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Banana Revolutions and Banana Skins

For Belarus’ opposition youth movements, the countdown to revolution begins now, a year before presidential elections. by Andres Schipani-Aduriz and Alyaksandr Kudrytski 7 September 2005 MINSK, Belarus | To one side, a clutch of listless 16-year-old girls hold sheets of A3 paper at waist height, uncomfortable, it seems, to be bit-part players in a scene played out in front of the Polish embassy in Minsk. Their posters, with slogans such as “Don’t break the tradition of Slav brotherhood” typed in identical typography, are dwarfed by the professionally printed banners (“Neighbors should be friends”) behind which most of the mass of the pro-government supporters stand. On the other side, penned against a fence and holding slogans such as “Poland Belarus = Solidarity,” are a score or more members of Malady Front, arguably the country’s largest opposition youth movement.

Between the two sides, head to head, stands a group of young men, their faces offering as strong a contrast as their politics. In the center is Zmicier Dashkevich, the leader of Malady Front, a wispy-looking man in his twenties. In the lapel of his jacket is the white-red-white former national flag of Belarus. Opposite him, a head taller stands a leader of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), his shaved head complementing his camouflage outfit.

At this high-noon moment, the exchange is suitably stagey.

“Do you have a permit to be here?” asks the man from the BRSM.

“We have. A moral one,” replies Artur Finkevich, a prominent member of Malady Front.

“Are you on the list of participants?” the BRSM man asks.

“The Belarusian people have the right to protest. Or is it that you are the Belarusian people, and we are not?” Dashkevich responds.

THE BRSM FACE TO FACE WITH ZMICIER DASHKEVICH, LEADER OF MALADAY FRONT


At the end, Dashkevich is arrested. He has apparently assaulted policemen, though there was not the slightest hint of violence in this cameo of political life in Belarus. “This is the policy of Lukashenka, aimed at stifling all of civil society in Belarus,” Dashkevich says as he is led away.

“If you don’t like Lukashenka, then leave Belarus,” the BSRM responds. He remains, undisturbed by the police, leading a protest at Poland’s protests about the Belarusian government’s decision to overrule the results of leadership elections in Belarus’ large Polish community.

THINKING OF A REVOLUTION

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s men have been busy dragging away demonstrators and cutting relations with the outside world these past few years, particularly these past months and weeks. Civil-society groups are being restricted, foreign NGOs are being expelled, even tighter restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs have been imposed, new restrictions on election campaigning, political parties, political advertising, street demonstrations and protests have been set in law, and any perceived solicitation of foreign interference in Belarus’ “internal affairs” has been criminalized. Relations with almost all international organizations – from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe to the EU – have worsened.

Lukashenka’s motivation is clear. “In our country, there will be no pink or orange, nor even a banana revolution,” Lukashenka has declared and with a real sense of urgency he has set about the task of preventing his opponents emulating the opposition in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, countries that have experienced bloodless ‘democratic revolutions’ in the past five years.

Young opponents are particular targets; in all four countries, youth groups were strong mobilizing forces in the revolutions. At opposition demonstrations, young people are routinely arrested; some have then been sentenced to spells of labor in remote parts of the country. At university or in school, opponents are being summoned to the dean’s office and threatened with expulsion. Ordinary students are being urged – coerced and bribed, say teachers – to join the BRSM, commonly known as Lukamol, a compound of Lukashenka and Komsomol, the communist-era Young Communist League.

So it could come as a relief to Lukashenka that Siarhiej Sakharau, an editor at Studentskaya Dumka, the only independent youth magazine in the country published in Belarusian, believes that “there will be no Ukrainian-like scenario here.”

But Sakharau is an exception among Belarusian youth leaders opposed to Lukashenka. “The main conclusion we reached from the events in Ukraine is that the regime can be defeated, and one doesn’t need to fire a single shot for that to happen; the only thing needed is to bring people out onto the streets to protect the results of the elections, just as happened in Ukraine,” says Barys Garetzky, deputy leader of Malady Front. When presidential elections are held in September 2006, Lukashenka may face a harder task dealing with protestors than ensuring he ‘wins’ a third term.

