belarus. If you questions about the elections in Belarus, or about politics in the former Soviet Republic, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The email address is email@example.com. Later in the program, the cartoon controversy at Comedy Central. But first, the protest in Belarus. Our first guest has been following the story for some time, Steven Lee Myers is Moscow bureau chief for New York Times. He joins us on the line from Moscow. Nice to have you on the program today.
STEVEN LEE MYERS: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Why does this gathering of a few hundred people in Minsk matter?
LEE MYERS: I think it matters because it's a rare public display of dissent in Belarus, which has virtually vanished in the last few years.
CONAN: And it matters, do you think, because of it's a crack in the faÃ§ade of this authoritarian regime there?
LEE MYERS: I think that the opposition, all along, had hoped to what they say wake up the people of Belarus who've endured a, what amounts to a dictatorship, certainly an authoritarian regime since Lukashenko came to power in '94.
CONAN: If it's such an authoritarian regime, why haven't the police cracked down?
LEE MYERS: I think that's a very good question. And I think even some of the people who are out on the square have been asking that. It may have a lot to do with the international pressure, certainly from Washington and the European Union, the presence of the journalists who are there, perhaps an effort to just ride out the protest and see if they can, or if the protest will disperse on their own...
CONAN: There are obvious...
LEE MYERS: ...without having to resort to force in order to drive them out. Having said that, the police there have intimidated a lot of people. They've arrested a lot of people coming and going from the protests. They've arrested opposition leaders who they accused of organizing this protest. And they may try to whittle it away with small arrests of onesies and twosies around the square.
CONAN: There are obvious parallels to the situation in Ukraine and the capital there, Kiev, after presidential, fraudulent presidential election there. But after that election, the demonstration seemed to gather a great deal of force, become bigger and bigger. That's not been the situation at all in Minsk.
LEE MYERS: Well, you're dealing with two different situations entirely. Having said that, the Belarusian opposition, represented by Milinkevich, who was elected the leader of an array of political parties and social organizations that are, frankly, tired of this regime. They took Ukraine as a model. They really wanted to try to organize this, get people out on the street to protest what everybody knew was going to be a victory for Lukashenko.
The big difference with Ukraine is that even under President Kuchma, there was a semblance political competition. There were, there was an opposition in the parliament. There were big businessmen, importantly, who supported the opposition and wanted to see a change in the government, a change in the political system itself. And in Belarus that simply doesn't exist. Lukashenko has prosecuted not only the opposition political parties, but also independent businessmen, as well as individual students and so forth. I mean the control that Belarus has over civil society or political opposition is hard to overstate.
CONAN: At the same time, President Lukashenko is fairly, pretty popular there, and the economy is doing pretty well.
LEE MYERS: Well, there are two things to say about that. One, the economy has shown growth in the last few years. A lot people there will point out that it's largely due to subsidized gas and oil from Russia. He does retain popularity. A lot of people see Lukashenko as someone who's preserved stability in Belarus, in a way, who's paid pensions on time, and so forth. Meager pensions but...
LEE MYERS: ...nonetheless. And the question really is, is how deep is that support? And I think that's something that really is hard to measure when there's very little independent media, certainly none on television, and there's very little debate that it does take place. I went to a little village outside of Minsk and found people, seemingly genuinely, supportive of the situation. But it's fair also to say, as the opposition does, that a lot of that support is maintained by a system of pervasive fear and intimidation.
CONAN: Hmm. We're talking about the protests that are underway in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800- 989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And now, let's get a question from Shaun. Shaun calling from Syracuse, New York.
SHAUN: Hi. I'm taking an online class this semester that incorporates Belarusian students from Belarusian State University. And some of these students are actively involved, and they're limited to what they can say in class. And I was just wondering to what extent the internet is censored, as far as how wide spread, how many people have access to it, and what can they access when they use it?
LEE MYERS: My understanding on the internet is that there's, that it exists. There are opposition sites, independent sites, if you will. There is a great deal of harassment of those sites. And in fact, on Election Day several of the most popular, most prominent websites were blocked or entirely shutdown for periods during the day. The penetration of the web is still fairly limited. As you can imagine, students certainly would probably have more access to it. But I was told, even in universities, there's a great deal of supervision over the computers in libraries, and in dorms and so forth, in an attempt to limit access to these sites, to the general web.
CONAN: Hm. Shaun, thanks for the question.
