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Belarusian authorities show little interest in higher turnout

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Belarus in Focus 2011

14 Nov

Sam Knight, (United Kingdom)


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Inside the Snow Globe

Abstract plastic decorations hung between the branches of the trees—pixels of color in a black-and-white landscape. A few steps on, a yellow metal sign showed the outline of a security camera. It was around noon on Friday, December 17, two days before the end of voting in the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus, a country that is often described as Europe’s last dictatorship. I had heard that Andrei was in trouble, and I had been trying to get in touch with him all week. Andrei Vardomatsky is, without being a saint in any way, Belarus’s last independent pollster. I first met him in 2008 when I was in the country to write about the impact of the financial crisis. A filmmaker had given me Andrei’s number, describing him as an expert in public opinion. After days of reporting in Belarusian opaqueness— tours of state-run tractor factories; encounters with the intricate rituals of Soviet life in a post-Soviet place; unending scholarly conversations with despairing dissidents— I had gone to meet Andrei without much hope.

But he was different. He carried an urgency about him, a certain drama. We met at eleven o’clock at night, and during this first meeting he kept moving around his office, from desk to desk, speaking quietly, making me lean in to hear. He was unshaven, paranoid, self-important, and skeptical about my chances of understanding his country. He called me, inexplicably, a baby camel. But when Andrei began to tell me about Novak, his research company, his mood brightened. At one point he became so full of ideas that he started making notes as he spoke to remember everything he wanted to say.

Since 1992, he explained, Novak had made its money selling information about what Belarusians like to watch on TV, but it also carried out social surveys—asking people about their economic well-being and political views. Over the previous decade and a half, as public life in Belarus had shriveled and stagnated under its autocratic ruler, Alexander Lukashenka,* these polls had become one of the nation’s last sources of independent political data. While other pollsters had been shut down, forced abroad, or brought into the complex embrace of the state, Andrei said, Novak survived, becoming more vulnerable, and more valuable, with each passing year. He now found himself in a Scheherazade situation: the state wanted to shut Novak down, but it consumed the company’s polls despite itself, hooked on their fragments of truth. He would be safe, until he was not. “There is a feeling,” he said, in his nimble but imperfect English, “of permanent dangerous.”

And then he brought out a piece of paper that showed, in a rising then falling line, Lukashenko’s approval rating. In a land where trustworthy information is scarce, Andrei’s graph was like a soloist taking off from an orchestra: something clear at last. Since 2006, Lukashenko’s numbers had been plummeting. With the opposition  weak and unable to benefit, the country was in a state of inertia, Andrei said, neither happy nor volatile. Then he put the sheet of paper away, refusing to let me make a copy, and walked me to the metro. I had not seen him since.

I left the park, crossed the road, and rang the bell. One of Andrei’s assistants let me in. Andrei was standing in an office at the end of the hall wearing jeans and a green collarless shirt. “You have heard about me?” he asked.

The day before, he had been summoned to the Financial Investigation Department of Belarus’s State Control Committee. A four-month inquiry into Novak had reached its conclusion: the company would be fined 90 million Belarusian rubles (about $30,000), due by 4 p.m. the following Tuesday. People can vote in the presidential election over five days, and normally during this final weekend Andrei would be conducting exit and telephone polls, but now all of his attention was on fund-raising. “Two banking days and the days of the election,” said Andrei. It was not nearly enough time.

There were two other people in the room: a man from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group; and Sergei, Andrei’s finance director. They were giving a presentation to international election observers later that day, but Andrei could not settle down. He kept darting in and out of the room or suddenly holding forth from the middle of the carpet, speaking too fast for anyone to understand him.

Finally, he took me into another room to talk. Andrei sat against the wall, behind the door. Every now and again, he yanked it open to call in an employee to provide me with some detail of the story (Andrei translated, a task he enjoyed). He sent for his English– Russian dictionary, and once for just a single word, which came floating in on a Post-it note: DECREE.

