Uprising in Belarus Internet Generation Takes on Europe's Last Dictator

The end of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko's era appears to be approaching, as thousands take to the streets in Minsk to protest against the country's economic crisis. The Internet-savvy demonstrators are finding ever-more-creative ways to voice dissent, but Lukashenko is responding with violence.

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Three women are sitting on a bench next to a currency exchange in a large department store in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. They are doing crossword puzzles, hoping that dollars or euros will eventually become available again.

"We have a waiting list here," says one of the women. "There are 310 people on it, and they all want to exchange their rubles. I signed up in April. Now it's July and it should be my turn. But I've been sitting here for days, and no one is showing up to sell dollars."

Belarus devalued its currency by 36 percent in May. On the black market, where the ruble hasn't been worth much for a long time, one euro costs 9,000 rubles -- more than twice as much as at the beginning of the year. People are seeking refuge in hard currency -- if they can get it, that is.

A dramatic crisis has gripped the bizarre realm of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Exports have tumbled, the foreign debt has skyrocketed and prices are exploding. As of last week, gasoline is now in short supply at filling stations.

The women sitting next to the currency exchange in the Minsk department store seem to confirm all of the common prejudices about Belarus's roughly 9 million people, namely that they are placid, even when sorely tested by fate, passive, subservient to authority and completely apolitical.

But this image isn't quite true anymore. Even the Belarusians are now trying their hand at civil disobedience.

Playful Protests

For weeks, thousands have been taking to the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the Lukashenko regime, but they are going about it in a playful and almost joyful manner. They meet in public squares, seemingly spontaneously, walk in groups through parks, suddenly start to applaud and organize peaceful motorcades. It's the Belarusian version of flash mobs.

Lukashenko has ruled unchallenged for 17 years, during which he has eliminated the political opposition and the free press. But he seems overwhelmed by the protests of recent weeks. In fact, Lukashenko is so beside himself that he now has entire busloads of people arrested almost every day, without any legal justification.

When people in Belarus "are no longer being arrested by the hundreds but by the thousands, an irreversible process has begun," says Ukrainian political scientist Vladimir Gorbach. Similarly, the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes that the "end of the Lukashenko era" is approaching. In the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, are we now witnessing the twilight of a regime that has persisted for so many years, wedged between the Western European democracies and the new Russia?

Lukashenko, 56, who was the political commissioner of a tank company during the Soviet era and later the director of a collective farm, was reelected to another term as president in December, but the vote was apparently blatantly rigged. With the help of the police and state security units, he managed to brutally suppress the established opposition, which called on its supporters to take to the streets after polling stations closed. His task was made easier by the fact that the regime's opponents, who are organized in very small parties and include former top government officials, are internally divided and have little support among the population.

The president had bought the approval of many Belarusians with generous wage and pension increases. The unspoken agreement was that the people could enjoy economic security as long as they stayed out of politics. After the election, Lukashenko promptly got even with his adversaries, without encountering any resistance from the public, at least at first. They were jailed on charges of having incited "mass unrest." Several of the opposition's former presidential candidates are now in prison.

Rising Up

But then an economic crisis occurred in the spring. Belarus's economy, already suffering from the high prices of oil and natural gas from Russia, ran out of money, and Lukashenko's irresponsible wage increase only made the situation worse. Because the country imports far more than it exports, its balance of trade also collapsed.

What failed to happen after December's election is now happening half a year later: The population is rising up. The Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies, which now operates in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius after having been expelled from Belarus, has documented the radical shift in the public mood with a detailed opinion poll.

It concludes that the number of people who are dissatisfied with their material situation has tripled since March of this year. Some 73 percent of Belarusians complain that their quality of life has worsened dramatically, and almost one in two blame it on the president. Lukashenko's approval rating declined from 55 percent in December, the month of the election, to only 33 percent in June. Close to two-thirds of poll respondents say that it is "not good for the country" that Lukashenko now has absolute power.

The radical shift in public opinion is so remarkable because it shows that criticism of the dictator has reached the middle class, which includes Belarus's small and mid-sized business owners. They feel that Lukashenko's state socialism is disastrous.

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psalc1 07/14/2011
1. Belarus
In the Baltics, Belarus' neighbors, they seem to be worried that this will reduce the region's wiggle room by weakening ties to the west leaving Belarus no option but to renew and strengthen it's relations with it's eastern neighbors and disrupting the normalization of a more decentralized economic and political evolution in the region. Not completely my opinion, but recently overheard...
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