But even now, a year before the vote, the opposition youth movements are launching their campaigns. Speaking in August, Garetzky declared that “we will be launching on 1 September [2005] a broad nationwide negative campaign, Hopits! (Enough!) We also plan to organize a number of street actions and to publish a great number of leaflets, about one for every citizen of Belarus [the country’s population is roughly 10 million]. After the negative campaign, we will base our actions with what is happening in the country at the time.” Another powerful and well-organized group, Zubr, has begun a more positive campaign, posting stickers around the capital.

THEY'RE TALKIN' 'BOUT A REVOLUTION ...

The Belarusian opposition, including its youth groups, has history to overcome. It has traditionally been fractured and key moments of mobilization and protest – including presidential elections in 2001 and parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum in 2004 – have passed without Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime being shaken.

What form the protests of groups other than Malady Front will take is still in the process of being worked out. However, for Zubr, the models are the Serbian and Ukrainian revolutions. The outline of Malady Front’s plans – a major information campaign and, if there is fraud in the elections, street rallies and strikes – also fits the model.

The final form of the plans will depend partly of course on Lukashenka – control of the internet, for example, is such that it is unlikely to be a major tool – and largely on the plans of the rest of the opposition movement. Coordination between the youth groups and political parties will be close. “As in 2001, the activists of these [youth] groups will be the major ‘work force’… for the democratic candidate, the civic mobilization campaign, and the independent [election] observation team… They will be bringing out their supporters to distribute materials and knock on doors, organizing and participating in Get Out the Vote campaigns,” says Iryna Vidanava, a former coordinator for the Assembly of Belarusian Pro-Democratic NGOs and the editor-in-chief of Studentskaya Dumka.

Vidanava believes youth groups will not just work for the opposition candidate, but will also help shape overall strategy. “In some way they will be mediators between the democratic opposition and young people,” she says. “They will have to establish a two-way communication channel between the democratic forces and young people. Youth groups will have to cover all segments of Belarusian youth and coordination of their efforts is therefore crucial. Some groups will focus on the political campaign. Some will conduct a positive youth-mobilization campaign trying to convince young people to go out and vote. Some youth groups will focus on bringing young people out on the streets to protest against [electoral] falsifications. It is only youth groups who will be able to come up with the message, ideas and language that will appeal to young people.”

… IT SOUNDS LIKE A WHISPER

Some of these initiatives will simply depend on getting bodies out, but grassroots activities on the scale these groups envisage requires money. And the issue of where that money comes from may help determine how the opposition’s activities are viewed and their chances of success: the use of foreign funds in Georgia and Ukraine prompted commentators in former Soviet states such as Russia and also in some Western newspapers to question how homegrown the revolution was. Lukashenka has, of course, used this for propaganda purposes, portraying the opposition as a collection of Western lackeys.

The source of the youth groups’ funding is varied. Yury Karetnikau, leader of Pravy Aljans (Right Alliance), says the money his organization receives comes almost exclusively – 90 percent – from members, with the rest coming from local businessmen. “We made it a condition for our members: if you feel that you are a friend of the organization, then you must pay skladki, donations. That is 3,000 rubles [about 1 euro] a month, but there are people who give more, about 5-10,000 rubles.”

The leader of Zubr, Jauhen Afnagel, says their funds come “from our friends, in Belarus and outside Belarus.” How much comes from within Belarus is unclear. In Ukraine, much of the funding for the opposition campaign came from local patrons, but Belarus has no private businessmen remotely as wealthy as those in Ukraine (or in Russia).

Nor is it clear how much is coming from abroad. “All kinds of organizations give us funding,” says Malady Front’s Garetzky. “For five years we have been cooperating closely with the Swedish Social Democrats […] Through Ukraine, we have big plans for cooperation with the Soros Foundation, which is interested in the Enough! campaign; the Foundation has helped bring together many youth organizations, covering the whole of Belarus.”

