From Brussels to Belarus...

Elaine Mahon has been working in Jean's office for the past six months and in mid April we were very sorry to see her move on to pastures new. Never one to shy away from adventure, in March, Elaine initiated the opportunity to monitor the Belarus elections as an external observer - not an easy task! This is her account of the experience.

On board - our cabin

Stopped at the border - the first time
Those of us who didn't get to Minsk

A long way to go.......

To judge the time I spent as an international exit-poller on the basis of our original schedule would denounce the week as an utter disaster. What was supposed to be a mission to carry out a 3-day international exit poll in Belarus, became seven frustrating days spent between trains, police stations and our organisation's headquarters in Kiev. Our work was obstructed, our colleagues were detained and our efforts seemed wasted. However, experiencing first-hand the capacity of the regime to stamp out public opposition and almost completely prevent any independent observation left quite an impression on me personally, and there were many lessons to be taken from the week.

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The Background

The Friends Across Borders Mission was a joint venture by two organisations; Danish Social Democratic Youth (DSU) and SILBA (Support Initiative for Liberty and Democracy in the Baltic Area) with bases operating in Kiev, Ukraine and in Vilnius, Lithuania in the weeks before and after the Presidential vote.

The call for international volunteers to participate in an exit-poll during the 2006 presidential elections in Belarus was circulated widely between European institutions, non-governmental organisations and national level youth political groups. The idea behind this call for interest was what attracted me to the mission - a group of 150 independent observers, of different nationalities, age, political affiliation and background. For me, this was key: We were not there simply to criticise incumbent president Lukashenko or oppose his regime, but to provide an independent, international view on the conduction of the elections.

There may be troubles ahead.........

From the start the obstacles to our mission were apparent. Although SILBA had carried out exit-polling in Belarus in the past without any interference from the Belarusian authorities, this time was to be very different. Before departure from our home countries, already a lot of people had their 'tourist visa' denied. Others had their passports held so long by the embassy that they missed their flights to Kiev and Vilnius. What was supposed to be a 150-strong mission had shrunk to a group of 15 or so in Kiev and a similar group in Vilnius.

The preparation for our mission involved a 2-day conference in Kiev on the logistics of our task. Here we learned how to carry out an exit-poll, the different methods of doing so, the questions to ask, the usefulness of such polls and so on. We were briefed on the political situation in general in Belarus, aspects of personal security and the do's and dont's of our behaviour in Minsk. These briefings were useful but marred by the low mood of the group, deepened by the arrival of other observers who had been already arrested, held, questioned and finally deported. Would we get into Belarus? What would happen to us when we did?

Lights, Camera..... Action

The whole operation resembled a James Bond movie. As we prepared for departure on the Friday night train, our nerves were on edge. Already, the Lithuanian delegation in our group had decided not to travel having received a phone call from their embassy in Minsk, which warned them not to go to Belarus under any circumstances. We were given Belarusian SIM cards and told that we would receive a text message within a couple of hours of our arrival, telling us what to do next. We weren't given any names, addresses, or telephone numbers. It was too risky for the people who would be helping us there. The remaining eight of us were to travel on the same train. We hardly 'blended in' and before departure the hostess in our carriage was already stressed that we would be delayed at the border as all compartments and luggage would be searched.

A slight panic set in. We had been told to stay in two groups of four, but as the only foreigners on the train, it was obvious to everyone that those of us in the same carriage must have known each other. The 6 hours to the border were hardly a relaxing journey. We all went through every piece of paper in our bags, every name or number we held, every document that could unravel our story - and we had to dispose of all materials for the actual monitoring of the election. We went over and over our alibi again: How did we know each other? An international Summer School. Why were we travelling to Belarus? As tourists. Where were we staying? Well.....

We felt tense, nervous and paranoid. The train was stopped before leaving the Ukraine for customs and emigration, and when we finally arrived into Belarus at midnight, the train was stopped at an army barracks before the town of Homel. Customs had a brief look through our luggage, as our passports were scrutinised by the first guard. She had a folder containing what we realised to be a "black list" of names and passport numbers; they were waiting for us it seemed. The guards themselves seemed to be slightly unsure of what to do and this first guard actually stamped our visa and passport. We thought we were in the clear, but after a few questions, orders came to remove us and our luggage from the train.

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Welcome to Belarus.....?

Six of us were taken from the train, and met by a dozen soldiers and border police. It was freezing and as we were led into the station they filmed us on camera - we have no idea if this is usual practice, or laid on especially for us. Unfortunately they forgot the red carpet.

We were placed in a room where they questioned us briefly. But it was quite clear that they weren't particularly interested in our answers. We watched the train leave the station and we realised they were detaining us. Through the window all we could see was a vast darkness. We were in the middle of nowhere - we had no passports, we had no idea where we were or any idea of what would happen to us. And what about the other members of our group still on board? Soldiers then called the two Russian speakers of our group to another room for further interrogations. There was a uniform aspect to their behaviour - this was nothing new........

By 3.30am a train pulled into the station, and we were finally allowed to leave. We didn't receive our passports until we were in our carriage and the train had already departed - all part of the psychological pressure and intimidation from them. No rough handling, just reminding you that the balance of power was firmly in their favour. Those who had been interrogated further explained the reasons behind our rejection...... "It is simply too dangerous for foreigners to come to Belarus during the election"........"We wouldn't like what happened in the Ukraine last year to occur here"....."Nobody knows what the crazy opposition might plan, and it's for your own safety that you don't enter"..... "But of course, you're free to come whenever you like, just not this weekend, your visas are still valid". "So after the elections, while our visas are still valid, on Monday we will be allowed to come into Belarus?" we asked. "Of course!" they laughed back.