CONAN: Okay. And Steven Lee Myers, what kind of support is the opposition getting outside, from European countries, from the United States?
LEE MYERS: They've received a good deal of support, both symbolic political support, beginning with statements that President Bush has made. President Bush met with the widows of two opposition leaders who disappeared and are presumed killed. Condi Rice has described Belarus, famously, as the last dictatorship in Europe. All of those statements are very, very helpful to the opposition. They appreciate them. They welcome them. The United States, as well as the European Union, have also provided a fair amount of financial assistance. Under American law, the U.S. government can't directly support a political candidate in a campaign, but they can provide an enormous amount of support for what they call civil society, which is independent newspapers, independent monitors, and so forth. And as I recall, the number for this year was upwards of $12 million from the U.S. alone...
LEE MYERS: ...a comparable amount from the Europeans. The Europeans have funded an independent radio and television network being broadcast in through a German consortium through Poland. So, they're receiving some help. It's hard to say how successful that's been at this point.
CONAN: Well, let's go now to Minsk and to the tent city at the heart of the protest. Ales Mikhalevich is deputy chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, he joins us on the phone from October Square in Minsk. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION tonight. Mr. Mikhalevich, can you hear me?
ALES MIKHALEVICH: Yes, I'm with you.
CONAN: Yes, can you tell us how many protestors are there with you tonight?
MIKHALEVICH: It's fourth day of protest and now in spite of the fact that we have late evening in Belarus, like 4,000 of people protesting on street. At the beginning, the first day of protest, on 19th of March, we had more than 30,000 of people protesting. So, in spite of the fact that it's like minus five degrees, we have a lot of people there who will stay also tonight and we will be staying until 25th of March, which is our day of independence.
CONAN: And are the police there as well?
CONAN: Yes, are they there?
MIKHALEVICH: Yes, a lot of police, policemen are here. Majority of them are sitting in cars and they are just waiting for special signal which can be done only by President Lukashenko.
CONAN: And what will happen after the big protest this Saturday? Do you plan to stay in occupation on the square?
MIKHALEVICH: We are planning to stay until this Saturday, until 25th of March, and we expect that much more people will come on Saturday. It's very traditional day and all protests, big protests, are starting on this day.
CONAN: I hear some noise in the background, is there singing, music going on?
MIKHALEVICH: Sorry, I didn't hear.
CONAN: It's hard to hear because I think there's a lot of music and noise going on in the background.
MIKHALEVICH: Yes, we have music here like (unintelligible) politicians are usually does and then we are listening to music because it's quite difficult to keep crowds of people on the square.
CONAN: And it's obviously very cold as you've mentioned. Do you have enough blankets and food?
MIKHALEVICH: We had really very big problem with food because police was catching those people who have some big packages so it was very difficult to deliver food here, but we managed because a lot of crowds, a lot of people, thousands of people are coming here and everyone was bringing like small packages with food so we have enough food now.
CONAN: Well, Ales Mikhalevich, stay warm if you can. Thanks very much for agreeing to speak with us.
MIKHALEVICH: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, thanks very much for your time tonight as well.
LEE MYERS: Thank you.
CONAN: Steven Lee Myers is the Moscow bureau chief from the New York Times and he joined us from Russia's capitol. We're going to take a short break, when we come back, more on Belarus and more of your telephone calls, 800-989-8255, 800- 989-TALK. Our E-mail address is TALK@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're focusing for much of this hour on Belarus. Election officials there are reportedly making plans for a swift inauguration for President Alexander Lukashenko, despite continued protest over the legitimacy of the election results. For more on the protests in Minsk and what they're trying to accomplish, we go now to Iryna Vidanava who's editor-in-chief of Students' Thought an independent student publication in Belarus, also an Edmund Muskie Fellow at John's Hopkins University. She's with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for taking the time to join us today.
IRYNA VIDANAVA: Thank you.
CONAN: Even though your candidate Alexander Milinkevich lost the election, you say the election is still a victory. How come?
VIDANAVA: Well, absolutely, because what we observe in Minsk is how brave young people are in Belarus, how much they want the change to happen in the country, how much they believe in freedom and democracy. These are real ballot results are on the square right now. Despite all the repressions, despite all the rest, despite the fact that hundreds of students were expelled from the university before the elections, now during these days of protest, thousands of people keep coming to the square, keep bringing food, supporting these young people. So it's a question of time, when we will win, and it will be sooner than later.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yet in the election results, no matter how rigged they were, your candidate got six percent.
