Belarusians Wear Jeans in Silent Protest

ByABC News
January 13, 2006, 12:07 PM

Jan. 13, 2006 — -- Grass-roots organizations in the former Soviet republic of Belarus want their countrymen to wear denim as a silent protest to fight for democracy on Jan. 16.

This is the fourth consecutive month that various human rights groups have staged an event on the same date to rally people and demand change in the autocratic state where KGB-like surveillance rules and the media have no rights.

Although other Russian enclaves have been able to ride the wave of democracy with their own "colored revolution," experts say Belarus' "denim revolution" is different in nature and has many more obstacles to overcome.

"These are voices of opposition in a place where such a thing has been extinguished," said Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In a very authoritarian regime, any kind of protest is a success."

She commends these grass-roots organizations for taking a stand and showing that they exist, explaining that protesting is considered a criminal activity and any writing that is critical of the regime can land a person in jail for three years.

"Come out in the streets of your cities and towns in jeans! Let's show that we are many," reads the statement released by the youth group Zubr. Zubr means bison, Belarus' state animal.

Zubr's denim choice came as a fluke. The statement said that during one of the group's rallies, police seized all of the flags. One of the group leaders fought back by making his own flag. He tied his jean shirt to a stick, and the "denim" symbol was born.

It's also a loaded symbol.

"Jeans evoke the West," said Celeste Wallander, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at CSIS. "Denim is an assertive statement to show that they [Belarusians] are not isolated."

Along with wearing denim, Zubr and human rights group Charter 97 are calling for Belarusians to light a candle for 15 minutes at 8 p.m. on the 16th of every month. Wallander sees these silent protests as a first step to challenge the repressive regime.

But democracy in Belarus still remains far off in the distance, experts say.

"People should not think change in Belarus will be like the one in Ukraine," said Wallander, referring to the "Orange Revolution," which led to the overthrow of a Russian-backed dictatorship after fraudulent elections.

It won't be like the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia or the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia either.

"Certainly there's a kind of contagion, but there's nothing predestined about it," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Other popular resistance movements appeared elsewhere like in Azerbaijan and never went anywhere, he said.

Analysts point to the government's stronghold on the country.

Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1995, and over the years he has steadily consolidated his power, restricting freedom of speech, the press and political opposition. Last year, Lukashenko staged a referendum to eliminate presidential term limits, which passed by a 77-percent margin despite reports of massive fraud by international observers.

In addition, although the country, sandwiched between Russia and Poland, has been independent since 1991, it has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any other former Soviet republic.

"Russia keeps Belarus within the family," Kupchan said. "This is a country that continues to look to Moscow for guidance and remains under the shadow of Russian power."

Kupchan also said that in Ukraine certain sections of the government sided with the opposition, and that journalists jumped on the bandwagon, which hasn't happened in Belarus.

Not knowing how widespread the support for the popular movement is worries Mendelson the most. In her view, it makes it difficult to gauge Belarus' opposition to the regime.

"There are many more obstacles to overcome because the security services are quite opaque, and we don't know [at] what degree the government stands behind the president," she said.

And as the presidential elections loom two months away, Mendelson fears a brutal crackdown.

"The real problem is that this could get very violent," she said, adding that Europe and the United States had not been as supportive as they had been with other transitional regimes.

She said that collaborating on a clear, pointed message could have an effect and possibly lead to free and fair elections, but she warned that until March, many things could happen.