What happened was this: on August 31, 2010, Andrei was smoking in the courtyard of his building when a group of cars came through the archway. Financial investigators searched the office and took away files and computers. Since then, Novak had been inundated with government paperwork, and sixty-nine of its employees were interviewed by the Financial Investigation Department. Andrei was ordered to apply for a license from the Belarusian Academy of Sciences to carry out social surveys—a license which he had never needed in the past, and whose granting was delayed, and then ultimately denied. And now there was the matter of the fine. Andrei looked up the word in his dictionary. “Fine,” he said, “like beautiful.”

By this point Sergei, the finance director, was in the room as well. “We was just robbed,” he said. Andrei liked this, and started reading aloud from the dictionary: “robbed; pillaged; plundered; looted.” The official reason for the punishment, Sergei explained, was an alleged error in the way Novak had been filling out its payment forms for the eighty or so interviewers who conduct Andrei’s surveys. The fine was equal to the total amount paid through the faulty forms. “It is like you buying a car for $10,000, and instead of writing Sam Knight on the form, you write Sam King, and they make you pay another $10,000,” said Andrei. “The reason is formal. It is to paralyze our work over this period.”

But why? What had changed? All the reporting leading up to last December’s elections in Belarus suggested that political restrictions in the country were easing. Weakened by the global financial crisis and harassed by Russia, its chief protector and persecutor for the past 300 years, the government was reaching out to the West: there were meetings with officials from Poland and Germany about a loan from the E.U., and a uranium deal with the United States had gone through just weeks before. In return, it seemed, Lukashenko was going to allow the elections to be freer than at any time since his rise to power in 1994. Opposition candidates gave speeches on television for the first time, the regulations for political meetings were relaxed (only forty-eight hours notice was now required), and fewer people were arrested. So why shut down the pollster?

“This is the point of view of normal logic,” Andrei said. “This is not their point of view.” Then he looked at his watch with a start. He was late again. Before I was ushered out, though, Andrei took me aside. “What about me?” he asked quietly. “Do you found me psychologically destroyed?” No, I said. “Good,” he replied. “It can be imaginated. I can imagine that I am.” Then we walked out into the main office, and at the same moment looked through the slats of the cream-colored blinds into the snowy yard. A man in a woolen hat and black leather jacket was standing there, legs planted firmly apart, filming us through the window.

Twenty years after the rest of the machine broke down, the wheels of the USSR still turn in Belarus: in the state-run enterprises that employ 80 percent of the population and produce 8 percent of the world’s tractors; in the microdistricts of apartment block, school, and hospital into which the cities are divided; in a parliament that has no opposition; in a secret police that still calls itself the KGB. All over Minsk, well-staffed collectives do useful rather than profit-making jobs. Take the snow: municipal workers don’t just plow the streets; they drive the stuff out of the city altogether. During election week, when it snowed most days, the wide sidewalks of the capital became open-air factories as hundreds of street- sweeping women, uborshchitsy, made pyramids and linesand also just heaps until clearing machines appeared in the early afternoon— advanced models from the Minsk Tractor Works with lobsterlike claws and a single headlight— to take it all away. The whole system never stopped.

Communism may be the predecessor to whatever Belarus is these days, but much remains from other, earlier traumas. It is still a tsarist bureaucracy of overlapping ministries and unresponsive officials, each with a form for you to fill out. It was Gogolian beforeit was anything else. If you have a car registered to a business in Belarus, you must report its petrol consumption to the government every month. No one knows why. Every organization, whether a business or a charity, must  use its own, unique rubber stamp when corresponding with the government. But first it must apply for a stamp, which it might not get. Power in daily life belongs to functionaries who sit behind glass screens and are never quite sure whether they have it or not. 

