Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Keeping your powder dry and warm 

This is the scene at October Square in Minsk early this evening (seven hours ahead of us). You become quite depressed, I think, seeing how small the crowd is there. But it's small because the opposition made a decision (Robert Mayer thinks it a mistake) to hold off on the larger protests until Saturday. Visitors to the area are having their bags searched for food, so a frequent technique is for drive-by dropoffs, where people drive up, drop off food and speed away before the cops come.

The Lukashenko government is dismissing the protests as "pathetic". Besides Mayer, my NARN brother Captain Ed is also saying putting off the protests is a mistake:

In order to face down tyrants like this through "people power", momentum has to build continuously until the force of it can no longer be denied. Starting and stopping these kind of demonstrations make them easier to handle and will fail to convince ordinary Belarussians to flock to their standard.

Hopefully those protesting for fair and open elections and real democracy in the last bastion of European dictatorship can pick up the threads of their peaceful revolution on March 25th. If they do, they should take care to continue the effort until it succeeds instead of waiting for the weekends.

I don't agree. The ability of Lukashenko's forces to blockade October Square is already in place, and it may be better to lull them to sleep and organize outside the square than to try to hold people in the square in bad weather. And meanwhile refine techniques, as Veronica reports about the drive-by dropping of food.

Moreover, unlike Ukraine in 2004, there is as of yet no good stories on which to hang the charge of fraud against Lukashenko. It's pretty widely known that before the election his popularity ratings were in the low 60s, so the results of the election, showing Lukashenko receiving more than 80% of the popular vote, are laughably implausible. But statistical statements carry far less weight than stories of ballot stuffing. The OSCE statement, while unequivocal in its conclusions that the vote was fraudulent, allows enough wiggle room with statements like this...
The conduct of voting on election day took place in a calm and peaceful atmosphere. In general, polling was well organized and PECs and voters had a good understanding of voting procedures. Unauthorized persons were seen at 7% of polling stations visited, and in 3% of stations they were directing the PEC in its work. make it harder to claim outright fraud. The cheating occured in tallying ballots, a much more easily hid operation. In general, it appears, the Lukashenko regime has decided to commit fraud knowingly but behind a curtain, and then claim victory when it succeeds in suppressing the opposition rallies.

Mark Almond, a person almost virulent in his Sovietphilia, thinks the results are valid and a triumph for Lukashenko's brand of market reforms. Would that there were any. A editorial by Anton Semenov, however, offers optimism (courtesy JRL):

The ideology and practices of almost any authoritarian regime presume that the main direction of social development has supposedly been found once and for all and is embodied by the current head of state. Presidency for life, as in Turkmenistan, or a hereditary monarchy, formal or actual, as in Azerbaijan, is the most logical institutional form for such a regime. Could open despotism in Belarus, that is, in Europe rather than in Asia, and without its own reserves of oil and gas besides, as in Turkmenistan itself, be stable, and in these days besides -- that, of course, is another question.

By giving the opposition the possibility, though limited, to express its opinion during the election struggle, the regime came into conflict with itself.

After all, in an authoritarian state, the opposition is brought down to the level of "renegades," "traitors," and "moral freaks" by official propaganda. (The specific habit of the authorities of Belarus, where the memory of the last great war is especially keen, is to accuse the oppositionists of secret or even open sympathies for Nazis and the polizei). Politically disloyal citizens are in effect excluded from the full-fledged members of society. (To show greater contempt, Lukashenka became fond of calling his opponents "thugs".) But when a leader of the "renegades" and "thugs" is registered as a candidate in an election anyway, despite all the pressure, and he is allowed to speak in the regions, and a couple of his speeches slightly distorted by censorship are even shown on the air, the legalization of the oppositionists in social consciousness occurs.

And hence, the myth of a "unified nation" that has gathered around the leader cracks.

Robert Mayer and David Marples are convinced that, regardless of the electoral outcome, this is the beginning of the end of the regime. So am I, and I remind people that the pace at which these things change can quicken without warning.