LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
What does the color blue mean for you? Is it sad or soothing, trustworthy, cold? In Ethiopia, the color blue has become a potent and controversial symbol for the future, meaning two very different things to different people. NPR's Gregory Warner sends this report from Addis Ababa.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: 21-year-old Feven Tashome is a study in blue when I meet her in the Ethiopian capital. Her toenails are painted cobalt. Her scarf is baby blue. Even her leather handbag is ultramarine.
FEVEN TASHOME: Nowadays, I love the color blue because of the Blue Party. That's why. Yeah.
WARNER: Now, the Blue Party is an opposition party in a country that's run like a one-party state. Ethiopia's on paper a parliamentary democracy. But 99 percent of the parliamentary seats are controlled by one party - The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Feven enjoys expressing her political dissent with a symbol as ubiquitous as the color blue. It's like a secret handshake.
TASHOME: People who know that I participates on those activities - they know that's why I'm doing that.
WARNER: The trouble comes when the secret symbol becomes a public cry. The Blue Party says that its peaceful rallies of young Ethiopians in jeans and blue T-shirts have been met violently by police. They say that hundreds of their delegates, representing in the upcoming election in May, have been fired from their jobs or beaten up by thugs. And in a way, this conflict can be understood as a fight over what blue, in this case, actually means.
YONATAN TESFAYE: Blue means unity, peace and hope.
WARNER: This is Yonatan Tesfaye, a 27-year-old former high school teacher, the Blue Party's official spokesman.
TESFAYE: Blue is - it goes back to history, actually.
WARNER: The Blue Nile is blue. The Red Sea is turquoise for most of the year. And these are both powerful symbols for Ethiopians. But blue is also the color of Twitter and Facebook. In fact, the Blue Party logo is a very similar blue and white to the Facebook logo. Though to the Ethiopian government, which blocks many dissenting websites, the unblockable Facebook is the engine of the Arab Spring, which took place in countries just to the north.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)
WARNER: These are scenes are from a documentary that aired on Ethiopian state television last year, timed with Secretary of State John Kerry's official visit. It didn't mention the Blue Party by name but claimed that Western human rights groups were trying to overthrow the Ethiopian government in a, quote, "color revolution" like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the Rose Revolution in Georgia.
In the Ethiopian Ministry of Communication, I went to see the minister's political advisor, Genenew Asefa. He's a chain smoker in a black jacket with a well-thumbed paperback of Hegel on his desk. And he tells me he's fed up with Western journalists only asking him about Ethiopia's crackdown on free press and on opposition parties. He denies those crackdowns. But he also says that Westerners don't appreciate the fragility of Ethiopia's 25-year-old democracy.
GENENEW ASEFA: This is a fledgling democracy.
WARNER: What you mean?
ASEFA: It is in the process. You cannot - there are areas where which we cannot tolerate because it's not strong enough. Do you think we can afford a Nazi Party in this country?
WARNER: A kind of Nazi Party is how he spins the blue party, affiliated, he claims, with violent ethnic separatist movements and even Muslim terrorists. Ethiopia's majority Christian.
ASEFA: But we have problems with radical Muslims in this country. And we will suppress. We will not tolerate.
WARNER: Now, the Blue Party says it is not Islamist and it is secular, with a peaceful and reformist platform - pro-civil rights, anti-corruption. But their PR strategy is unique in Ethiopian politics. And it's in direct response to the government's attempt to paint the opposition as something violent or scary. The Blue Party formed three years ago to portray the opposite image. That was the reason for their odd choice of name and even their theme song.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE PARTY THEME SONG)
WARNER: Now, if it's hard to imagine Ethiopia's new prime minister ascending the parliament to this disco beat, there's really no need. The Blue Party leadership doesn't even expect to win a single seat in this year's election. In part, that's because the ruling party, while accused of being politically repressive, has also improved in the economy. Yonatan, the spokesman, says that the Blue Party this year just wants to get the idea of protest through Ethiopians' front doors.
TESFAYE: People are very scared of the politics. They fear the situation. They usually does not engage. So we're trying to bring them out of the fear.
WARNER: And Yonatan himself gets scared sometimes of going to jail again, of getting beaten. But in these times, he has a trick. He looks up at the pale, blue Ethiopian sky. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Addis Ababa.
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