VIDANAVA: Well, this is what the official authorities tells us. We don't know how much Milinkevich or Lukashenko or Kazulan(ph) actually got in this elections because we do not have any other estimates, because Lukashenko made sure that there was no internal observation, no exit polls. People who were trying to organize internal observation were arrested by KGB days before the election. So the network failed, and everybody was prevent from observing and counting the votes.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. What are the principal complaints about the Lukashenko government?
VIDANAVA: Well, it's just the last totalitarian regime in Europe. That's all we can say about it. He arrests people. There is no free media, no freedom of speech, no right for cessation. So, he basically denied all basic freedoms in the country he rules, and he does not respect his own people. He threatens them.
VIDANAVA: That's what we don't like about him.
CONAN: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation and turn to Michael McFaul a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine's Democratic Breakthrough, and he's also with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: There are, as we mentioned in our conversation with Steven Lee Myers a moment ago, obvious parallels to what happened in Kiev.
MCFAUL: Obvious parallels and obvious differences. The differences, I think, are more important than the parallels, in that Mr. Lukashenko, the regime that the controls in Belarus, is much more autocratic, much more repressive, than anything you had in Ukraine. Ukraine, on the eve of the Orange Revolution, was a semi-autocratic regime. There was some independent media. There was a channel, an independent television station. That you don't have in Belarus, and moreover the kind of repression that you've seen in Belarus, 200 people arrested already, didn't happen in Ukraine. So the differences, I think, have to do with the nature of the regime, of Mr. Lukashenko's regime.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And as this goes forward, do you see this as the first steps, as Iryna does, toward an eventual revolution? A change?
MCFAUL: Yes, I do. I mean it's always is the glass half empty or half full? I see this, compared to where the opposition was just a few years ago, as a step in the right direction. I mean, let's be clear, because Lukashenko controls all the media, controls everything, this result, by opinion polls that were taken just four days before the vote, they were expected to get about 53 percent of the vote. So I think in a free and fair vote he probably would have gotten 53 percent, but that's controlling everything. George W. Bush would love to be able to control you and every national television station. I bet you he would be up a little higher than 39 percent if he controlled all that, and given all that, given the repression, given that you face arrest to protest, different from Ukraine, the fact that people came out I think is a step that the regime is less stable than it was just a few years ago.
CONAN: Iryna, there was a report in this morning's New York Times by Steven Lee Myers', a colleague C.J. Chivers who was there, and saying that as opposed to when he'd been there in the past, the students in the square were insisting that he write their names down and spell them correctly so that they would be accountable for what they said and, as an expression that they were no longer afraid.
VIDANAVA: Yeah, that's absolutely great. I believe that, again, it shows how much these people believe in what they are doing and that they are doing it right. And they also understand that the steps they made, basically, is a step to the future, only the reason, there is no way back. And I'm so proud of these young people who are not afraid and who are able to sustain this cold weather and to stay in the square, despite the calls from Vidal to leave. They said, no, we will stay, and that's what we were fighting for all these years.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and we'll turn to Jim. Jim's calling us from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
JIM: Right. My wife is a Belarusian, my mother-in-law is a Belarusian, and I agree with the commentator who said that probably in the 50 percent would have voted for him, because like you said earlier, you know, he pays pensions, he gets things done on time. The standard of living is not good, but at least it's better than what they see in Russia neighboring them, which they believe to be some sort of a chaos. The other point, too, is that in western Belarus, there's a lot of radio and television, as it comes from Poland. So, they do get an alternative perspective, but it's not much of the country, and it's somewhat inundated by the Belarusian television system, which is really very much like an old Stalinist system. But there are lots and lots of people there that would have voted for Lukashenko anyway.
CONAN: Mike McFaul, I think you said that before, yes?
MCFAUL: Yeah, I think that's right, but then, you know, if you, I mean this was an independent poll taken by a western company, InterMedia, four days before, so I have no reason not to believe it, but if you break down the numbers, you see some disquieting information there for President Lukashenko. Youth...
JIM: Oh, no question about it. I think that there are lots of people who, who do not act because they're just simply afraid, either of losing their job or losing a position or being turned in by somebody in the society who's going to point the finger at them, so they just don't know whether the ballot boxes are free and open, they just don't know whether their actions might be reported and it will be the end for them in terms of jobs and livelihood or maybe finding themselves a body in the forest.
