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Belarus: Opposition Campaigns With Humor As New Weapon

With presidential elections in Belarus scheduled for the autumn, demonstrations by opposition groups have been getting more frequent -- and more creative. In an effort to draw a politically apathetic populace to the ballot box and elude police restrictions, activists are staging street performances, satirical plays, and holding impromptu sports events -- with allegorical undertones. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke with a leader of Belarus' largest youth opposition movement about the campaign.

Prague, 26 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- President Alyaksandr Lukashenka figures large in the lives of Belarus' citizens, with state media portraying him as the wise leader of a grateful nation.

Which is why Minsk residents out for a walk in the park last Saturday (21 April) might be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into a scene from "Alice in Wonderland" -- where everything, as the story goes, becomes "curiouser and curiouser."

Strollers, greeted by men in white medical coats, were welcomed to a zone declared "Free of Lukashism." A few steps away, scores of people wearing masks of Lukashenka squared off for a game of street hockey -- the president's favorite sport. Some passed out buttons saying: "I know who the main fool in the country is."

Pavel Severinets -- leader of the Young Belarus National Front, or Young Front (Molodoi Front) as it's known for short -- was one of the brains behind the show in the park. Young Front, which claims around 2,000 active supporters, is the country's largest independent political youth movement. It say it wants to do its part to change the political landscape in Belarus and defeating Lukashenka at the ballot box this autumn is the group's priority. Severinets believes young people can be an untapped force for the democracy movement.

"Our aim is to get 1.5 million young people to the polls, aged 18 to 30, and afterwards to get tens of thousands of young people onto the streets and squares to defend the victory we are going to achieve."

Over the past two months, Young Front has staged more than 40 performances in the capital Minsk and other smaller cities and towns. Conventional demonstrations always attract a small group of stalwarts, but mobilizing young people requires some creativity. According to Severinets, the element of surprise and entertainment works well, especially in a society as regulated as Belarus.

"This show, the element of performance and spectacle, has a huge influence, especially on young people. Because young people today like going to the movies, they like going to discos, to concerts and we offer political shows, political concerts, political performances wrapped in a colorful wrapper -- which attracts the attention of young people."

Young Front activists stage their shows in public areas in a bid to reach people who wouldn't ordinarily take an interest in politics. Severinets explains:

"This is what interests us most of all, because young people who are already interested in politics, who read the papers and come to our performances will go to vote. But those who sit at football stadiums -- we distributed leaflets and floated a red and white balloon at one recently -- or those who are at the market or at other hangout spots for young people -- these are the people we need. Because according to all sociological surveys, they don't go to vote."

So, far, says Severinets, the response has been positive:

"The response is very, very noticeable, both in the influx of new volunteers we get after such performances and in the newspapers, where not only journalists write articles about us, but also readers write in."

Since the authorities almost never grant permits for opposition demonstrations and regularly arrest those participating in unsanctioned rallies, Young Front's unorthodox performances offer another advantage. So far, Severinets says, they have succeeded in confusing the police.

"They don't know how to categorize these actions. During the past three weeks, they detained me four times and not once could they charge me according to a specific article in the civil or criminal code. Only once, for a standard demonstration in Minsk did I receive 10 days' detention. All the other times they let me go three hours after they detained me because they just couldn't figure out what to charge me with."

This weekend, ice hockey's world championship games open in Germany. As noted, the sport is a favorite of Lukashenka's -- so much so that he has ordered the building of ice hockey arenas in many Belarusian towns. Young Front will not let the occasion go unnoticed. Capitalizing on a play on words in Russian and Belarusian -- in which the words 'hockey' and 'okay' sound almost alike, Severinets details what his group has planned:

"Among the upcoming actions we have planned, for example, is the following. On Saturday [28 April], the World Hockey Championship opens and hockey is a very popular topic in Belarus since it's a particular passion of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's. We will stage an event entitled: 'Everything's Going To Be Hockey ('okay'): Is it possible for the Belarus Team to Win Without Lukashenka?' There will be costumed performances and a public opinion survey on this topic."

Belarus' opposition parties hope the definitive public opinion survey will come in a few months at the ballot box -- if Lukashenka permits a fair poll. In the meantime, Belarus' people can look forward to a little levity.

(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarus service contributed to this feature)