The U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has provided some of the most active support. The same has been done by some other private foreign institutions, including a Polish organization, the East European Democratic Centre (IDEE).

The U.S. government is also providing help, though the extent and nature of that support is unclear. Marina Shubina of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk would merely say that “the U.S. government supports a broad range of youth groups and believes that the development of democratic values among youth is a priority of U.S. government assistance.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Zubr representatives in a visit to Lithuania this April. Studentskaya Dumka has in the past received support from the U.S. State Department.

The European Commission says that it will not fund political activities in Belarus. It is, though, channeling fresh funds to Belarusian NGOs, through the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and the Decentralized Cooperation Program. Nor has it excluded “a priori” the possibility of a special fund to help Belarusian civil society. Given Lukashenka’s crackdown on civil society, even such apolitical funding may be viewed by the Belarusian president as being political.

But aid – from whatever source – is of background importance, activists insist. “If you see the Ukrainian experience – with all this unlimited support of Russia for [defeated Prime Minister Viktor] Yanukovych – then you see that Russian influence is important, but not the main factor,” says Afnagel of Zubr. “The United States and the EU will support democratic changes, but their influence is not the main thing. Everything will depend on our people, and not on external factors.”

THE 2001 EXPERIENCE

That may explain why “external factors” have failed in Belarus before. In 2001, the U.S. government offered financial support to the opposition for a campaign modeled on Serbia’s street protests in 2000, the model later successfully adjusted in Georgia, Ukraine, and – to a lesser degree – in Kyrgyzstan.

But that blueprint produced little in Belarus. The defeat in 2001 sent many in the opposition into a collective depression and convinced them that Lukashenka’s position was impregnable.

That depression has now lifted. Lukashenka’s style of rule is changing. His authoritarian character has always been apparent, but it is now increasingly intrusive and menacing. He has strengthened the security forces, effectively elevated the position of the secret police (giving them authority over defense forces and border guards), increased the legal powers of the KGB (allowing secret servicemen to enter homes at will, and tap telephones more extensively), and has passed a new law allowing police to shoot in peacetime if ordered to by the president. Lukashenka’s clampdowns and tightening control may be designed to strengthen his power, but they are eating away at his popular legitimacy.

His popularity (rated by independent pollsters) has been falling for some years now and some controversial recent decisions – such as renaming the streets of central Minsk – and has turned some of the apolitical against him. Restrictions on the use of the Belarusian language and the promotion of Russian have been features of his rule, but fresh constraints are upsetting even some Russian-speakers.

Yury Karetnikau of Pravy Aljans, which emerged only in late 2003, also believes the international community is now willing to pay more attention to the repressive character of Lukashenka’s rule. “In 2001 when Lukashenka won, there were those horrible terrorist attacks in America and during the last referendum [in 2004] there was the tragedy in Beslan. The major powers were then distracted from Belarusian events. But now I can see the attention from the West, so they should do what they promised to do about Belarus [regarding democratization],” states Karetnikau.

Perhaps even more importantly, there is the experience of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, just two months after the Belarusian referendum. “During the revolution we saw that society could be so politically charged that it would go onto streets, take risks, protect its victory,” says Karetnikau. “A hope emerged at that point that we are no worse and that the time will come for our people to show themselves. We are all Soviet children, and there are no great differences – in the appearance of our people, in our way of life – between Belarus and Ukraine.”

Belarus’ youth movements are taking more than inspiration from Ukraine. Youth activists in Ukraine have been training and leading seminars for Belarusian activists. Malady Front, which was founded in 1997, forged particularly close ties with Ukrainian organizations such as Pora, National Alliance, and Svoboda during the Orange Revolution. In visits to Ukraine, its members have appeared in the media numerous times and have met with an influential cross-section of Ukraine’s political elite – with regional governors, members of parliament, and with Ukraine’s foreign minister. Money from private sources in Ukraine is crossing the border and when members of Malady Front were thrown out of universities in Belarus, Ukraine’s foreign ministry opened the doors of Kyiv National University to gave them a chance to continue their studies.

