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Lukashenko's young challengers

By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Polina Kurianovich
Polina Kurianovich was given five days in prison for "bad language"

Being a young opposition activist in today's Belarus is a dangerous and sometimes lonely job.

A girl with long dark hair stands before the judge and gives her name, age and address. She speaks politely in a soft voice, but her eyes burn with defiance.

I have slipped into a courtroom in the centre of Minsk to watch the trial of 20-year-old Polina Kurianovich.

Most people in the Belarusian capital have been drinking beer at pavement cafes or strolling through parks, enjoying the Independence Day holiday. Polina has spent the weekend behind bars.

She was arrested after plain clothes officers found some European Union flags in her rucksack when she was on her way to a concert and firework display. That is not the official charge.

She is being accused of article 71 - using bad language in public - which is a common charge for political agitators. She firmly denies it but the judge finds her guilty and gives her a five-day sentence.

Afterwards, outside the courtroom, Polina seems to count herself lucky.

"They should have acquitted me because of course I didn't swear at anybody," she says.

"Five days isn't bad. I thought I'd get 10 or even 15. The officer who arrested me was in court but he didn't even look at me. Even when the judge asked him to. Maybe he felt ashamed."

Bravery

After her release, Polina is reunited with her father in a village just outside Minsk. He is relieved to see her back home but angry she was subjected to such harsh treatment.

Polina Kurianovich and her father
Mr Kurianovich is proud of his political activist children
"It's not against the law to carry a flag. What is wrong with wanting to be part of Europe?" he says.

"My daughter is very well brought-up and those cops lied about her swearing to get her into trouble - what a disgrace for our police!"

He tells me that he used to be a policeman himself but resigned because he felt there was too much corruption in the ranks.

"Most of our police don't want to fight crime or take on the bandits. They prefer to spend their time repressing young people and stopping them from going on demonstrations."

Mr Kurianovich shows me a yellowing ID card which shows he took part in the massive clean up operation after the Chernobyl disaster. He tells me his father was a partisan in World War II.

Pavel Kurianovich
The state is becoming more authoritarian ... someone has to do something - if not us, then who?
Pavel Kurianovich
Pro-European activist
"Bravery runs in our family's blood," he says proudly.

Polina has already been in prison twice before - once for demonstrating in support of small businesses and once for picketing the Russian embassy.

"Most Belarusian's think of Russia as a kind older brother who will always help us," she says.

"But Russia is an enemy that wants to swallow us and take away Belarus' independence."

Her brother Pavel is also a pro-European activist and has been imprisoned three times in the last six months.

Although they were excellent students, both have been thrown out of university. Their police records make it hard for them to find good jobs. But they are determined to continue challenging the authorities and causing trouble.

"The state is becoming more authoritarian," says Pavel Kurianovich. "But someone has to do something - if not us, then who? The absolute majority is unhappy but most people just complain in their kitchens. They are afraid to act."

Terrorists

The climate of fear in Belarus intensified after the presidential elections two years ago. In March 2006 huge crowds gathered on October Square, demanding a fresh vote after President Alexander Lukashenko was declared winner by a landslide in a poll condemned as unfair by many local and international observers.

Many hoped that Belarus might emulate the non-violent regime changes in other former Soviet republics. As people huddled in blankets and chanted to rap music, it seemed a carbon copy of the Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine.

But there were crucial differences.

Demonstrators in Minsk did not just have to brave sub-zero temperatures. Before the elections, the head of the secret service - still called the KGB in Belarus - went on TV to say that protestors would be treated as terrorists.

He warned they faced life imprisonment or even the death penalty. After four days the riot police cleared the square and dealt brutally with subsequent protests.

Liuda, Belarusian journalist
Belarus feels like a dead zone
Liuda
Belarusian journalist
More than a thousand people were arrested.

Thousands more left the country, including students who had been expelled from schools and universities because of their political activities.

Many are studying in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.

"It's a great opportunity for them," says Liuda, a local journalist.

"But it's terrible for Belarus. This country has lost some of the brightest, most creative young people. Who knows how many will come back?"

Thanks to her job for a radio station, Liuda is able to travel regularly between Belarus and Poland.

Her office in Minsk was raided earlier this year by the security services and all her equipment was confiscated. Now she broadcasts her reports from a studio in Warsaw.

"Belarus feels like a dead zone," she says. "You can leave the country for three months, come back and find that nothing has changed and for me that is awful."

Generations

With statues of Lenin and Stalinist architecture, Belarus does indeed seem stuck in a time warp. Franak Vyachorka says most of his life has been overshadowed by the man the West calls Europe's last dictator.

Franak Vyachorka
I don't want to spend all my life in a regime of total fear
Franak Vyachorka
Political activist
Franak started school in 1994, the year that Mr Lukashenko became president.

Now 14 years later, Franak has finished school and has been expelled from university, and the former collective farm boss is still in power.

Mr Lukashenko has survived two generations of opposition activists - Franak's father, Vintsuk Vyachorka, is a leader of the Belarusian Popular Front.

Franak spent much of his childhood alone with his mother because his father was so often in prison.

Despite the hardship he has endured, Franak is a bouncy, indefatigable character, whether he is talking about ancient Belarusian folklore or the latest hi-tech attempts to outsmart state censorship.

"I don't want to spend all my life in a regime of total fear, of total control, of unpredictable arrests when a policeman can stop you and beat you for no reason," says Franak.

He says that the authorities are tightening the screws on the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections next month. He tells me the government is worried that the democratic movement is gaining strength. I wonder if this is his wishful thinking.

The economy is growing at 8% a year. It may be propped up by cut-price oil and gas from Russia but shops are full, and salaries and pensions are paid on time. Many people say they are grateful that Mr Lukashenko has brought stability to Belarus, even if their freedoms are curtailed.

"I think one day people here will understand that this system is finished," says Franak.

"I am sure that this day will come and the army will join the people's side and they will join us. It will not happen tomorrow but we should prepare for it."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 31 July, 2008 at 1102 BST. It was repeated on Monday, 4 August, 2008 at 2030 BST.



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SEE ALSO
Belarus Youth
31 Jul 08 |  Crossing Continents
Europe's last dictatorship
31 Jul 08 |  Newsnight
Life under Europe's last dictator
26 Jul 08 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Country profile: Belarus
03 Jul 08 |  Country profiles
President Lukashenko: in quotes
10 Jul 04 |  Europe

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