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Opposition Camps Out to Protest Belarus Election

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tents have gone up around the main square in the capital of Belarus, and several hundred young demonstrators are setting up camp for an around-the-clock vigil. They are protesting Sunday's presidential elections and trying to emulate Ukraine's Orange Revolution. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Minsk.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

It began late Monday night after a demonstration of around 5,000 people started to disperse. A group of young Bela Russians began setting up around 15 tents for an all-night sit-in in the freezing cold. At the same time, police were arresting opposition organizers, including top leader Anatolia Labetko(ph) elsewhere in the city.

The demonstrators on Oktyabrskaya Square acted spontaneously. Twenty-seven-year-old Demitri Flaminko(ph) said he was afraid police would break up the demonstration, but not as much as he feared another Lukashenka presidency. He said he'd stay through the night.

Mr. FLAMINKO (Protestor): (Through translator) Our friends will come in the morning. Others will arrive tomorrow evening. We'll stand here through shifts. My wife's coming with hot tea.

FEIFER: The demonstrators say strong man president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka's reelection on Sunday in rigged voting cannot stand. Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 12 years. During the campaign, he shut down all independent media and arrested hundreds of opposition organizers.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe yesterday called the election a farce. Alexander Milikevich was the opposition's main candidate in the elections, and the protestors' leading symbol. Addressing the crowd, the bearded former physics professor repeated his call for new election.

ALEXANDER MILIKEVICH (Main Opposition's Candidate): (Speaking in Foreign Language)

We're going to fight for freedom. We're going to make our stand here, he said. Then he led chants of long-lived Belarus.

(Soundbite of protest)

FEIFER: Milikevich said the authorities are remaining in power illegally.

(Soundbite of protest)

Mr. MILIKEVICH: (Speaking in Foreign Language)

FEIFER: (Speaking for Mr. Milikevich) The law is on our side, he said. Truth is on our side, justice is on our side, faith is on our side. We will persevere.

(Soundbite of protest)

The mood was jovial, but tense in the raw, freezing weather. Buses holding riot police blocked some surrounding streets. A group of Special Forces troops even booked a nearby restaurant for the night. Plain-clothes security servicemen in black winter hats manned street corners, filming events on video cameras. Most expected authorities to break up the vigil by force during the early hours, but the protestors made it through the night. This morning, 19-year-old, Yamna Sanco(ph) said more people wanted to come, but were afraid. She said the protestors are ready to stay in the square until they're taken away or they succeed.

Ms. YAMNA SANCO (Protestor): (Through Translator) We think if we show enough courage and there's an alternative, others will join us.

FEIFER: Sixty-seven-year-old Yadviga Alesemere(ph) was distributing hot boiled potatoes and other food she says she grew in her own garden. She says after living under the Soviet regime, she wants Belarus to finally be free of dictatorship.

Ms. YADVIGA ALESEMERE (Resident): (Through Translator) We're coming out here to help because we want to fight against the lies that run so deep here.

FEIFER: Police are detaining individuals in small groups, trying to bring blankets, warm clothes and food to the protestors. One young woman was beaten, but released. Ala Danyenko(ph) managed to arrive with blankets. She says she had to carefully wend her way through back streets.

Ms. ALA DANYENKO: (Resident): (Through Translator) I told the police I feel sorry for the people out here. Please let me through. They said, what do you want? For us to take you away?

FEIFER: Only a few dare predict anything will come of the small demonstration. With the press completely controlled by the state, the protestors are relying on foreign media here for the elections to publicize their efforts. Most say it's difficult to imagine many more demonstrators will show up to support what they say is their last-ditch efforts to end dictatorship in Belarus, but another large rally is planned for this evening, and the few braving the wet snow in their tiny tent city say they believe thousands will come out again.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Minsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.