And over them all sits Lukashenko. Two years after he was first elected, he won a referendum that gave him the power to appoint and remove judges on the country’s highest court and expanded his ability to govern by decree. Since then he has ruled as a monarch. The trappings are modern, but the stratagems reach back through the ages. On television, Lukashenko, who has a mustache and comb-over of complementary grays, berates his ministers before addressing the people in a gentle voice. He likes to be called Batka (“Daddy”). He has built ice rinks—how he loves to skate— in every town. His youngest, bastard son, six-year-old Kolya, travels with him everywhere, and is known to carry a golden pistol. Lukashenko’s rule is built on the myth of his personalattention (all public officials from Lukashenko down keep office hours to meet concerned citizens) and an unmistakable competence. Even Lukashenko’s enemies, “the demagogues,” “the professionals,” “the scientists,” and “the pavement tramplers” agree that he is a canny politician. He is an animal, they say, who can sense and react to danger before it comes. He is a gypsy, or a Jew, or both. Of course Lukashenko does not speak in such fairy-tale terms. “A. G. Lukashenko,” his official English-language biography says, “is a strong-willed, inquisitive person, very sensitive to shortcomings of the surrounding life.”

Every few years, he wins an election. The last time, in 2006, he defeated the opposition’s unity candidate, a physics professor named Alexander Milinkevich, with 83 percent of the vote. A vigil in Minsk’s October Square to protest the result, the “Jeans Revolution,” was broken up after four days. And although the past few years have not been easy  for Belarus and  Lukashenko— the country needed an emergency I.M.F. loan in 2009, and he has continued to have a difficult time with the Kremlin— no one expected anything much different this time around.

For opposition candidates caught up in Belarus’s misshapen politics, the final few days of election week are mostly spent preparing to protest the result after it is announced. This year the big day was to be a Sunday— two days before Andrei’s fine was due. Minsk’s small and claustrophobic community of dissidents and writers placed friendly bets on Lukashenko’s margin of victory and swapped rumors about the deployment of armored personnel carriers and the likely scale of the demonstrations.

One afternoon, I met Victor Martinovich, the deputy editor of BelGazeta, the country’s largest independent newspaper, in a caf?. Victor has spent the past fifteen years writing about Belarusian politics. In 2006, he went to the protests but retreated to his apartment each night. “I was, I think, too cowardish, or probably too attached to the comfort of my "at to spend a night in the tent,” he said.

Three years later, though, Victor fell in love, and then wrote a novel called Paranoia, about a writer who falls for the mistress of a dictator. It was banned in Belarus within two days of its publication. He was determined not to miss any protests this time around. “I want to be a part of whatever happens,” he said. “And if another fail happens—and it will happen, another fail, a dramatic fail—I just want to share that blame, and share the consequences.”

Victor spoke with equal conviction about the necessity of some kind of uprising on Sunday and the fact that it would not happen. “In our tradition of political culture,” he explained, “it is going to be totally passive. People are going to be gathered together on the square and these guys will say: ‘We are here; there are lots of us and we are against Lukashenko; we are starting the whole-country strike.’ And then the day after that everybody is going to be in their places.”

Three opposition candidates had risen above the rest: Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister; Yaroslau Romanchuk, a young economist; and Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet and publisher. Of these, Neklyayev—a tall former boxer with a low, distinctive voice and a passing resemblance to Vladimir Putin—had been attracting the most attention, not least because he seemed to be getting money from somewhere. (Rumors mentioned the Kremlin, the German secret service, the CIA, and the exiled Russian media baron Boris Berezovsky.)

I dropped by Neklyayev’s campaign headquarters a few days before the polls closed. At a line of desks under a spiral staircase, young women in winter jackets and fake-leather skirts were updating the campaign website. Life-size cardboard cutouts of Neklyayev contemplated the room. I found a seat and tried to stay out of the volunteers’ way until Andrei Dmitriev, the campaign manager, appeared and took me into his office.

A snappy young man in jeans, his hair in the barest mullet, Dmitriev spends his time "flitting from election to election in Eastern Europe— including stints for both pro-Western and pro-Russian candidates in Ukraine. He exuded the kind of shapeless political hunger that makes Belarusian dissidents exciting but hard to figure out. Like Victor, he talked about the difficulty of rousing the population to protest. In the late 1990s, when Lukashenko was, in most outward respects, crazier— shooting down American hot-air balloons and claiming credit for drought-ending rains—you could take it for granted that the young and the urban despised him. But sixteen years of state-delivered prosperity, albeit subsidized by cheap Russian oil and gas, have implicated many Belarusians in the Lukashenkon edifice.

