For two days following the widely criticized re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, an estimated crowd of 6,000 supporters of opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich defied authorities and flocked to a downtown square to wave flags, light candles, dance to Belarusian pop music, and demand a runoff from a government they say stole the election.
Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported widespread fraud while the White House called on the Belarusian authorities to conduct a new election. Official Belarusian figures show Lukashenko swept back into office on Monday with an official tally of 82.6 percent of the vote. Milinkevich, his nearest rival, polled just 6 percent.
The number of protesters on October Square has thinned each night since the Sunday vote as the mercury slipped below zero Fahrenheit. But well after midnight on Monday and Tuesday, several hundred protesters remained. The die-hards fought to maintain their resolve, many of them standing akimbo with interlocked arms to form a human chain around a makeshift cluster of a dozen or so pitched tents festooned with red and white balloons.
Tents were a symbolic, as well as strategic, hearkening back to the protests two years ago in Ukraine that forced a rerun of that country's fraudulent elections. Those demonstrations touched off the so-called Orange Revolution and, ever since, have been a focus for hope among opposition groups here in Belarus and other former Soviet republics where free, fair democratic elections remain a largely unfulfilled promise.
In Minsk, even in the face of the dwindling crowds, the tents on October Square suggested some were determined to stay for days, if not weeks. According to Reuters, police, who in the past have quickly broken up anti-government demonstrations, held back from action against them—apparently banking on the protest soon petering out.
"In Ukraine, when they stayed one or two weeks, they stopped being afraid," said Yuri Birukov, a 30-year-old photographer from Minsk. "I hope the same thing happens here because right now people are still afraid of losing their jobs."
Around 1 a.m., presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, bundled in a long gray trench coat and fur hat, entered the square to applause and shared hot tea with protesters. Kozulin and Milinkevich have formed a coalition of sorts to create a united front against the Lukashenka government.
Some have described their political marriage as a good-cop-bad-cop strategy, whereby Milinkevich plays the soft-spoken professor and Kazulin the firebrand populist.
"The people of Belarus have had enough of twelve years under this dictatorship," Kozulin told cfr.org. "It is Luka-shism, which is identical to fascism. We were told if we gather and protest we'd be branded terrorists and punished. But we're not afraid."
On both evenings since the vote, vans packed with riot police lined the side streets near the square. Protesters were urged not to drink alcohol or swear in front of cameras for fear the government would air these images on state-run television news. A few police reportedly prevented people from bringing supplies to the protesters.
The protesters remained nonviolent and sober, passing the time by breaking into chants of "Militsia so narodom!" (The police are with the people!) Others sang Belarusian folk songs and passed around thermoses of hot tea.
It's unclear how long the protests will last or whether at some point the police would intervene to break up the gathering.
"I'll stay here weeks if I have to," said one young protester. "I don't have to be anywhere."
Not only young people have toughed out the cold weather. "I came out in support of the young people and our future. Milinkevich has set in motion a powerful force," said Anna, forty-five, a kindergarten teacher from Minsk. "Belarus puts up an excellent façade; that is, the streets are clean, but it's a big spectacle. Wages are low and life here is expensive for us."
The atmosphere was much less charged than on Sunday, election day, when the government ordered all downtown businesses to close early and threatened protesters with arrest on terrorist charges. An estimated 10,000 protesters turned out Sunday night on the square.
Like any group of anti-government demonstrators, conspiratorial theories abounded. Some said on Monday the authorities swept the snow off the ice rink on the square to keep them off the slippery surface. Others said a sudden gust of snow that lasted less than ten minutes the previous day was not the work of Mother Nature but of government-installed snow machines to deter protests and picture-taking.