Experts expect "Europe's last dictator," Belarusian President Lukashenko, to win parliamentary elections on Sunday. But one protest group refuses to back down and is getting creative with its protests.
Inside a dilapidated, abandoned, red-brick house in the center of Minsk, the walls are covered with graffiti mocking President Alexander Lukashenko, the long-standing head of Belarus. Three young men in their 20s are sitting together in an almost empty room on the second floor, smoking cigarettes and discussing their plans for protests in the run-up to Sunday's parliamentary election.
The protest group Zmena, or "Change," feels safest from the KGB in this house, according to its founder, Pavel Vinogradov. It#s where he meets with Sasha, Koba and Pavel, the group's core members.
"I'm afraid to talk about serious things, even in my own home," said Vinogradov. "Twice I realized that furniture and other stuff had been moved around in my absence."
The opposition group's founder is only 24 years old, yet he already has a track record as an opposition activist and an outspoken critic of the Belarusian president. It started six years ago, just before the presidential elections in 2006, which secured Lukashenko a fourth term.
"Honestly, in the beginning it was more for fun. I was plastering the town with protest stickers and I felt as if I was a hero, aninfiltrator," Vinogradov said.
Lukashenko's grip on power only vaguely motivated Vinogradov's newly found activism. He said he knew that Belarus' poor living conditions could be traced back to the president, but that the excitement of protesting drove him most of all.
"I was a bit childish back then; I had more naïve and romantic ideas about protesting against the regime - even more than now," Vinogradov said.
Belarus is set to hold parliamentary elections on Sunday, but observers have said the results were decided long ago. Most of the opposition's candidates haven't been able to register for the upcoming election. But, perhaps surprisingly, there's no widespread atmosphere of protest in Belarus these days.
A softer approach to protesting
The presidential elections in December 2010 were a turning point for Belarus, for the opposition, and for Vinogradov. After the election tens of thousands of people in Minsk took to the streets in protest against Lukashenko.
The rally turned violent and riot police brutally broke up the crowd. Lukashenko blamed the opposition for the violence and had former presidential candidates and other activists jailed.
Vinogradov was one of those activists. He served eight months before being released under an amnesty. Instead of returning to normal life, he founded the youth protest organization Zmena to revive the mood of anti-government protest, a plan he had devised in jail.
"We want to stage protests with humor, brazenness and creativity," he said. "We do stuff that no one has done before, at least not in Belarus."
Zmena's first protest in February was its biggest coup so far. They positioned a couple of plush toys carrying banners protesting against police brutality right in the center of Minsk. Vinogradov said he thinks humor can help his compatriots overcome their fear of the government.
"We want to show people that it is possible [to] stage an interesting, even beautiful protest without being arrested - or at least only after staging the protest," said Vinogradov.
Zmena's leader subsequently had to spend several days in jail, as did a blogger who uploaded photos of the toy protest.
The stuffed-toy protest caught the attention of a Swedish public relations firm, who then decided to drop a load of teddy bears over Belarusian territory from a plane. The stuffed animals carried slogans promoting democracy.
After the toy bear "bombing," Belarus closed its embassy in Sweden, and forced the Swedish embassy in Minsk to close as well. Lukashenko also fired several of his generals over the diplomatic scandal.
"How can a dictator who has hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police officers at his command be afraid of toys? How can that scare him?" asked Vinogradov, adding it's because, "the whole international uproar it caused is quite embarrassing for [him]."
Crackdowns scare people silent
But Zmena can get serious. Vinogradov and a group of fellow activists were assembling a cage of metal bars in the city center. A second cage is already in place, and a Zmena activist is sitting inside it, handcuffed and blindfolded. But only a few people pause to look at them or talk. Those who walk on by may be doing so out of fear, or because they still support Lukashenko.
"People are afraid. They all know they'll get fired from work or thrown out of university if they openly disagree with the regime," Vinogradov said. "They might even get beaten up and thrown in jail."
Six months in, Vinogradov had hoped that Zmena would have gained more supporters than the 20 or so activists currently involved with the group.
Vinogradov has been arrested six times this year already, and each time he served up to 15 days. He had to drop out of university after just 15 days, and he said he knows that he won't find a proper job any time soon. But he puts up with the pressure and is prepared to take it as part of the fight against Lukashenko.
"Of course my relatives are stressed out every time I get arrested. But they've got used to it, and they support me," he said.
Even though Zmena accomplished this particular protest without being confronted by the police, Vinogradov was arrested soon after with fellow activists while preparing another protest and sentenced to 12 days in jail.
And yet Vinogradov and Zmena plan to continue their campaign. They said they hope that they will be able to draw attention to Belarus, and be a thorn, however small, in the side of the regime. They also hope that, someday soon, the mood in Belarus will change again and their protests will start to spread and grow.