On a Sunday afternoon, Natalia and I were resting on a tree-shaded path in Minsk’s Victory Park, when she started to ask a delicate question. But she did not want to discuss it while we were sitting on a park bench.
“There could be microphones in the bench,” the 20-year-old said. “Our professors at the university say that every classroom has a hidden microphone.”
So we walked down on a shaded path, away from the baby strollers and the roller-bladers, where she touched on the topic.
“I was reading on the Internet – now, you never can be sure about what’s on the Internet – well, there is this blogger, Alexander, and he wrote,” she paused, eying me to see if I was following her whispered Russian. “Well apparently, the boss got on a plane with Kolya.”
(President Alexander Lukashenko has taken his third son, Nikolai, or Kolya, aged 6, to such events as army maneuvers, military parades, and the Minsk subway bombing.)
“Well apparently, Kolya wanted to close the airplane door by himself,” she continued. “The stewardess told him he could not close the door. So he bit her. Is that true?”
Well, I may be the Voice of America, but that does not necessarily make me the Eyes, Ears or Brain of America.
So I had to confess – ne znaiu – I dunno.
To compensate for my knowledge gap, I joked, “Don’t worry, this is not North Korea. You are not going to end up with the son running the place in 20 years. Har, har.”
She winced. As a third year law student, Natalia knew full well that my guarantees were not worth much. Talk followed into scholarship programs for study abroad.
Igor Eseev, Minsk’s police chief for public security, had dictated to Belarusians when they should — and should not – applaud during July 3 Independence Day celebrations.
In a nation where all form of public protest is banned, citizens started last month to unexpectedly clap in public places. Times and places circulate through social networks. In advance of Independence Day, the Belarus government temporarily shut down access to social networking sites like Facebook, Vkontakte, and the Belarussian language site of Radio Free Europe.
The protests are not just fueled by unhappiness over living in Europe’s last dictatorship. Belarus also is in an economic free fall, suffering a 50 percent devaluation of the local ruble earlier this year. Facing collapsing living standards, Belarusians this summer are tearing out the lawns in their dachas to plant potatoes.
Following through on their threats, police arrested almost 400 people in four Belarusian cities on Independence Day. Caught clapping their hands at times and places deemed subversive, many were charged Monday with petty hooliganism. Some hand clappers paid fines; some won sentences of 15 days in jail..
On Minsk’s Victory Avenue, on the edge Victory Park, where Natalia and I had strolled one week earlier, plainclothes policemen dragged several people away from the crowd of parade viewers. They were deemed to have clapped inappropriately when President Lukashenko appeared on the parade reviewing stand, accompanied by his son, Kolya.