< Revolution on Ice


Friday, March 24, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. On the heels of democratic revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, hopes were high for democratic opposition in Sunday's election in Belarus, often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. The dissidents used many of the same techniques of imagery, sloganeering and mobilization pioneered by the Otpor movement in Serbia to topple Slobodan Milosevic. Those methods, since employed elsewhere to cultivate foreign media and subvert domestic propaganda, were to no avail. President Alexander Lukashenko was reelected with 83 percent of the vote. Even accounting for the widespread fraud reported by international monitors, polling represented something less than wholesale popular enthusiasm for democracy. But Andrew Miller who reported on the election for The Economist magazine says both the outcome and the political background have been mischaracterized.

ANDREW MILLER: I think the label "the last dictatorship in Europe," which is a popular one in the press, is a little bit misleading. The regime in Belarus is nasty and degrading and dismal for its opponents. But the truth is that Mr. Lukashenko who was eccentric and almost comic in some of his habits and his propaganda, is remarkably popular amongst people in Belarus, for reasons which bespeak a certain poverty of ambition, a tragic poverty of ambition, you could say. He provides pensions which have increased slightly over the last decade and are paid regularly, and average incomes in Belarus have risen to the stellar heights of around $200 a month. But for people in that part of the world who have seen the economic strife in the neighboring countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union, those achievements seem much less humble than they do to us.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, notwithstanding the level of stability enjoyed by Belarussians, there's still the fact that it's an authoritarian regime. And the trend has been for those to eventually collapse. It certainly happened with Milosevic and it happened in Ukraine with the so-called Orange Revolution. Why were democracy advocates so pitifully unsuccessful in the election?

ANDREW MILLER: I don't think it was reasonable to expect 200,000 people to come into the streets in the way they did in Kiev in 2004. But I think the opposition has achieved something in this campaign. And they've raised their own profile. And if you look at what happened in Ukraine, there were widespread protests against the then Kuchmar regime in 2001, which failed to topple the regime. But what happened was the occupation went away, learned from its experience, regrouped, took advice from overseas, came back a few years later and finished the job.

BOB GARFIELD: One advantage the Ukrainian demonstrators had was a at least semi-free media that they could exploit. That's clearly not the case in Belarus. Give me a background, please, on the state of media there, and what anti-government forces were able to do to subvert the propaganda.

ANDREW MILLER: The way the information, real information circulates is not dissimilar from the late Soviet period, in small circulation publications which have to circulate surreptitiously because they can't be distributed by official channels. And as for television, I was there a couple of weeks ago on a day when a man called Mr. Kozulin who was another opposition candidate, was beaten up by some of Mr. Lukashenko's thugs, and on TV the incident was portrayed as a provocation staged by Mr. Kozulin in collaboration with conniving foreign journalists who were in attendance.

BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, behind the vile myth there's probably at least an element of truth. I imagine the CIA and western NGO's and groups such as Otpor have, in fact, put some money and effort into helping create some sort of democratic opposition in Belarus.

ANDREW MILLER: Well, if they have, they haven't been all that successful. There were many differences in the revolution in Kiev. One of them was that there was a lot of money there. There was a big stage, there were rock bands playing every night throughout the stand-off in the snow for a few weeks. There was free food and warm clothes for the protestors. It was a big, well-organized and very well-funded opposition. In Minsk this week, on the first night of the protest, which was the biggest night, the most important night, Mr. Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, had to address the crowd through a sort of little megaphone. Most people couldn't even hear what he was saying. Now, there's a little encampment in the square in Minsk, but it's nothing like the scale that it was in Kiev. And I think funding, you know, is definitely one of the problems for the opposition.

BOB GARFIELD: Belarus is not a huge country, it has something like 10 million people. And I don't know how high the stakes are perceived to be in the corridors of western power, but do you think the international press has done a good job in covering what's going on there?

