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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 01:16 GMT
Belarusian opposition takes heart
After Belarus is named an "outpost of tyranny" by the United States, the BBC's Sarah Rainsford speaks to protesters and politicians inside the country.

Children squeal with excitement as they slice through the ice on an outdoor skating-rink in central Minsk.

Protesters with Mikhail Marinich photos
Protesters say they have faced repression from the authorities
As they twist and turn a crowd begins to gather around the edge. Just a handful at first, then more than 100.

They are spread out, in small groups, and low-key. But they are not here to admire the skating.

"Freedom for Mikhail Marinich!" a man suddenly shouts, pulling a pile of posters from his bag. The "spectators" turn protestors in a flash.

They form a silent human chain across the square - facing the official residence of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Sovereign governments are in place not to please the US, but to serve their own people
Sergei Martynov,
Foreign Minister

Most clutch photographs of Mikhail Marinich, Belarus' latest political prisoner. Some hold photocopied images of four other prominent figures who dared challenge the president. They have since disappeared for good.

''I am ashamed America has labelled us an outpost of tyranny," Aleysia says - a sweatshirt emblazoned with Mr Marinich's photo just visible beneath her overcoat.

"I'm here to try and change that."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice included Belarus on a list of six ''fear societies'' alongside North Korea and Iran at her confirmation hearings before the Senate last month.

Riot police

Like many here, Sasha welcomes the international attention. He belongs to the youth resistance movement Zubr, and says street protests like this are vital in Belarus, where the opposition has been excluded from parliament and media access is strictly controlled.

''Our movement irritates the authorities very much," Sasha tells me. "We've registered over 2,000 facts of repressions against us - detentions, arrests, beatings."

Aleksandr Lukashenko
Aleksandr Lukashenko is clamping down on NGO activities

This particular display of defiance ends without arrest. But cameramen from the unreconstructed KGB fix every single link in the human chain on film.

In October, it was different. Several thousand people came out onto the streets then in protest at what they called a rigged referendum staged to make Alexander Lukashenko president for life. Riot police broke up peaceful protests with batons.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov argues the authorities were simply enforcing the law. As for the label "outpost of tyranny" - he suggests the US needs a reality check.

"Assertions of this kind clearly indicate the current policy of the US is out of touch with reality," the minister insists.

"Sovereign governments are in place not to please the US, but to serve their own people. And this is what this government is doing."

But the evidence appears to be mounting against him.

Freedom struggle

US Ambassador to Belarus George Krol talks of a steady deterioration with respect to freedom and human rights in Belarus - starting with what he and the OSCE call the "deeply flawed" elections last October.

Belarus flag in Kiev protest
Nobody expected the revolution in Ukraine, but it's stimulated us
Anatoly Lebedko,
United Civil Party

''We see the arrest of prominent Belarusians for their political views, the use of the panoply of power to harass NGOs and political parties - and instances of brutality against opposition individuals,'' says the ambassador, just a fraction of his long list of concerns.

"Having Secretary Rice mention Belarus lets the authorities - and the people here - know they are not forgotten," he adds.

"That the struggle for freedom here is just as important as in the rest of the world."

Igor Marinich has dedicated himself to that struggle ever since his father Mikhail was arrested last April.

At the family flat in Minsk, Igor shows me through a cardboard box of photographs. They show Mikhail Marinich the minister, the mayor - and the ambassador.

But in 2001 Igor's father joined the opposition. With his high-level connections, many believe he was a serious challenger for the presidency.

Now he is in prison - sentenced to five years for stealing computers from the US embassy. The Americans say they have no complaint against him.

Igor Marinich and his wife
Igor Marinich says his father's trial was a show of strength

''It was a show trial,'' Igor fumes. ''The authorities wanted to prove they can dispose of anyone. The main thing was to remove a man who could unite many forces here behind him, and to frighten the nomenklatura.''

With Mikhail Marinich out of the picture, Belarus's divided opposition is struggling to unite behind a single candidate to challenge Mr Lukashenko at next year's presidential elections.

But they face a more immediate problem. All NGOs and political parties have been ordered to re-register their offices with the authorities - a move many fear may lead to their liquidation.

Outside pressures

Despite that and numerous other obstacles, many in the opposition have been inspired by events in neighbouring Ukraine.

''I addressed the crowds on Independence Square in Kiev, and when they started chanting 'Belarus! Belarus!' a huge lump rose in my throat," the leader of the United Civil Party, Anatoly Lebedko recalls, draped in a bright orange scarf.

"It's made us optimistic the same could happen even in our totalitarian society."

But for now the controls are tightening in Belarus - reaching ever new, and odder spheres.

Mr Lukashenko has demanded the removal of all foreign models from advertising billboards. He has also ordered a limit on foreign music on the airwaves.

''It's quite clear Lukashenko's trying to board up the window on Europe, trying to keep enemy influences out," says music critic Dmitry Podberezsky. He interprets this as an act of desperation.

"I think he's really afraid the people may turn round soon and say, that's enough!"

As outside pressure increases, it appears Mr Lukashenko is drawing his rusty iron curtain ever tighter. It is keeping the winds of change out for now. But for how long?

Analysis: Belarus defies West
21 Jan 05 |  Europe
Belarus angered by US sanctions
21 Oct 04 |  Europe
Observers deplore Belarus vote
18 Oct 04 |  Europe
Profile: Alexander Lukashenko
10 Jul 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Belarus
20 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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