- - Friday, May 11, 2012

TALLINN, Estonia — In a galaxy far, far away, storm troopers surrender their spaceship to the Belarusian president, as he defeats their leader Darth Vader with one impressive karate kick.

So runs the plotline of a satirical cartoon casting President Alexander Lukashenko as a galactic emperor that’s broadcast on the Internet site, ARU TV, by a Belarusian dissident in Estonia.

“Fear is the secret of Lukashenko’s long rule,” said Pavel Marozau, who started ARU TV in 2009. “But can a funny dictator be a scary dictator? He doesn’t think so. That’s why he decided to put us and our colleagues in prison.”

Mr. Marozau was arrested in Belarus in 2005 after he began producing satirical animated films.

He was charged with slandering the president — a crime that can be punished with two to four years in prison. Just before the trial was to begin in 2006, Mr. Marozau fled to Estonia.

Since Mr. Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he has successfully consolidated his position through constitutional changes such as eliminating term limits and suppressing dissent.

Mr. Lukashenko, a dedicated communist, is so infamous for his authoritarian ways that the former Soviet republic of Belarus is often referred to as “the last true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on the regime, condemning the repression of civil society and demanding the release of political prisoners.

Although two dissidents were released in March, 10 others remain in prison. Still others have fled abroad, where they promote freedom in their homeland.

Voice of dissidents

ARU TV is one of a number of media and education outlets created and operated by Belarusian dissidents abroad to confront the state-controlled media, promote free speech and challenge the Lukashenko regime’s oppressive hold over the country.

The ARU TV website still has a relatively modest following of 40,000 in Belarus, but it is growing, Mr. Marozau said. Besides satire, he produces cultural and current-affairs programs.

Another dissident-run outlet, Belsat TV, has been broadcasting via satellite from across the border in Poland since 2006. It is watched regularly by half a million of Belarus‘ 9.5 million people.

“When people see our programs, they can compare the official information to an alternative view,” said programming editor Siarhei Pelesa, who was politically active in Belarus until he was forced out of college and fled to Poland.

“Often Belsat TV is the only station capable of filming and broadcasting footage of events such as demonstrations. For example, in 2009, many people were beaten up and arrested in a big demonstration, and if it wasn’t for us, few photos of that would have gotten out,” he said.

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