Truth behind the pageantry: jail for dissidents in Europe's last dictatorship

With Belarus mired in economic crisis, protest is growing. Shaun Walker reports from Minsk

Tanks and missiles rolled through the streets, military aircraft roared in the sky and thousands of troops marched past the podium saluting the President. Later, columns of costumed schoolchildren stretching as far as the eye could see danced in formation to the tinny refrain of "Belarus! My homeland!" coming from the loudspeakers.

The huge military parade put on by President Alexander Lukashenko yesterday to mark Belarusian independence day appeared designed to show that he will not relinquish control over his country easily. Dressed in full military regalia, and flanked by his six-year-old son wearing a matching uniform, the man who has frequently been called the "last dictator in Europe" gave a speech drawing parallels between the Nazi onslaught which the country suffered during the Second World War, and the current protest movement that his government is facing.

As Belarus has plunged into a severe economic crisis that has halved the average person's spending power in a matter of months, the mood of dissent in the country has grown. Yesterday evening, around 1,000 people gathered in the square in front of Minsk's main train station, in the latest of a long line of "silent protests" organised through the internet.They simply stood still and clapped their hands, but this didn't stop the police from moving in violently, arresting young and old and throwing them into green military vans. Hundreds of irregular youths in plain clothes and earpieces again set on the crowds, punching and kicking those who offered resistance and at times using tear gas.

Yesterday morning, Mr Lukashenko said that the protesters were working according to plans that had been drawn up "in the capital cities of certain foreign countries," and wanted to "bring us to our knees and destroy our hard-fought independence."

But while he has successfully used such rhetoric in the past, there is a sense in Minsk that his time is running out. A protest group set up on the Russian social networking site Vkontakte has over 200,000 members, where news is spread about where the protests will take place, and people swap tips on how to avoid arrest.

For the visitor to Minsk, it can be easy to forget just how the regime here operates. The city's broad streets are lined with Stalin-era monumentalist buildings; the pavements devoid of litter and lined with carefully tended flower beds. Families stroll in the sunshine, groups of young people drink beer in pleasant outdoor cafés, and it can be hard to believe that this is a brutal dictatorship.

At certain critical times, such as elections, there have been mass arrests, beatings and suspicious deaths, but most of the time, the regime runs on "low-levelfear", says a Western diplomat based in Minsk. Workers in state-run enterprises are kept on one-year contracts, and are easily got rid of if they step out of line politically; the same is true for students. But the number of people willing to risk problems to have their voices heard appears to be growing. Independent polls show that Mr Lukashenko's approval ratings have dipped dramatically, and while even protesters concede there is not yet the critical mass for a revolution, it is clear that public opinion is changing fast.

"Until about a year ago, I was totally apolitical," says Zhenya, a 26-year-old accountant who spoke to The Independent over the weekend and whose story seemed typical of young people in Minsk. "But the more I've started noticing what is happening in the country, and reading stuff online, the more I've realised we need to change things."

A devaluation of the Belarusian rouble combined with inflation has meant that people's salaries can buy half as much as they could at the beginning of the year. "Hard currency" has all but disappeared, in a return to the Soviet system, with exchange booths and cash machines completely out of euros and US dollars. Mr Lukashenko's much-vaunted economic stability, which did win him genuine support among a large section of the population for years, has gone up in smoke.

"People are slowly starting to realise that there was never any stability, that it was all just a myth," says Irina Khalip, a journalist who works for the Russiannewspaper Novaya Gazeta. Ms Khalip's husband, Andrei Sannikov, was one of Mr Lukashenko's challengers for the presidency in December. The moustachioed incumbent won a huge majority in a count that international observers said was neither free nor fair, and thousands of people protested on the night of 19 December. Hundreds of arrests were made, including those of Mr Sannikov and his wife.

Ms Khalip spent weeks in jail and months under house arrest. She has now been given a suspended sentence but for two years is not allowed to leave Minsk or go outside after 10pm. Mr Sannikov himself, instead of the five-year presidential term he had sought, was given a five-year prison sentence for "organising illegal protests".

During a meeting in a Minsk cafe on Saturday, Ms Khalip tears open a letter from her husband, the words written in blue biro and the pages stamped with the purple ink to show that they have received the approval of the prison censor. A number of political observationsare couched in allegorical language to flummox the censor, before a heart-rending personal ending: "I think of you all the time," writes Mr Sannikov. "How difficult it is to be without our son."

Ms Khalip fights back tears. Often, she says, her husband sends stories written for their son, which are always about a pair of heroic mice, fighting a battle against a giant, evil rat. "The allusions are pretty clear, I think," she says.

When yesterday's parade was over, Mr Lukashenko shook hands with the military generals, while his son Kolya strutted around the tarmac in his military uniform. The appearance of the six-year-old at state events, and Mr Lukashenko's hints that he is grooming the child to succeed him, signify for many Belarusians just how out of touch with reality their leader has become. Respect for Mr Lukashenko has already turned into widespread distaste; the worry for the regime is that the economically discontented will join the politically discontented and events like yesterday evening's protest will become impossible to crush.

"The best thing would be if he just went of his own accord, before we end up with a Ceausescu scenario," says Ms Khalip, with a sigh. "But he won't, of course."

The regime's victims

Irina Khalip Journalist for Russia's 'Novaya Gazeta' newspaper and wife of the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.

"There were threats initially that our four-year-old son would be taken by the state. When I was released from prison, I was kept under house arrest. I had no telephone or computer, couldn't leave the flat and had two KGB men inside the apartment. I'm staying away from protests for now. Andrei told me that my main task is to look after our son."

Olga Bondarenko Wife of Dmitry Bondarenko, campaign manager for Andrei Sannikov

"When Dmitry was in KGB detention they tried to get him to give evidence against others, and to write a personal letter of apology to Lukashenko. He didn't do either. He has a spinal injury and limited movement in his right leg. While he's been in prison his left leg has got bad too. I have no doubt about his psychological state, he's strong and he's ready to suffer for his country, but I worry about his illness."

Alexander Feduta Adviser to opposition presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev

"They came for me at home at 5am on 20 December. I was in prison for 109 days. There was no physical torture – I'm not well and I guess they didn't want me dying on their hands. But there was a lot of psychological pressure. For half the time I was in solitary. After a while you start to think you are going mad."

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