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Young Belarusians fight for their future

MINSK, BELARUS — MINSK, Belarus - The students, the young professionals, the post-adolescent agitators at the vanguard of the democratic opposition in Belarus are hardly idealists.

Of course, they have ideas about what democracy might look like in their country, a former Soviet republic. But ideas, ideals, vague notions about justice and liberty are not what propel them.

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The young people clamoring for free parliamentary elections this fall, with their Russian rap music and sardonic grins, are desperate and hungry. They watch each year evaporate and they imagine what other people in other countries are doing with their lives. They know they will never be 25 or 26 again. If you ask them why they forfeit stability and good jobs for police harassment and telephone taps, they say: What else am I supposed to do?

If they stop fighting, they fear they will never be able to live the lives they want - as novelists, lawyers, economics professors, ministers of finance and foreign policy.

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If they keep fighting, they risk losing their jobs, ruining their parents by causing them to lose their jobs and spending years in a semi-schizoid state somewhere between hope and hopelessness.

Belarus is absurd. President Alexander Lukashenko speaks Russian with a heavy Belarusian accent straight out of the Mogilev region, where he comes from, east of Minsk.

His is the Russian imposed on Belarusians by the Soviets 80 years ago to eradicate any traces of a Belarusian culture, the better to vacuum away an independent political identity.

The Lukashenko regime revolves around a cult of personality held together not by any cult or personality but by fear. It's easy to scare the poor and the elderly.

It's less easy to frighten young people, who have the luxury (or onus) of weighing their fears: Either protest and incur the wrath of the regime, or conform and seethe.

Ales Karniyenka, 31, is running for parliament on the United Civil Party ticket in October. Mr. Karniyenka is smart and wry. When he's not campaigning for his seat, he's campaigning against the regime as head of the anti-Lukashenko group Lemon.

Lemon is premised on the assumption that the greatest threat to dictatorship is humor, a theme first sounded by Czech writer Milan Kundera in his novel The Joke. "There is an expression in Belarus: To kill the dragon, you have to become the dragon," Mr. Karniyenka said. "We have a different idea. To kill the dragon, you have to make people laugh at it."

That is what he does - by parodying the government officials who obsequiously lavish their president with praise.

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On one of the busiest intersections here in the capital, Mr. Karniyenka and other Lemon activists, clad in yellow T-shirts, recently handed out small state-published photos of Mr. Lukashenko in a facetious demonstration of opposition to him. "We call this a healing picture," he said, the sarcasm evident. "It helps if you have bad thoughts - about your bad salary, your bad health, or the fact that you live in a nondemocratic society. Just look at this picture, and all your bad thoughts will disappear."

Mr. Karniyenka's friend, Valek Stefanovic, also 31, is more soft-spoken, intensely committed to the movement. Mr. Stefanovic is a lawyer at Vesna (Spring), a human rights group in Minsk.

Alexi Janukievic, 27, is deputy chairman of the pro-free-market Belarus Popular Front and a parliamentary candidate. His heroes include Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush.

There are others - such as Mikita Sasim, 20, a college student who was nearly ejected from Baranavichy College of Light Industry for protesting the regime; Andrus Kozel, also 20, who was arrested for leading a demonstration against the Chernobyl nuclear reactor; Svetlana Zavodskaya, 31, who has publicly demanded the authorities admit they killed her husband, a journalist who disappeared five years ago; and Vladimir Kobets, 32, who heads the youth-oriented anti-Lukashenko group Zubr (bison), after the national symbol.

All of these people are unlikely to make much headway soon. They expect the government to tamper with the elections. No one will acknowledge any wrongdoing.

But they represent a critical break from the totalitarian past, when so-called Komsomol guys, named after the Soviet youth group meant to indoctrinate students with communist ideology, dominated. Today there are still Komsomol guys in power. But this is a regime on stilts. And the young people are coming. They are angry and dispossessed.

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Peter Savodnik, who covers congressional campaigns for The Hill newspaper in Washington, recently visited Belarus on a fellowship.


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