“They believe in their hearts that stability is like a religion,” Dmitriev admitted, “and politics should be somewhere very far from them. I think this has been the main achievement of the government.”  That was why the demonstrations on Sunday, after nine months of campaigning, could be so important. “Revolution, whatever,” said Dmitriev, “will never include majority. The only thing that is important to say to them is that this is a force big enough, and strong enough, and actually enough, to do some changes.” Lukashenko had not made it easy. There was the date: the last Sunday before Christmas, chosen, according to the opposition, to forestall any long-term sit-in over the holidays. There was the cold: negative fifteen degrees Celsius. And there was the ice: the city authorities had erected a huge skating rink—an oblique symbol of the man himself—in October Square, where the protesters had planned to gather. “No one can put his hand on his hat and say I know there will be five thousand people on square,” said Dmitriev. “People are very, very strong and brave in their kitchens.”

We came out of his office to find  Neklyayev sitting alone, talking quietly to himself. The candidate was preparing for a speech that he was due to give in fifteen minutes’ time. One of the final rallies of the campaign, aimed at creating some momentum for Sunday night, was taking place a few streets away, next to the city hall. I walked over in the fine snow and came across a clutch of animated demonstrators,a few dozen maybe, shouting slogans, bobbing to hip-hop, and being filmed by the security forces.

Around the edges, though, with a clear span of concrete to separate them, hundreds of people watched. They talked to one another, took pamphlets, and put them in their bags. In the center, chants went up, and then died down. The only time the entire crowd stirred and seemedto combine in its purpose was when a fast, frozen wind came through, startling everyone to silence. All the "flags "flew straight. But then the breeze dropped and the chatter resumed.

People love to explain Belarus, and they almost always say the same thing: Stalin killed the intellectuals, and then the Nazis killed everyone else. “The main result of the second war is not just millions of dead people,” Andrei told me once. “The main conclusion is national character: people are arranged just to survive. Not to develop. But to survive.” Two and a half million Belarusians, a quarter of the population, were killed between 1939 and 1945, including nearly all of the country’s 1.1 million Jews. Belarusian couples still put their wedding bouquets on the nearest war memorial, to thank the dead for love. The population did not return to its prewar level until 1971. 

One dazzling, snowblind morning in the middle of election week, I left Minsk for Rubezhevichy, a village one hour’s drive away, where I met with Tadeush and Romualda Sobolewsky, teachers in the local school, organizers of the brass band, and all-round doers and joiners. Before the war, Rubezhevichy was a predominantly Jewish shtetl with a population of 3,000. Now the village has a single shop that sells bread, refrigerators, axes, and funeral wreaths. Three hundred and sixty people live there. One is Jewish. On the main street, the houses are brightly painted and connected, at headheight, by a yellow tube supplying them with gas. After an awkward talk with some tenth-grade students at the local school (several were preparingfor their tractor exams), we went back to Tadeush and Romualda’s house for a meal of potatoes, salted pork fat, and pickled everything. Talk turned to the elections, and Romualda, a blonde, forthright grandmother, made it clear that she was not interested. Back in Soviet times, she and Tadeush helped out on the local electoral commission. They kept the money allocated to build voting booths and spent it on town parties instead.

The trouble started  with perestroika. That’s when multiple names started to appear on the ballot papers. “I very clearly understood that none of them would make my life happier,” said Romualda. “Politics is not a good thing. . . . Everyone is ‘Me, me, me,’ pushing himself forward. I don’t like this.” I asked Romualda whether she thought it mattered who was president of Belarus, or whether anything would change if Lukashenko was replaced that weekend. “I can’t tell you, because I can’t tell you who all those people are,” she said. “I have never heard of them.” 

