MINSK — Over and over again, Belarus state television broadcasts video of demonstrators smashing glass as they tried to break into the Central Election Commission Sunday night here.
I was there. Those narrowly cropped shots miss the big picture.
Alexander Lukashenko has run Belarus since 1994. Depending on your point of view, he is Europe’s longest serving president — or Europe’s last dictator. A key to Lukashenko’s holding on to power for 16 years has been his control over the election machinery. Facing the voters to win a fourth term, he made sure that over 99 percent of voting station employees and monitors were his people — appointed by the government.
Opposition candidates, convinced that vote fraud was underway, played their last card to keep Lukashenko from going for 21 years in office. They called an illegal protest. In Belarus, a former Soviet republic, virtually all protests are illegal.
Lukashenko responded by predicting on national television that no one would show up. Coming from the burly former collective farm manager, it sounded more like a warning.
Cabs are hard to find in Minsk, a city where most of the economy remains in government hands. So Sunday night, I walked from my hotel to the demonstration site two kilometers away. The outdoor skating rinks were crowded. Families strolled on snowy sidewalks to restaurants. I began to suspect that maybe Lukashenko’s prediction might be right – that the planned demonstration would only bring out 100 hard core activists at best.
Then, walking over a viaduct, about a half kilometer from October square, I started to see it: lines of people walking with quick steps toward the demonstration site.
Within an hour, the Associated Press was estimating the turnout at 40,000.
As a veteran of many protests, I noticed that the crowd was heavily male. This often indicates that the populace senses a physical risk.
To limit the protest, the city had flooded most of the square to create an outdoor skating rink. Old Soviet folk tunes played loudly from speakers mounted on lampposts. The crowd was wedged on one end of the square. Then it filled a nearby park, allowing traffic to flow up and down Independence Avenue.
At best, 10 percent of the protesters could hear their leaders shouting into little portable bull horns. But no one cut the wires to the street lamp speakers.
Belarusian and European Union flags waved in the night. People chanted “Freedom,” and “Long Live Belarus.” Referring to their 56-year-old president with thinning hair, people chanted “Time to changing the bald tire!”
After an hour, opposition leaders moved toward the avenue.
The crowd hesitated, confused. Who was going to take the first step? Who was going to move off the sidewalk into the street and violate traffic laws?
Temperatures were subfreezing, but there was a real sense of euphoria when the first protesters broke the ice. Within minutes, a human river of 40,000 or so people was flowing through the heart of Minsk, their chants echoing off the flat facades of the post-war Soviet buildings.
Not a window was broken. Not a smear of graffiti was sprayed. A few motorists cautiously beeped horns in solidarity. Cell phones glowed in the dark as protesters took videos and snapped photos of what people told me was a historic moment.
Some people noticed their cell phones were not working. Mysteriously, they could not send SMS messages, or photos to friends.
Also mysteriously, traffic police had melted away into side streets.
For anyone who wandered off the main streets, a big surprise waited in the shadows: lines of large green metal boxes on wheels. Manned by riot police, these paddy wagons were soon to fill with protesters.
The end point of the march was a massive Soviet-era government administration building. I had interviewed Belarus’ first post-Soviet leader, Stanislaw Shushkevich, there in the fall of 1991. The soaring black statue of Lenin still stood out front — oddly unchanged, but cleaner than two decades earlier.
For an hour, people milled, chanted slogans, tried to listen to their leaders, and took souvenir photos of their presence at this moment in national history.
Three hours after the demonstration started, the crowd was thinning, and I slipped away. Despite the chill, I walked away feeling cheered about the future of Belarus.
Until I saw the lines of prisoner transportation trucks.
As to what happened next, were the men who attacked the building government provocateurs? Impressionable young men who had watched too much TV last month of protests in London and Paris? Or radicals who think freedom does not come free?
On this point, take your pick of videos: the 25 men breaking windows; the sea of humanity flowing peacefully down the largest avenue in Minsk; or the YouTube videos that have gone viral, featuring black helmeted riot policemen clubbing one and all in their path — from presidential candidates to television cameramen to a teenage girl in a white parka.