By Gary Peach
Fighting spirit of his grandfathers helps stoke the much-harassed opposition leader's effort to maintain a democratic spirit in Belarus.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich cannot remember how many times he has been pulled over by Belarusian police. He says the number would be in the hundreds. In 2008 alone, the tyres of his Volvo S90 were slashed 29 times and twice the vehicle was doused in acid. "I had to have my car repainted twice," he says without bitterness.
Considered democracy's greatest hope in Belarus, Milinkevich knows that the situation could be worse. In 2006 he spent 15 days behind bars for organising a peaceful demonstration and his grandfather was imprisoned for clashing with Soviet authorities. Four foes of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime have ended up missing or dead in mysterious circumstances. By comparison, harassment by police stooges, however exasperating, seems tolerable. And though he is hindered at home, Milinkevich travels abroad freely.
Still, it is the grassroots work at home that is so crucial - and why Milinkevich and other foes of Belarus's totalitarian system accept the prospect of a slew of "car problems" in the foreseeable future. (As pretext for the constant road delays, Milinkevich has been accused by authorities of drink driving, fleeing the scene of an accident and drugs trafficking.) Milinkevich and other members of his Movement for Freedom party traverse the potholed back-roads of Belarus in an effort to enlighten the electorate about everything from the crimes of the current regime to the virtues of a democratic society.
"Our main task right now is infor-mational work," he told European Voice. "People need to have as much independent information as possible." It is essentially a battle of attrition, but Milinkevich claims that this "approach, the people tactic" is bearing fruit. True, the state has monopolised television and radio, and no large pro-democracy periodicals exist, but he says there are 15 small independent newspapers, a lively publication of underground pamphlets and, of course, the ever-growing reach of the internet.
The other core task is dissipating the omnipresent fear among Belarus's populace. Beyond simply informing the masses, Milinkevich says that pro-democracy forces must offer consolation. Whether they be the repressed, the ostra-cised or simply the laid-off, Belarusians need to know they are not alone, that someone is out there fighting for their rights. "Those are the two main problems - a lack of information and fear. That's what we should fight against," he says.
Milinkevich is no stranger to fear. A native of Grodno in western Belarus, a short drive from both Poland and Lithuania, he is a scion of several generations of repressed Belarusian nationalists - a heritage he recalls with pride. His great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather participated in the 1863 uprising against the tsarist occupation, and his grandfather was hauled off to prison for trying to open Belarusian-language schools. His father was also repressed for locking horns with the Bolsheviks. "So you can say there is a kind of 'fighters' tradition' in my family," he says with a chuckle.
A scientist and mathematician by train-ing, Milinkevich has studied in Europe, Africa and North America. Married with two sons, he speaks Belarusian, Russian, English, French, and Polish.
When not writing papers on quantum electronics at the local university in Grodno, the tall Belarusian sponsored the local basketball team, helped set up non-governmental organisations, or immersed himself in cultural history. He has compiled a vast photo-exhibit of architecture and villages of western Belarus and is determined to open an ethnographical museum soon. He particularly relishes his role in helping restore a 500-year-old tower clock in Grodno, the oldest of its kind in eastern Europe, he claims. "It's the heart of the city, and now it's beating."
For Belarus, the importance of such feats cannot be overstated. In her book 'Between east and west: across the borderlands of Europe', Anne Applebaum writes: "Whatever the nationalists said, 'Belarusian' has always been a flexible term. To be Belarusian is to choose one's identity, even to allow that identity to change over time. In a land that was often invaded, at times there were good reasons to be one nationality, at other times good reasons to be another...Only from time to time, usually in the gaps between rulers or in the odd moments or anarchy, has being Belarusian proved to be advantageous to anyone at all."
If Milinkevich and his supporters attain their goal, Belarusians will finally cement their identity and from it their independ-ence will emerge. Though he is at pains not to foretell Lukashenka's future - whether the dictator, who has allowed the Russifi-cation of much of Belarus, will eventually step down or die in office - Milinkevich believes that, at the very least, the autocrat has seen the writing on the wall.
"It's difficult to predict how he will act, but I think that right now even he understands that the previous [politico-economic] model in our country has no chances and needs to be changed," says the 61-year-old. "The authoritarian powers are now beginning to understand the need for economic liberalisation, the need to make steps toward the democratisation of society. The regime is beginning to back off because of economic difficulties."
This shift in political climate has inspired Belarus's pro-Western forces. Where possible, they co-operate with Russia's democratic opposition (which, curiously enough, according to Milinkevich, is confronting the same dictatorial tactics that Belarus's anti-Lukashenka forces faced five-seven years ago) and are reaching out to the younger generation, though critics point out that the lack of youthful faces in the movement's leadership is conspicuous. Asked about the European Union's policies toward Belarus, which includes the decision in October to ease the travel ban on top Belarusian officials, Milinke-vich that says he supports the EU's strate-gic and tactical measures vis-a-vis Minsk.
As for the democratic opposition itself, Milinkevich acknowledges its setbacks and internal squabbling, but is confident everyone can pull together. "We've shown that we can unite when it's necessary," he says, adding that all efforts will be made to put forward a single candidate in Belarus's presidential ballot in 2010. Even though the regime only "allowed" him 6% of the total vote count in 2006, Milinkevich is sanguine about the future. "We don't consider victory to something that comes at election time. Rather, victory is a change in society's mentality and here we have some definite victories to show," he says.
"The laws of history are on our side - a totalitarian regime cannot exist forever," he says. "We are fighting for people's minds and we will win."
Photo by milinkevich.org