Including the husbands and wives of their children, there were nine people of voting age in Tadeush and Romualda’s family, but they never spoke about whom to vote for. “I am afraid of starting discord in the family"  said Tadeush, laughing. “I don’t want it!” Instead, they discussed the possibility of an election-day buffet at the village polling station: Romualda said there might be beer on tap.

For many Belarusians, voting is the same as it was in Soviet times: an act of compliance rather than self-expression. People cast their ballot between other errands. After I left Rubezhevichy, I spent a few hours in a polling station in a school in southwest Minsk. Every couple of minutes a tractor went past the window on some snow-related task, and a voter trooped in. A table of four local election volunteers tended to the voters’ needs, handing out blank CDs as a gift for !rsttimers and making great shows of embarrassment and concern in front of me and a Belarusian election observer when dealing with voter complaints. One woman said that she had found her voting information thrown on the floor inside her apartment instead of in her mailbox. On the floor! The commissioners could not do enough, glancing over at us, to apologize. For minutes, with hand gestures, standing up and sitting down, they theorized about how such a thing could have come to pass, the physics of it, such a tumble!

When the station closed for lunch, the observer, Z’micier Karenka, told me that he no longer recorded such complaints. After five years of watching elections in Belarus, what he wanted was to figure out how the vote-counting system functioned as a whole: how when it was over, it would deliver Lukashenko 80 percent of the vote. “It functions perfectly,” he said. “You know, Nobel Prize needs to be nominated for this.” Z’micier said that all the volunteers in the polling station we had just visited worked at the same engineering plant, making them answerable to the same bosses. This year they had put three separate polling stations in the school instead of one, making it harder for Z’micier to keep track of what was going on. He could never figure out where and when they rigged the results: whether it was during the final count, conducted in silence, several tables away from the observers; or in the car on the way to the district election commission; or whether it was done when the police came to secure the polling stations each night. “It is like shuffling dice,” Z’micier said, miming the lifting of pots and the discovery of nothing underneath.

Andrei’s fascination with social science began soon after he joined Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization, at age fourteen. He went to meetings in his high school in Minsk and could not reconcile the listlessness of the crowd he had seen with the official accounts that appeared afterwards. “Events were on the paper but not in the mind,” he said. “A report says "five hundred people were in the meeting and they warmly applaud and they are in favor and so on. . . . It was just lying.” When he finished high school, Andrei surprised his teachers by dropping  mathematics and studying philosophy. “The real reason, I am sorry, was to "find a sense of life.”

In the mid- Eighties, Andrei was invited to Moscow to study under Vladimir Iadov, the leading light of Soviet sociology, who introduced him to the ideas of Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist from Michigan who in the late Seventies had posited that a global shift in values was taking place as a new generation grew up, for the "first time in history, without fearing for its basic needs. Traditional power structures were going to crumble. Self- expression was on the rise.

Andrei returned to Minsk just as  Belarus began three years of ramshackle nationalist government in the early 1990s. He set up Novak to sell information about the Belarusian media market to advertisers (each month the company transforms its survey data into a dense spray of graphs illustrating who is tuning in to what and when) and to put to use his own “axio-biographical method” of social research. He published surveys about happiness, and analyzed the Belarusian soft-drinks market for Coca-Cola. When he did some work for Stanislav Shushkevich, the first president of independent Belarus, in the early Nineties, he would give speeches about Belarus to foreign visitors: “I was like a Barbara,” he said. “This small white tube for children . . . a marionette. Barbara. Barbie!”

Andrei compares the thrill of conducting polls to skiing, which he took up at the age of forty-five. “It is an athletic phenomenon and a philosophical phenomenon,” he said, “when you are on top of the mountain you can see more, you can understand more.” His first political surveys appeared in the run-up to the 1994 Belarusian presidential election. They predicted the margin of Lukashenko’s first victory to within 1.4 percent. In 2004, Belarusian voters approved a referendum abolishing term limits, allowing Lukashenko to seek a third term in 2006. Novak determined that the vote on the referendum had been much closer than the official verdict, and within a few months Andrei experienced the first  intimations of the regime’s displeasure: a state-run television channel chose not to renew a contract with Novak. During the 2006 elections, Andrei’s staff were threatened with arrest when they attempted to conduct an exit poll. A KGB officer came and sat in the office. After that, Novak was still allowed to conduct political surveys, but only some of them were allowed to be published. When I asked Andrei whether the state spied on his operation, he replied, “All the time.”

