Thursday, November 10, 2005

Back to the 70's in Belarus

It's a couple months old, but this article from the September 23 Washington Post does a terrific job of describing the current state of affairs in Belarus. While most of the former USSR has made at least some strides towards freedom, Belarus's President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has sought to take his country back to the heyday of 1970's Brezhnev-era totalitarianism.

As the Post article explains, Belarus's nascent democratic movement has likewise had to forego modern technology and emulate their Soviet dissident forefathers:

The authoritarian president has shut down so much of civic life that the opposition has been forced to use tools that are primitive in comparison with those of democratic movements elsewhere. Cell phones, satellite television, the Internet and instant messaging -- all of which played a role in popular uprisings in Ukraine, Lebanon and Georgia -- are too closely monitored by the government to be reliable, opposition figures said. The Belarusan upheaval, if it comes, will be built on printing presses, shoe leather and face-to-face campaigning, they added.

The article also makes clear the extent of the repression that the opposition is faced with:

"To have a printing press, you need special permission of the Ministry of Information and Press," said Bialiatski, who rushed to the Kishkurna home after hearing about the raid. "That machine was illegal in the best tradition of Soviet times."


No matter how many copies are printed, almost all opposition leaflets and newsletters carry the subscription figure 299 (any higher figure requires registration with the state), and often a false address. Police check for these details first and confiscate publications without them. Mailing is often done in small batches, at different post office branches, to avoid suspicion.

Independent newspapers, of which only a handful remain, struggle to work around a labyrinth of restrictions. They are forbidden to use any information from unregistered organizations. So polls and statistics that contradict the official numbers are attributed to partner organizations in Lithuania or Poland.

The papers are also forbidden to announce opposition political demonstrations, which are routinely banned by the authorities. "We announce their actions through 'subways,' " said one editor. They will mention the application for the permit, with the time and place, then mention that the permit has been denied, again with the time and place. "We've announced it twice," he said.

Hopefully, the Belarusan opposition will get all the support they need to overcome the Lukashenko dictatorship. I wish them well.


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