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March 25, 2006
Reports Of Their Demise May Have Been Exaggerated

The opposition movement in Belarus made a comeback today after going out with a whimper less than 24 hours earlier. Thousands of Belarussians defied riot police and gathered for a peaceful demonstration against Aleksander Lukashenko's oppressive regime and the rigged elections that kept him in power:

Thousands of Belarusians defied a massive show of force by the hard-line government Saturday, protesting in streets swarming with riot police and gathering peacefully in a park to denounce President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election returned him to power.

Rows of black-clad police blocked a central square where opposition leaders had called for a rally at noon, pushing crowds back in a bid to end a week of unprecedented protests in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic. Demonstrators shouted "Shame!" and "Long live Belarus!"

Tensions mounted swiftly around October Square as police in full riot gear arrived by the busload to shove protesters back. The crowd at a major intersection near the square — where Lenin Street meets Independence Avenue — quickly swelled from a few hundred to some 3,000.

After gathering on the other side of the sprawling square with a crowd of about the same size, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich led supporters to a nearby park and the group swelled to as many as 5,000 people.

The response does surprise me; I predicted after Friday's debacle that the steam had mostly gone out of the Belarussian opposition. Publius Pundit agreed with me that the failure to stand their ground in October Square last Sunday was a tactical error, while my friend King Banaian at SCSU Scholars strongly disagreed:

The comparisons between Belarus' nascent opposition and the Orange Revolution next door completely misses the history of the Orange Revolution, which took years to create. The Orange Revolution was the culmination of an effort started by mass protests of "Ukraine without Kuchma" (UBK), which came from the grisly murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in September 2000. UBK eventually got protests going in December of that year, which lasted well into 2001. These groups too were relatively small and were attacked repeatedly, though Kuchma was smart enough not to use uniformed police. By the end of 2001, it appeared, Kuchma had solidified power, sent Yushchenko from the prime minister's office into opposition, and was contemplating constitutional changes that would keep him in power indefinitely.

And that's the point: The breakup of protests was not the end of the opposition to Kuchma. It was the beginning of another phase in the development of a real opposition.

However, the 5,000 who gathered in Minsk this morning, while impressive so soon after the mass arrests yesterday, still only comes to half of those who initially started protesting last Sunday. That crowd grew to over 10,000 Belarussians and could have continued to grow, had the Milinkevich supportes not dispersed the demonstrations themselves. As the Ukranians showed, the aftermath of a rigged election is a powerful time to build strength, and part of that strength comes from showing the ultimate impotence of the dictatorship. By reducing the protests in Minsk to a couple of hundred people, it invited Lukashenko to show that he is anything but impotent to shut them down and re-instill fear to keep others from joining the protests.

Now that the opposition has a kernel of strength in Minsk, they need to maintain it and encourage others to join. In Lebanon, the protestors never allowed the Syrian toadies in Beirut to gain the upper hand; when Hizb' Allah rallied in strength to intimidate them, the Lebanese patriots outmarched them. Only by putting people in the streets will Belarussians take their country back from Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, and they can't do that while they're sending them home.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 25, 2006 8:14 AM

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