MCFAUL: What I was going to add on the youth, which I think is very important, because it's about the future that Iryna was talking about, when you look at the 18 to 34-year-olds, where they are at, only 38 percent were supporting Mr. Lukashenko. The rest are either supporting an opposition candidate or refused to answer. And then if you look in the cities, the same kind of disparity. So, those kinds of numbers for the long-term, I think, are very threatening to Mr. Lukashenko.
JIM: Oh, sure a lot of pensioners vote for him because, you know, they remember the Soviet system, they invested their lives in the Soviet system and for them, it's still, oh, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster, and they're afraid, so they vote for what they know. They vote for comfort and security and they don't want change. So there's, but the young people like you said, you know, they may be the future. They are the future.
CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JIM: Good luck.
CONAN: Let's turn now to Jason. And Jason's with us from Phoenix, Arizona.
JASON: Hi guys, how are you doing?
CONAN: Well, thank you.
JASON: I'm just calling because I have an interesting perspective on this, I just got back from Brussels where, I'm a student in college in the States and I interned for a member of parliament from Latvia who's the vice chair of the delegation to Belarus. And he testified before Congress in early February at the Helsinki Commission. And I've learned a lot about the situation from being there and I'm calling primarily just to let people know that if they want a good opposition Web site, the best one that we used on a day by day basis as the E.U. is Charter 97, and it's Charter97.org. Click on the English link and it's very helpful from inside perspectives from the country.
CONAN: All right, Jason, thanks very much. We appreciate that.
JASON: Thanks guys.
CONAN: Obviously, Belarus is important in terms of policy and politics to both the United States and to Russia. Russia sees it economically as a buffer between it and the European Union. Militarily, as a buffer between it and NATO. Moscow's clearly very concerned that there not be another Orange Revolution as there was in Ukraine. Michael, Mike McFaul?
MCFAUL: Well, that's right. I mean the strategic importance of Belarus, you know, we could argue about, but the real story here, the real drama, was to make sure that there wasn't another Orange Revolution so that the folks around the Kremlin who are supposed to be fighting this so-called counterrevolutionary movement could claim victory, and that's exactly what they did. One of the few countries in the world, by the way, that recognized the results of this election.
CONAN: And I understand, Iryna, this one is called the Denim Revolution?
VIDANAVA: Yes, it's one of the names that we use. The thing is that Belarus is really a very much controlled society, and jeans is still a symbol of freedom for many generations. Not only for young people, but for those who are now in their 40s and 50s who were students back in beginning of ages, so now to show that you oppose this regime it's enough to wear jeans and then that's how it became a jeans revolution, Denim Revolution, and that's why it became one of the symbols of what we are observing in Belarus right now. I wanted to add one thing to what we were discussing earlier, that what we called for now is just fair and free elections, so that they can really know who will win those elections. That the only thing that the people in the square require, is we run the elections as fair and free.
CONAN: Let's get a call in from Tina. Tina's with us from Portland, Oregon.
TINA: Hi. I had a question. I was just curious of, what's the danger of those young people out there demonstrating? I mean, what could happen to them. I mean, they're out there and they're, you know, trying to, you know, opinionate on what they feel. But I'm curious. It's not like it is in the States where we can go out and do as we wish. But, you know, what is the danger of them out there doing what they're doing?
VIDANAVA: Danger is great. It's a danger for their health, for the life, for losing their places at universities, for being arrested. We were reported that more than 100 students were already arrested for either being on the square or bringing food, or warm clothes to those who are on the square. Many of those who are now in prison are my friends and my colleagues. And my heart is with them. And I just hope that people will become a little bit stronger and braver afterwards. And that's why it's so important for these young people to know that international society community cares about them, they're not left alone, that their names are known. That's why it's important for us to have media on the square, and we hope that they will keep paying attention to what's going on in the country and to what will happen to these young people.
TINA: Okay. Thank you so much.
VIDANAVA: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you, Tina. Let's talk now with Jeff. And Jeff's with us from San Ramona, California.
JEFF: Hi, Neal.
JEFF: Love the show. I was curious about the historical perspective. What was Belarus before it became part of the Soviet Union. And also, what was its political system like?
CONAN: Mike McFaul, there was a short-lived Belarus republic?
