Two faces of democracy: Belarus, Ukraine
The 'freest' vote ever was held in Ukraine Sunday. But Belarus is cracking down on opponents.
KIEV, UKRAINE — Silence and order now reign in Belarus. Using force this weekend, police made mass arrests of prodemocracy protesters who allege that President Alexander Lukashenko rigged last week's election victory.
The United States and the European Union responded to the crackdown - calling it a violation of free speech and assembly rights - by announcing sanctions, including a travel ban and financial restrictions on Mr. Lukashenko and his top officials.
But in neighboring Ukraine, the mood was relaxed Sunday. Ukrainians, who won their own battle against electoral fraud in the so-called Orange Revolution 18 months ago, went to the polls to choose a new parliament in what are being called the freest elections in Ukrainian history.
Belarussian activists reached by phone Sunday said no one had expected the scale of police violence against an estimated 5,000 protesters who attempted to march to Minsk's main square Saturday, amid ongoing attempts to draw attention to Lukashenko's alleged vote-fixing. Police attacked the crowd with batons, tear gas, and stun grenades, injuring many and arresting about 500, including a top opposition leader, Alexander Kazulin. "It was a brutal and senseless attack on people, which has shocked the whole society," says Svetlana Kalinkina, editor of Belarus's only daily independent newspaper, Narodnaya Volya. "Even many Lukashenko supporters say they can't understand why a peaceful march had to be dispersed so brutally."
On Friday, Belarussian police ripped down a small tent village on the square, arresting some 300 mainly youthful protesters who had been camped out since the election day March 19. That action prompted the US and EU sanctions.
It also drew a perplexed response from Ukraine, where 2004's prodemocracy Orange Revolution had featured a tent city in Kiev that lasted for weeks. "Confident authorities should react to such things calmly," said Oleh Rybachuk, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's chief of staff. "People can live in tents, in trees, or elevators for that matter, but why should it be treated as a grave threat to public order?"
Lukashenko claimed he was prepared to endure sanctions or any other punishment the West might impose because the East, including "Russia, China, and India," remain open to him.
Ukraine's 37 million voters were busy choosing between 46 different parties Sunday to fill the 450-seat Supreme Rada, the country's parliament. In an interim report, ENEMO, an international network of independent election monitors, noted that the campaign was free of the "pressure, intimidation, and harassment," that punctuated the previous cycle of elections, which triggered the "Orange Revolution."
Some Ukrainians say they sympathize with their Belarussian neighbors. "We went through the same things they are experiencing now, only we won our battle," says Olga Maximenko, a student who took part in the 2004 prodemocracy rallies. "It's a pity that the Belarussian people seem to be losing their hopes."
Oleg Manaev, an independent Minsk-based sociologist, says the weekend violence was a warning by authorities to Belarussians to refrain from protests in future. "I'm afraid we are going to see these authorities become much tougher and more brutal in their behavior toward their own people and the outside world," he says. "The democratic forces will have to reorganize themselves in order to become more effective."
Opposition leaders say the wave of street protests is over, for the moment. "We will take to the streets again for the Chernobyl anniversary, on April 26. That's a traditional time for mass protests in Belarus," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, vice chair of the opposition United Civil Party, who was himself detained for four hours Saturday by police, who also confiscated his computer.
Belarus was hit harder than any other country by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which dropped 70 percent of its radioactive fallout on the small Oregon-sized republic.