Lukashenka has retaliated. In late August, two activists from the Georgian youth movement Kmara, a key moving force in Georgia’s bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003, were arrested in Minsk after they made contact with youth organizations. Georgians now have to apply for visas to visit Belarus, a move seen as a direct response to Lukashenka’s fear of revolutionaries. This incident follows the arrest in late April of five representatives of Ukrainian youth organizations for taking part in an unsanctioned anti-government protest in Minsk.

ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL

Plans and new hope the youth groups may have, but the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrygzstan suggest the opposition will need to unite behind a single candidate if it is to succeed.

That will happen, youth leaders insist. “I think all the youth organizations will consolidate, because we have one goal,” Zubr’s Afnagel says. “We have fewer problems agreeing with each other than with grown-ups.”

Vidanava emphasizes the “feeling of solidarity” and “common values” shared by all the “youth democratic initiatives.”

“Of course they [youth groups] will consolidate,” says Malady Front’s Garetzky. “They have already formed two big groups, the negative and the positive campaigners.”

Those assertions will be put to the test in within a matter of weeks, when ten Belarusian opposition parties and NGOs meet to choose a single presidential candidate.

In conversation, the name that crops up frequently is Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a prominent figure in Belarus’ civil society. He has no party affiliation but his bid already has the support of the Belarusian Popular Front, a major opposition party and member of the Permanent Council of Democratic Forces (PDSDS), an umbrella body coordinating the activities of the opposition.

“If [Milinkevich] is chosen as a single candidate, the process of consolidation will proceed very fast,” Karetnikau predicts.

Youth groups will also ensure that the political parties unite, believes Pavel Sevyarynets, the leader of Malady Front before he was given a two-year sentence of forced labor on 31 May. Speaking by phone from internal exile, Sevyarynets said he is convinced that “the youth will form a group, pressing the politicians to work for the victory rather than for satisfying personal ambitions.”

The youth groups’ leaders are also convinced that, as the campaign rolls out, young people will follow their lead. They all report a big increase in membership, with thousands joining them across the country. Zubr claims to be growing “particularly in smaller towns,” which, if so, would represent a promising advance for the opposition.

Members are not just coming from the opposition’s traditional recruitment grounds, schools and universities. Yury Karetnikau of Pravy Aljans says many of his activists come from the capital’s football clubs Dynamo and Torpedo. He claims that “in my neighborhood – the south-western district of Minsk – I have a person I can turn to in practically every apartment block, to ask to disseminate leaflets or collect signatures.”

But students remain the cornerstone for the larger, mainstream youth movements. Students could pay a heavy personal cost for joining the opposition. “Belarusian youth live in a society in which schools and universities are closed at whim by the administration, and students arbitrarily expelled,” says Iryna Vidanava of Studenskaya Dumka.

Zubr’s Afnagel believes security comes in number. “As the experience of 2001 shows, when one person stands up in a department of a university, then that person is in danger. When a dozen stand up, then nobody can do anything with them. At that point, people are no longer so scared.”

Still, Alena Talapila, chairman of the Council of Belarusian Students Association, argues that “it will be very important to ensure that [students] finish the campaign with as little lost as possible. Activists need to know more about the possible punishments they face.” Her association is focusing sharply on arranging legal support. “We will try to put pressure on deans, do everything possible so that [punishments do] not pass unnoticed,” Talapila promises.

For her, “the main question is how much inspiration people will have.”

SPRINGTIME OF A GENERATION?

Inspiration may prove largely to be a matter of leadership, but the emergence of politicized youth movements in the former Soviet Union suggests there are new sources of inspiration for leaders to tap into.

In Belarus, national sentiment may prove one source. Pravy Aljan’s Karetnikau likens the situation in Belarus to Europe’s “springtime of nations” in the 18th and 19th century, a process that largely passed Belarus by. Belarus may have re-emerged as an independent state in 1991, but Lukashenka’s rule has been explicitly anti-nationalist. For Karetnikau, strengthening Belarusian national identity and breaking with the Soviet past therefore require the same thing: a change of president. “We believe that our country is today occupied by ‘homo soveticus’ people, products of the Soviet system, people without a national idea, who don’t really associate themselves with the Belarusian nation,” says Karetnikau.

