Giorgi Viazovski's 10 days in a Belarus jail confirmed something he already knew: "The freedom of religion we were promised in the 1990s is closed." Police in the capital city of Minsk arrested the Reformed Baptist pastor for holding church services in his private home without registering with the state under a 2002 law that drastically limits evangelism and distribution of Christian literature and makes some church activities subject to state approval.
A Minsk judge sentenced Mr. Viazovski to 10 days in a cold, crowded cell with no contact with the outside world. Two weeks after his release, the 48-year-old pastor told WORLD that he won't register his church under a law that is "anti-evangelical. . . . It's a matter of conscience."
Matters of conscience have landed hundreds more Belarusians in jail over the last two weeks in a dramatic moment in the history of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic of 10 million. When President Alexander Lukashenko claimed 82 percent of the vote in March 19 elections, opposition supporters cried foul and staged the first sustained public dissent in the 12-year rule of the president, often called Europe's last dictator. (The United States and the European Union also called the elections fraudulent and threatened sanctions when Belarusian authorities clamped down on dissent.)
Hundreds of protesters calling for new presidential elections camped in Minsk's October Square for six wintry days in a country where freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are scant.
Mr. Lukashenko's government initially dismissed the peaceful protests, calling them "pathetic," but by Day 6 riot police began loading protesters into buses and hauling them to jail, saying the rally was illegal. Opposition leaders say as many as 1,200 activists have been jailed for participating in the protests or supporting the opposition since elections were held, and most have received sentences of three to 15 days. Some detainees have been beaten and forced to stand in subfreezing temperatures for hours, according to the opposition.
Polina Denisova, an 18-year-old student detained and released from a Minsk tent camp, told a district court that prisoners were also subjected to psychological abuse: "We were told we would be taken into the forest and shot, and that girls would be raped beforehand."
Meanwhile, pro-Lukashenko activists staged rallies outside the American and Polish embassies with no government interference. "Stooges should be made into soap! Lukashenko is the power!" they chanted.
The government's heavy hand seemed to embolden the opposition. Its supporters rallied outside a Minsk jail on March 28 where protesters were detained. Denis Yevtukhovich, a 22-year-old student activist, denounced the state-controlled media's coverage of the elections and protests, saying, "Lies pour in rivers from the screens of all Belarusian television channels." President Lukashenko attempted to ignore the growing unrest, and announced: "All political battles after the March 19 presidential poll are over . . . casual outbreaks of unrest were promptly and effectively eliminated by law enforcers."
But Alexander Milinkevich, an opposition candidate who officially garnered 6 percent of the vote, said the opposition has made "cracks in the fortress" of the hard-line government, and that another large rally would take place on April 26 where protesters will demand new presidential elections.
The Belarusian protesters may be looking to Ukraine, their democratic neighbor to the south, for inspiration. Less than a year and a half ago, tens of thousands of activists in Kiev successfully protested a fraudulent presidential election, ushering in the Orange Revolution that brought a new political era to Ukraine. Late last month, Ukraine held its first parliamentary elections since revolution hero Viktor Yushchenko survived a poisoning attempt to become president.
The results of the parliamentary elections were surprising: No single party won a majority of seats, and President Yushchenko's party placed third. The largest bloc of seats went to the party led by Viktor Yanukovych, the old-guard leader who had been forced to step down in the fraudulent presidential election in 2004. Second place went to the party led by Yulia Tymoshenko, the popular revolution leader who briefly served as prime minister before the president fired her after accusing her of waging a battle for power.
Ukrainian pundits say President Yushchenko's party lost votes due to a faltering economy and the party infighting during his first year in office. The president now faces a thorny political decision: whether to form an alliance with his former prime minister or his former foe to gain control of parliament.
But despite the poor showing and messy results, Mr. Yushchenko said he was pleased about a campaign season that allowed candidates to travel, speak, and advertise without constraints for the first time. The elections were fair, he said, and the revolution's promise had been realized: Ukraine has a democracy. Sporting an orange tie at a polling station in Kiev, the president told supporters: "Democratic elections always mean victory."
Back in Belarus, Pastor Viazovski, who says he doesn't consider himself a very political person, is skeptical that change will come that quickly to Belarus, but adds, "Who could have believed that the Soviet Union would fall in such a short time? . . . The heart of kings is in the hand of God."