Opposition Still Reeling After Belarus Crackdown Since December elections, the U.S. and European Union have pressured the former Soviet republic with sanctions and travel bans on officials. But the country's authoritarian president remains firmly in power, and the political opposition has been all but silenced.

Opposition Still Reeling After Belarus Crackdown

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A word here now about a recent democracy movement that failed. It happened in December in the Eastern European nation of Belarus. And yesterday, a series of trials began. Opposition leaders and their supporters face jail time for carrying out protests after a presidential election. And two months later, the authoritarian president is firmly in power.

NPR's David Greene has our story.

DAVID GREENE: Any country looking for advice on how to squash a democratic uprising can look right here. The political opposition in Belarus has been all but silenced. They were an outspoken bunch. That includes Vladimir Neklyayev. He's a 64-year-old poet, whose words have long captured the imagination of Belarusians.

Neklyayev appeared with a musician and sang about dreams of freedom during his campaign for president. On election night, December 19th, his supporters took to the streets, crying out that the election had been rigged by the president.

And Neklyayev was beaten by police and rushed to a hospital. He didn't stay long, because men in black masks carted him out of the emergency room in a bed sheet. He landed in a prison run by the KGB. This former Soviet republic still has an agency called that.

Ms. OLGA NEKLYAYEV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Neklyayev is now under house arrest. He can't talk on the phone. He's not allowed to write anything, his wife, Olga, said.

Two KGB agents are in their two-room apartment 24 hours a day. They bring their own tea and just sit.

Neklyayev is charged with organizing a mass riot, and he faces 15 years in prison. Yesterday, one of his aides was sentenced to four years. He was convicted of breaking a window on election night.

(Soundbite of crying)

GREENE: I met Milana Mikhalevich and her year-old daughter at a cafe in downtown Minsk. Her husband, Alexei, was another candidate arrested, and he remains in a KGB jail. Milana is allowed to drop off basic foods for him, like white and brown bread. Milana, who teaches linguistics in a university, has talked to her husband by phone. He sounds like he's speaking from a script, urging her to keep silent.

Ms. MILANA MIKHALEVICH (Professor of Linguistics): That's what they want us to do. To keep silent, to hide. To pretend we don't exist. We do exist.

GREENE: Belarus is east of Poland. And for countries in Eastern Europe, the events here have brought back painful memories of authoritarian rule.

The U.S. and E.U. have demanded that Belarus release the political prisoners they're holding.

Mr. ANDREI SAVINYKH (Press Secretary, Belarus Foreign Ministry): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Andrei Savinykh is a longtime Belarusian diplomat, now communications director for the foreign ministry. He said protesters provoked the violence, and opposition leaders are facing trial not because of their politics but because their style of organizing was illegal.

Mr. SAVINYKH: Democracy is not just you do whatever you wish. Democracy is the rule of law, and that's exactly the case.

GREENE: He said there's no chance here for the kind of uprising that forced a change of power in Egypt or for the so-called color revolution that swept countries like Ukraine and Georgia.

Mr. SAVINYKH: Belarus is probably the only country where color revolutions are not possible, because the government takes care of the people.

GREENE: Authoritarian, yes, but over 16 years in power, President Alexander Lukashenko has found a recipe for keeping salaries stable and unemployment low.

Unidentified Man: I work in a good place and have a good job.

GREENE: This 22-year-old works as a cook. He didn't give his name for fear the government would punish him for meeting with a reporter. He said he lives under a repressive regime, but he's not about to hit the streets to fight for something different.

Unidentified Man: Because I think I'm scared to lose something that I have it now.

GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, Minsk, Belarus.

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