ANDREW MILLER: I think they have. And given it's a small, land-locked country which does virtually no trade with America, doesn't have a powerful army or nuclear weapons or anything like that, I think the coverage of it has been pretty good. And it's been important, as well. And during the last few days, during these protests in Minsk, were it not for the presence of quite a large number of foreign correspondents, and especially television crews, it's possible that there would have been some nasty violence perpetrated against these protestors by the riot police who've been massing in the side streets around the square where they're protesting. And in the square, one of the chants that the protestors have struck up has been, "Thank you to the journalists," which is not something you hear all that often. The journalists, of course, are partly there because they expect something nasty to happen to the protestors. So, so far it hasn't and let's hope it remains that way, although, of course, journalists aren't going to stay there forever and will decamp, especially because there is an election in neighboring Ukraine this weekend. So it could be that when they do leave, the riot police will go into action. But they haven't yet, so that's at least encouraging.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Andrew. Well, thank you very, very much.

ANDREW MILLER: Okay, no problem.

BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Miller is a reporter for The Economist magazine. We spoke to him on Thursday. A few hours later, Belarussian security forces entered the primary encampment of democratic protestors in a Minsk square and took all of them into custody. Srdja Popovich, a veteran of Serbia's Otpor movement, is founder of the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies in Belgrade. He says the measure of the Belarus opposition's success is not this election, nor necessarily even the next.

SRDJA POPOVICH: One problem with world media is that they are only, you know, recording the final act--half a million people in the streets getting inside a parliament on the television, and boom, they lost it, it's finished. That was not that way. The non-violent struggle in Serbia lasted for 10 years, and we had so many successes and failures in this struggle.

BOB GARFIELD: Of course, as we both know, the reason the press is not attracted to the process is because you can't take pictures of a process, you can only take pictures of an event. What do you advise democracy organizations to keep the press interested, when there's very little of great interest to photograph?

SRDJA POPOVICH: There is always something to take picture of. And in Serbia we were creating hundreds of small actions which were very, very good-looking and sending very strong visual messages. And these pictures from these small protests, small public actions--street theaters, groups of women bringing flowers to the police--they were all around the world. So these small media victories can be achieved through very small limited, low-risk symbolic actions. And there are always good ideas for these actions.

BOB GARFIELD: The Lukashenko regime is characterizing the protests in Belarus as the work of outside spies and agitators, that it's a conspiracy of the West to take away the Belarussian sovereignty and way of life, a message which I gather has had some resonance, especially in the rural areas. They're buying the propaganda. In some ways, the success of Otpor is coming back to haunt the activists in Belarus. Are your Belarussian compatriots victims of your success?

SRDJA POPOVICH: Well, this is the very important question. Every non-democratic regime is playing on the card of nationalism in a way that it wants to portray the democratic opposition as mercenaries and national failure. Serbian opposition was not only labeled as the puppets of the West, but also in the last stages of his power as a terrorist. And you can see even the language is repeated by Lukashenko now. But there is a great lesson learned here in Serbia. To get to the people and to wash their brains from the state propaganda, you must play the cards of patriotism. In Serbia, the main slogan of Otpor for months and months was that—“resistance because I love Serbia.” And if you look to what people in Belarus as doing, it's pretty similar. I mean, look at the flags. These are very old Belarussian flags. Look at the Saturday, the day they pick is the anniversary of the old state. So it's pretty obvious that they are playing the same cards to prove that they're a home-grown movement, and that they're working on a common good of the people of Belarus, not for the foreign interests.

BOB GARFIELD: The fact is, though, that western governments and non-governmental organizations pour millions of dollars into burgeoning democracy movements, a fact that, of course, helps the local movements, but also gives the regime ammunition to portray the protestors as enemies of the state. How do you respond? Do you deny it? Do you embrace it? What do you do?

SRDJA POPOVICH: Regime will always do it, whether it is truthful or not. So you need to have the clear answer. The less interest you keep, it is the biggest possibility that you will create regime propaganda un-credible. One of the very important things for the movement in field is that they need to cultivate the international support. But international organizations often, with the money, are also trying to bring their own agenda, their own interests, and their own favorites in the battlefield. You need to learn how to avoid this, like we did in Serbia. If you are fundraising for international organizations, it should be strictly directed to your home-grown agenda purpose.

BOB GARFIELD: Well Srdja, thank you so much.


BOB GARFIELD: Srdja Popovich is founder of the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies in Belgrade, Serbia. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]