MCFAUL: Very short-lived, in 1918. And we'll celebrate the anniversary in just a 10-days' time or less than that, where Mr. Mikhalevich has called on everybody to show, again, the opposition to come out. After that, it was part of the Soviet Union, you know, there's still very, deep ties in Belarus to Russia, let's be honest about that. Language things, and if you look at opinion polls, this is not, that the students on the street, Mr. Mikhalevich, the opposition, this is no way an anti-Russian movement. And I think that's important for people to understand. Ukraine, Georgia had elements of being anti-Russian and anti-imperial. That is not what this is about. It's about what Iryna said, free and fair elections.
CONAN: And this anniversary, this coming Saturday, isn't it?
VIDANAVA: It's coming Saturday, and it's a big day. But I want to say that Belarus, historically, was a part of Europe, we were a part of this big state from 16th to 18th century, the commonwealth, which was connecting with, more with Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. And it was republic with parliament. And so we do have this deep, democratic traditions, which were taken away from the country for many years. And that's why we feel more comfortable being part of Europe. Young people are very pro-Western and that's why, that's why it's kind of normal for us to be in Europe and with Europe.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jeff.
JEFF: Thank you very much.
CONAN: We're speaking with Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, author of Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine's Democratic Breakthrough. And with Iryna Vidanava, I'll get it right. I got it right the first time. Vidanava who's editor-in-chief of Students' Thought, an independent student publication in Belarus. They're both with us here in Washington. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get another caller in, Joe. Joe's name I can pronounce. He's calling us from Anarbor.
JOE: Yes, I just wanted to say that Lukashenko's continuing the former Soviet policy of Russifying Belarus. He's really stamping out the culture of Belarus, the language and the history. And that's what troubles me, as a Belarusian-American. And I'm so glad to see these young people standing up for their country, their culture, their language.
CONAN: Would you say that's right, Iryna?
VIDANAVA: Yes, that's absolutely right. My publication is completely in Belarusian and it is popular among young people. They want to live in Belarusian and that's absolutely true that it's very unusual. But Lukashenko does continue to redefine the country. He does not accept anything Belarusian and he considers innocent Belarusian as to the oppositional, which is absurd by itself.
CONAN: And as I understand it, this anniversary of the Belarus Republic in 1918, this is not an anniversary he celebrates.
VIDANAVA: No, it's not his anniversary, but it's our big holiday.
CONAN: How different are the two languages, Belarusian and Russian?
VIDANAVA: They are quite different. Belarusian's can understand Russian, Ukrainian, some Polish, some Slavic. Russian's have troubles understanding Belarusians. There are some similarities and a lot of differences.
CONAN: Joe, thanks.
JOE: All right.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get Gregory on. Gregory's with us from here in Washington, D.C.
GREGORY: Hey guys, how you doing?
CONAN: All right.
GREGORY: I have a question what one would do to help the cause. Is there any organization within the United States, or maybe Europe, where one could donate the time or financial resources to help the democratic cause in Belarus?
VIDANAVA: Yes. Well, there are certainly groups in the United States helping Belarusian democratic movement and the civil society. The biggest supporter of democratic movement there is National Endowment for Democracy. But also every citizen here can actually help Belarusians and we would really appreciate it very much. Well first of all, again, show your solidarity. You can join the protest we hold here every day now in front of Belarusian embassy here in D.C., it's on New Hampshire Avenue. But you can also contact your congressman and ask him or her to support Belarus democracy as they should be (inaudible) here again. And you can also follow up with what's going on in Belarus right now, pay attention, and just show that you are with Belarusian people.
CONAN: Gregory, thanks.
GREGORY: All right.
CONAN: Mike McFaul.
MCFAUL: I just want to emphasize one of your last points. There are many things you can do and other Web sites that have direct support. But my greatest fear is that the Americans and U.S. government and the Bush Administration though loses attention.
The Belarusian democracy act was incredibly important for helping these students, for helping develop independent media. I think, you know, you really see the difference that this money can make. But, you know, next year will it come up, given all the other priorities? I fear that the West and the United States, in particular, are gonna forget about those poor students on the square.
CONAN: Michael McFaul, thanks very much for coming in today. We appreciate it. Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, author of Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine's Democratic Breakthrough. He was with us here in Studio 3A. And Iryna Vidanava is editor-in-chief of Students' Thought, an independent student publication in Belarus, also an Edmund Muskie fellow at Johns Hopkins University, also with us here in 3A. Thanks very much. We appreciate your time.
VIDANAVA: Thank you.