5 Views From Belarus On The Country's Political Crisis Nearly a year after Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown, "None of us doubt that we will prevail," an activist tells NPR. Others sound worried. "Every day is a little scarier," says one.

5 Views From Belarus On The Country's Political Crisis

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, when the president of the United States meets Vladimir Putin, there are people in Belarus who hope that he will bring up their country. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has been cracking down on opponents to his regime since last summer. That's when mass protests broke out in the country that borders Russia. There were disputes over the results of the presidential election, and many people are still living in fear of their own government. NPR's Lucian Kim has more.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Not so long ago, the image of Belarus was of a peaceful, if not slightly boring, former Soviet republic run by an eccentric leader named Alexander Lukashenko. Now Belarus, squeezed between Poland and Russia, is more isolated than ever, and Lukashenko is persecuting anyone who goes against him. Svetlana, a retired music teacher and grandmother in the town of Gomel, says people now joke that Belarus is even farther north than North Korea. We're only using her first name because Svetlana has already been detained for her activism and fears prosecution.

SVETLANA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "What's happening in Belarus is a catastrophe," she says. "We're living under the conditions of a real fascist regime." Just a year ago, Svetlana thought her country was finally on the path to democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KIM: An opposition candidate named Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was barnstorming her way through Belarus, challenging Lukashenko and attracting record crowds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

(CHEERING)

SVETLANA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Svetlana says she'd never saw such a large rally in her town. But the euphoria of the campaign was replaced by widespread anger after the election. Amid accusations of widespread vote-rigging, Lukashenko declared himself the winner of a sixth term in office and forced Tikhanovskaya into exile.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KIM: For months, Belarusians across the country protested peacefully to demand Lukashenko step down.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUN GRENADES EXPLODING)

KIM: Police responded with stun grenades, clubs and mass arrests.

PIOTR MARKIELAU: People were massively tortured, beaten, raped. This is actually still happening.

KIM: That's Piotr Markielau, a pro-democracy activist who fled Belarus this spring. He says he was arrested five times and spent 67 days in jail. Lukashenko's ferocious crackdown crushed the protest movement.

MARKIELAU: People thought that it is possible to overthrow a dictator with flowers, and this was not possible in our case.

KIM: Belarusian society is deeply split over last year's demonstrations. A survey taken by a German think tank in December showed more than half of Belarusians voted for Tikhanovskaya and only 18% for Lukashenko. Among that minority is Ilya Bogush, who owns a trucking company and is the father of two.

ILYA BOGUSH: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "Yes, the government's reaction was tough," he says, "but it was absolutely the right thing to do." Bogush says protests in other countries have failed to bring peace and prosperity. For example, in neighboring Ukraine, a street revolution was followed by war and the loss of territory.

BOGUSH: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He says he's suspicious of Tikhanovskaya and is sure foreign powers are behind her meteoric rise. Bogush says the opposition has no experience and no plan and is hurting Belarus by calling for sanctions. Pavel Batuyeu disagrees. He's a political activist in a town that's home to one of the world's largest fertilizer plants and a major source of income for the regime.

PAVEL BATUYEU: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "Many Belarusians," he says, "understand international sanctions may be the price to pay for punishing Lukashenko."

BATUYEU: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He says everybody is hoping President Biden will somehow be able to exert pressure on the regime when he meets Lukashenko's only ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, this week. Svetlana, the retired music teacher and activist, is also counting on support from America.

SVETLANA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "Lukashenko may have stopped the protests, but he has not prevailed," she says, "because Belarusians have acquired a new political consciousness and have freed themselves mentally from Lukashenko's 27-year rule." Svetlana is not giving up.

SVETLANA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: She says her biggest hope is that her two children will not have to leave the country and that her grandson can follow his dream of becoming a doctor in Belarus.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "GLOW")

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