Radical aristocrat in a fight for freedom

May 30, 1997

In the thick of a violent struggle between police and student activists leading an illegal demonstration in Minsk, capital of Belarus, historian Luba Luynevoi looks an unlikely radical.

A strikingly aristocratic-looking woman, she is a familiar figure at the frequent mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko's human rights abuses and dictatorial pro-Russian, anti-nationalist policies.

Luynevoi is a lecturer at Belarus State University, specialising in post-medieval Belarusian nobility, a committed nationalist and member of the ancient and noble Soltan family.

She also acts as an unpaid advocate of legal rights for students and youngsters arrested during or after protest actions, and as an official observer for the Helsinki Committee human rights group. Her involvement in the pro-democracy movement began last year when her students started being arrested or beaten up by the police during violent suppression of mass demonstrations.

President Lukashenko's suppression of the nascent nationalist movement, which had barely found its feet following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, spurred her to risk losing her university post and openly display her colours.

"I started seeking out lawyers willing to defend students who had been arrested, and parents started seeking me out," Ms Luynevoi explains.

"Finding independent lawyers in Belarus today is all but impossible, so these days I go to court myself as a representative of the Helsinki Committee."

She eschews membership of main nationalist and opposition parties, such as the Belarusian Popular Front, which rallies supporters with slogans such as "Russia Means War", considering her loyalties to lie in supporting the human rights of all those subjected to state persecution for their opposition to the government.

Fitting her academic work in around human rights activities, she attends every demonstration, taking notes, witnessing the brutalities of the police, interior ministry troops or Omon special units, and keeping track of the scores of arrests and court cases.

She treads a fine line between protester and observer and points out particularly nasty Omon troops whose speciality is beating handcuffed and helpless arrested demonstrators as they await bussing to police stations.

Anti-government protesters in Belarus form an eclectic coalition of nationalists, social democrats and communists, but they are united in their opposition to the constitutional referendum last November which allowed for the dissolution of parliament and gave Lukashenko, elected in 1994 by a population nostalgic for the certainties of the Soviet past, sweeping new powers.

He has used those powers to stifle media opposition, ban nationalist demonstrations and turn Belarus into a Soviet time-warp, where a treaty of reunification with neighbouring Russia, signed last week, is the key political aim.

Her activities have not gone unnoticed: she has received telephone calls late at night threatening to harm her nine-year-old son.

If she is worried by this she does not show it. On demonstrations, such as that recently called to protest against the reunification treaty with Russia, which began as a rally in Yakuba Kolasa Square and turned into a 3,000-strong march towards the central government offices in Minsk, she spends half her time keeping a watchful eye on the young, flag-and-banner-waving protesters shouting out the nationalist slogan: "Beautiful! Free! Belarus!" For the rest, she chats amiably with the police, whom, she says, are generally restrained.

The dangerous clashes inevitably come when Omon squads and interior ministry troops in riot gear are slung across the wide boulevards of Minsk, double rows of steel shields creating immovable barriers.

"Police tactics have changed recently, probably in connection with the treaty with Russia, which Lukashenko is courting. People are arrested after demonstrations with the police using videotape evidence to convict," says Vadim, a music college student, who was fined three million Belarusian roubles after being arrested in April for taking part in an illegal protest.

He has vowed, however, to continue participating in protests. "I'm prepared to risk arrest for my beliefs, I believe in the Belarusian national idea. Any normal democracy allows for a national idea. Lukashenko allows only for dictatorship."

For those who are arrested, Luynevoi is often the only person able to speak up for their rights.

"I appeal to the judges not to be so cruel when they sentence young people," she says.

"If no one is there to speak up for them the judges will probably hand down the most severe sentences. My job is to remind them of their humanity."

Igor, a 23-year-old member of the White Legion, a group of 300 young men, mostly with military training, who act as guards to protect protesters from arrest on demonstrations, said the snail's pace of economic reforms under the Lukashenko regime was another reason why students were against the government.

"Our main worries are our independence and democracy: our ability to do what we want, to open our own businesses, to earn a living as entrepreneurs, these are denied us."

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