We were in a caf? in the supermarket while Andrei’s wife was shopping, and he was trying to explain why the government had decided to shut him down completely. It was Sunday morning. The polls would close that night and the result would be declared. Andrei had spent the past 48 hours raising funds to pay off Novak’s fine, borrowing from friends and clients. He was wearing the same clothes as on Friday, but he was confident he would find the money. “The process is going quite well,” he said.

Then he stiffened abruptly and stopped speaking. A young man in loose jeans, a heavy white sweater, and a leather jacket had come into the caf? and stood, drinking a coffee, next to our table. “I do not like this guy,” Andrei whispered. Finally, the man left and Andrei relaxed. “Maybe sometimes I have the paranoia,” he admitted. “All these cars, mirrors, and windows.”

The reason the government finally came after him, he said, was Lukashenko’s numbers. Last spring, Novak gave the president an approval rating of just 30 percent and, for the !rst time   ever, when his election campaign got under way, it didn’t improve. Given the divided opposition, Lukashenko would probably win any election in the end— even a fair one—but he did not have a credible claim to the 50 percent of votes necessary to win it in a single round. Allowing Andrei to keep polling was too risky. Andrei’s fear, even as he closed in on the $30,000, was that Lukashenko might never allow him to operate again. “After his victory, it will be a kind of triumph and they can destroy everything,” said Andrei. “They can imaginate that everything is allowed to them.”

I left Andrei with his wife and went out into the parking lot, against a swell of shoppers heading in. There was hardly a sign that the elections were still taking place. Traffic was heavy in the snow. Cars slid across intersections like children in socks. In October Square there were only skaters, circling the government Christmas tree, holding one another and falling over to the sound of piped-in music. Along the avenue, in the state-run department store, shoppers forced their way past the million- ruble fur hats, bushels of clip-on ties, and astonishing, lurid tapestries. On the metro, girls with perfectly level bangs stood in front of adverts for digging machines, potatoes, and nightclubs. A diagram showed passengers how to rescue someone who had fallen through the ice.

When I got back to my apartment in the late afternoon, the moon was up in a perfect sky of dark blue. As usual, there were two uborshchitsy in the courtyard, leaning on their brooms in the snow. It took me a moment to notice that the rest of the space was full, geometrically so, with the black trucks of the OMON—the riot police. In the back of one I saw benches of men, bulky in their black gear, resting up for the night to come.

Just before eight o’clock, state television prepared to announce the official exit poll. Andrei, for once, had been unable to produce an alternative number. The screen showed Lukashenko casting his vote earlier that day. The president steered his tiny son  Kolya in and out of the voting booth by the shoulders. They wore matching navy-blue suits. Any allegations of fraud demonstrated his rivals’ lack of self-confidence, Lukashenko told a group of reporters, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. He looked like a butcher with a queue of people to serve. The footage cut away and the official prediction was announced: Lukashenko would win 76 percent of the vote; Neklyayev, in second place, was on course for 3 percent.

I headed down to October Square and ran into Victor from BelGazeta. He was on the phone, looking slender in his overcoat and wearing a woolen hat with ear"aps and tassels. He was pale and unsettled and had news: Neklyayev and his team had been attacked on their way to the square. Men in plain clothes had thrown a stun grenade and then rushed in and started beating the candidate. He had been knocked unconscious and was now on his way to the hospital. (Later that night Neklyayev was taken from his bed by more men in plain clothes). Victor worried about the future of the opposition. “Neklyayev was the calm one,” he said.“This was my worst prognosis.”