Pravy Aljans is still a small player and its attitudes are overtly nationalist, but most other youth movements are also adopting the historical insignia of the Belarusian people: the white-red-white flag of Belarus that Lukashenka replaced with the green-red flag of Soviet Belorussiya; and the Pahonia, a medieval knight on a horse with the Slavic cross on his shield. “I’m convinced that at the most crucial moment young people, fighting for Belarus under white-red-white flags, will stand shoulder to shoulder with each other,” says Malady Front’s Sevyarynets.

The decision to adopt the old white-red-white flag banned by Lukashenka and other national symbols is in part a marketing decision. In 2001, Zubr marched under its own emblem – a bison – but it now feels a more unifying symbol is needed. However, that marketing change may mark a deeper social change. Lukashenka has, largely successfully, sought to smear Belarusian nation-building as extremism (‘fascism’), and he has carefully nurtured an alternative Belarusian identity, one in which Belarusians are brothers of the Russians and children of the Soviet experience rather than as a distinct nation with strong historical ties to Central and Eastern Europe. These youth movements appear to believe that while Lukashenka’s attacks on those with Belarusian nation-building sentiments may have enjoyed success with older generations, but will now work less well with the young.

More generally, the youth movements may be tapping into a generational change in the post-Soviet world. In the Soviet era, opposition was limited to prominent but isolated figures like Andrei Sakharov, people whose ability to act was limited to words. Now, the opposition movements reach a generation whose members, judged by their comments, see themselves as part of a youth movement linking post-Soviet societies from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and Central Asia and have shown themselves able and willing to protest and explore the limits of their freedom.

CHANGE, BUT WHEN?

If there is a generational change in process, defeat for the opposition in 2006 may not stop the youth movements. But the more immediate question is whether these groups really can help engineer Lukashenka’s ouster in 2006.

Ethan Burger, an election observer in Belarus’ parliamentary elections in 2004, believes that “Belarus is not Ukraine [...] Peaceful ‘regime change’ in Belarus is a long-term project.” And if the regime is changed, the process will probably be more violent than in other former Soviet republics. In Belarus it is widely felt that Lukashenka will be willing to use the type of violence used by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov in May, when maybe as many as a 1,000 opponents were killed in Andijan. Karimov remains in power.

Youth leaders accept that change may not come immediately. “I would really like the independent candidate to win,” says Talapila, “but I believe that our immediate task is to persuade people that the independent candidate can get 30 percent or more of the vote and to protect the real results of the elections.”

“If not in 2006, then changes will happen in two or three years,” says Pravy Aljan’s Karetnikau. Siarhiej Sakharau, the skeptical editor of Studentskaya Dumka also believes it is only a matter of years before matters come to a head. “People are not yet being shot in the streets, but if it goes on like this, then in two-three years’ time that will already be a possibility,” he says.

But, while Lukashenka’s repression underpins such realism, Lukashenka’s response is providing real encouragement to the opposition. “Subconsciously it is more complicated for [Lukashenka]” than it was in 2001, believes Zubr’s Afnagel. “You can feel it from what he says. He keeps saying that there will be no revolution in Belarus – why would he say that if revolution is not an option?”

Will the color of the revolution be blue? Would Lukashenka’s removal go down in history as the Cornflower Revolution, a ubiquitous flower in Belarus and a national symbol? “It is too early to say what color the revolution will have. The color is not important. It is not even important whether it will be a revolution or some kind of a change,” Afnagel says.

Hopes are high among this new breed of revolutionaries that change or revolution will come, whether in 2006 or only later. “If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be doing this. Of course, we believe,” says Afnagel in comments echoed by other leaders.
Andres Schipani-Aduriz is an Argentinian-born journalism student at Cardiff University. Alyaksandr Kudrytski is a TOL correspondent in Minsk.
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