Come back soon!

Take Two. By Monday night our group had shrunk to three people. Call it stubbornness, stupidity or naivety, we were still determined to try. I had spent two days watching coverage of the elections on the internet and the TV. Demonstrations seemed largely peaceful and relatively low in numbers. We hadn't come on this mission to watch events on our screens from Kiev, so tried again.

This time our mood was slightly more buoyant. We had less to fear, we knew what lay ahead and they had practically invited us back! The Ukrainian border police actually laughed at us trying again, and we hoped the Belarusians too would see the funny side. Yet, our arrival was greeted with blatant anger. Once the train stopped they came straight to our carriage, and this time they were not normal border police. Our passports were confiscated once again, they shouted at us in Russian and escorted us immediately from the train. Now there were approximately 25 soldiers and police agents with dogs on the platform. No video cameras.

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This time there were no explanations. In fact, nobody said a single thing to us for the four hours that they kept us in the police station. We were held in the same room as before, and this time knowing how long it would take. I was no longer so afraid, but just angry. The stress of the whole ordeal made us completely exhausted but at the same time I was full of adrenaline - annoyed and frustrated by their control over us. It really made me realise how helpless we were. We had been removed from a train, no questions asked. We were held against our will, our passports and ID taken. We didn't speak the language, and they made no effort to communicate with us, or even understand us. We were refused for absolutely nothing - no reasons given, or required it seems. It was infuriating to be kept there without being given any information. We also have no idea what information they already had on us, or what data they retained. What about the video camera? And if anything were to happen to us in their custody, who would we complain to? And what could we do about it, in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of the night in a country that none of us had ever even visited before?

Lucky to live in the EU

During this experience, I couldn't help but draw parallels with the fate of so many illegal immigrants who try to enter 'Fortress Europe'. We were so indignant at the Belarusian readiness to refuse us entry, as we are so used to travelling without borders in Europe. Just like so many illegal immigrants we didn't know exactly where we were, we didn't speak the language, our passports were taken. Yet, at the same time we were much luckier than the 'sans papiers' - we possessed a passport, we had been issued a visa, we were European; so we knew that they wouldn't really try to harm us. It did make us realise we were luckier than most travellers. When the train back to Kiev eventually arrived, we had to stand outside for forty minutes or so in temperatures of minus 10 degrees. They still wouldn't give us our passports, or tell us anything. While we were waiting we were able to observe their system of checking each carriage methodically. Except this time, they were removing Belarusians from the train. Their logic is clearly to prevent Belarusians leaving and foreigners coming in. They know how powerful contact with the outside world could be as a force against dictatorship.

It was such a relief to get back to Ukraine. Before this trip I had never been to Eastern Europe beyond the borders of the EU. I had even felt vaguely uneasy going to Kiev as I didn't know what to expect. But there I realised how safe it was, there was no need for us to watch what we said, make excuses for being there or be careful of what we spoke about on the phone.

It was such a pity not to get into Belarus, but in hindsight we actually learned so much during the week. If we had gotten into Belarus, we would have observed more, but the exit-polling mission was practically ruined. The couple from our group who did get through told us that they were afraid to do anything at all while they were there. Most probably they were let through as 'bait'; to reveal their Belarusian contacts or foreign observers to the police.

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To boldly go.....

Playing games with the KGB did seem quite pointless. In our experience, they had all channels of communication and travel to the country covered. They knew which train we were arriving on. They listened to phone calls. Our colleagues who managed to enter Minsk also told us of an SMS which was sent to all mobile phones in Belarus on the eve of election-day to tell people to stay in their homes in order to avoid the violence the demonstrators had allegedly planned. It is unsettling to imagine what the KGB could do to punish anyone who hosts foreigners or assists their observation of elections. If the KGB had so much information on hundreds of foreigners who wanted to enter the country for a week, we cannot underestimate the power of this police state on people's lives. I was left with a feeling of utmost respect and admiration for the bravery many Belarusians display in their daily lives.

I am glad to have tried twice, even if being turned away was frustrating. Even though it seems Lukashenko and his regime are not phased by international pressure or diplomatic threats, I think the inconvenience of watching, arresting, interrogating and deporting hundreds of foreigners is hardly insignificant. The mass deportation of international observers is a clear indication of the regime's fear of independent observation. As one SILBA member said, "We couldn't ask for a better evaluation of our work." Furthermore, for every one person they turn away, families, friends, colleagues and wider circles of acquaintances sit up and take notice of what happens in Belarus. The news coverage of these elections was unprecedented. Even people who couldn't place Belarus on a map were talking about Lukashenko and his 'elegant victory' of 82.6%.

Waiting for revolution..........

This momentum must be kept up by the European Union. We must continue to support the opposition in Belarus and put pressure on the regime to respect free choice, free speech and a free media. It was interesting to be in Kiev to observe the run-up to the Ukrainian parliamentary elections a year and a half after their Orange Revolution, which many hoped would serve as an inspiration for a similar rising in Belarus. I had never witnessed campaigning like it. The streets were covered in flags, posters and banners from many of the 50 or so parties included on the ballot. Party advertisements were shown on television screens in Kiev's metro, and manifestos handed out on every street.

Even though the pro-Russian party of Viktor Yanukovych, the Party of the Regions, did best, taking almost 30% of the vote, the Orange Revolution or its legacy cannot be written off. While the election campaign may not have been faultless, the country has a free media, a more active and competitive election campaign than most Western democracies, and politicians who accept the results. In the context of what we had witnessed in Belarus, and the similar political history of these two states, all of that is quite remarkable.

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Opposition rally in October Square Minsk