The skaters were gone, and the ice was given over to a crowd, not enormous, of curious protesters. There were families and groups of friends, festive and wrapped up. It might have been New Year’s Eve. No one else knew about Neklyayev. We slid our way to the front, where the banners of the opposition campaigns and their candidates were gathered in a halo of video lights and camera "ashes. But there was no way of hearing what was going on— Neklyayev’s team had been in charge of bringing loudspeakers. The other candidates had megaphones, but their voices were drowned out by two strains of music uncomfortably overlaid: the pop still playing on the ice-rink P.A., and now a series of loud Russian hurdy-gurdy jigs coming from speakers in the trees surrounding Lukashenko’s residence.

But soon there was a perceptible shift in the crowd: the flags and camera flashes were moving onto Minsk’s main avenue, and then east toward the even larger Independence Square. We turned and followed and suddenly there were thousands. The city had come out.

There were chants—“Long live Belarus,” “Please go away,” and “The people, united, will never be defeated”—but every minute or so these phrases would be lost in a much more basic roar that rolled up and down the avenue. And every time that happened, Belarusians looked at each other and swore in disbelief and demanded to be lifted onto one another’s shoulders to look ahead and behind and to see the scale of their transgression. Hope picked the bystanders from the side of the road and pulled them into the crowd. A man on crutches raced past us. In the hotels and restaurant kitchens along the way, staff pressed their faces against the glass.

At first, this energy seemed to dissipate in Independence Square. We wandered in the much larger, darker space, and Victor bumped into some colleagues from the university where he teaches. We stood in a semicircle and everyone started talking politely, as if at a faculty function: it was agreed that there was a bookshop I should not miss while in town. A white van with a camera sticking out of its roof rolled past, filming us. But then the bells of St. Simeon and St. Helena, the red-brick church that overlooks the square, began to ring, and someone had finally got hold of loudspeakers, which were hauled onto the base of a statue of Lenin, who was out there in his suit, with his snow-lined angry brow, always striding, ready for just this kind of thing, and the head of the crowd rushed past him to the doors of Government House. On our way, we saw the white van again, but this time it was going in reverse. Someone had covered its camera in a red and white flag—Belarus’s medieval colors, the colors of the opposition.

We floated to the front, into the lee of Government House, a plain white fourteen-story block designed by the Stalin-era architect Iosif Langbard. At the bank of glass doors at the entrance, the head of the crowd, with its camera flashes and pennants, was writhing and swirling about. Above us, hundreds of windows were brightly lit but empty, save for one, in which the blinds parted and a single figure peered out. Then the first door was smashed in. Next to me, Victor said “fuck” in a low, involuntary way. Everyone paused, astonished at themselves, and then there was that roar again. Another door was smashed, then another, but there was no way past the steel shutters behind. The sound of glass breaking was replaced by boots kicking on metal.

The OMON arrived soon after that. They jogged in from the sides, close to the side of the building, clubs raised, and swept the steps in a few seconds, breaking hands and cameras. But no one fled. The crowd nudged forward again. At the doors, men with shields were talking to two of the presidential candidates in the light of a video camera, and everyone thought, in the most exciting moment of the night, that the police might stop. For several minutes there was a giddy stillness. In ones and twos, people walked up to the police who had just beaten them and looked through their fogged-up plastic visors at the young faces behind. The policemen stood awkwardly and tried not to smile.

Then the lights went out. A wave of figures in black charged in from the left and cut off the lead protesters. Heavy trucks rolled up to the doors and the flags gathered there became worried and jerky and moved too fast. Lenin’s amplified voice was replaced by the beating of baton on shield. Hundreds of black helmets filled the sides of the square and started to move in and everyone was furious that they had been so stupid to be brave. “This was our brightest loss,” said Victor as we tried to push our way out of the square, “it was a fantastic loss.” The only person not trying to escape was a young, broad-shouldered man coming in the opposite direction. “Don’t go! Stop! Turn around!” He shouted at us. “If we go tonight then we will wake up tomorrow and Lukashenko will still be here!” He waded off toward the police. People paused, but they did not go with him.

Over the next forty-eight hours, 639 people were arrested in Minsk. Five presidential candidates, eighteen of their aides, and a collection of journalists and activists were later charged under article 293 of Belarus’s criminal code for organizing the demonstration— an offense punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. Months later, some have been tried and sentenced; the rest are still waiting, Neklyayev included.

The protests of December 19, called simply “the conspiracy” by the government, have precipitated a new and angry phase in the reign of Lukashenko. Belarusians have begun to compare it to earlier times, earlier terrors. The economy is creaking under the weight of wage increases that Lukashenko promised during the election, and the Belarusian ruble has lost more than half its value this year. On April 11 a bomb exploded in Minsk’s busiest subway station during the evening rush hour, killing fourteen people. Lukashenko linked the crime to the turmoil of the election. “We have had so much so-called democracy,” he said, “that it has made us nauseated.”

Even that night, as we made our escape through the emptying streets, there was a sense that something irrevocable had occurred. Victor and I found a caf? that was open, full of protesters trying to look like they had come from somewhere else, and he sat and took endless calls from friends who had been in the square, and repeatedly tried the numbers of those who were not answering. Around two in the morning, when I was finally home, Andrei contacted me on Skype. He had been just a few hundred yards away in the crowd. “Now I’m—how to say—in depression,” he wrote. “No perspectives in life.”

On Monday it snowed like hell. By mid-morning, the only traces of what had happened in Independence Square the night before were the broken doors of Government House, a few beer bottles, and some abandoned flag-poles. At around three in the afternoon, Andrei went to the Financial Investigations Department and paid his fine. He spent the rest of the day skiing.

We met one last time that night. Andrei was still in his ski clothes. We drove to his apartment and I helped him carry his boots inside. On the fifteenth floor, Andrei’s ninety-two-year- old father opened the door for us. Once a colonel in the Soviet air force, he was watching an English soccer match through spectacles with great magnified centers. Andrei’s wife, Katya, was preparing supper, and their daughter, a loud, shaggy-haired little girl called Juliana, stomped about asking her parents to buy her a brother for Christmas.

Andrei poured some wine. We sat in the corner of his living room while his   father watched the match. After our conversation in the supermarket caf?, and what he had seen at the protests, he had been thinking about his life as a pollster in Belarus. “How to explain this feeling?” he said. “It is like something which you have inside of the body and which builds you and gives you the feeling of absolute independence. . . . It is like, psychologically, an absolutely concrete baton. It is like a feeling of internal stamina. It is like the feeling of something very hard inside.” And then it was difficult for Andrei to stop himself from imagining a future without his work. “If you lose this, you will be something,” he said, looking for the expression. “You will be a regular guy.”

Two days later he would leave Belarus. The investigation into Novak had become a criminal case. Then, on January 14, his fifty-fifth birthday, Andrei was named by the state-run media as an organizer of the December 19 protests because of some early consulting he had done for the Neklyayev campaign. His family left Minsk shortly thereafter and they have not been home since.

During supper that night, Andrei’s father put on his old army jacket and we talked about his medals. Juliana climbed on a chair and put her hands over the old man’s eyes. Then, when it was quite late, Andrei went out to smoke on the balcony, which had a wood-and-glass frame for winter and whistled nervously with the wind and snow coming through it.

Andrei looked out over the city and pointed to the TV tower. He told me about a weekly show about sociology he used to present in the Nineties. “It is a good country,” he said. “One hundred percent ready to be a European country.” He shook his head and smoked. When he was finished, Andrei pointed to a taxi down on the street—he did not want to use his phone to call one for me—and we went down in the lift. We said goodbye in the doorway, and shook hands. Quite abruptly, Andrei pulled me back inside. It is terrible luck in Belarus to shake hands over a threshold. But we had done it. It was done. And when I think of Andrei, and I think of Belarus, I think of that moment, and his attempt, born of instinct rather than sense, to right something that was already wrong.



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