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Joke is on dictator in Belarussian dissident media

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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.

The dissident media provide uncensored news and a platform for the opposition, said Jana Kobzova of the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Otherwise, the opposition would have no place to debate publicly," she said.

Because it is illegal to work for foreign media in Belarus without a special permit, Belsat TV doesn't officially have any journalists based there.

Reporters risk their lives

However, many local reporters secretly collaborate with the station, despite the risks, Mr. Pelesa said.

"People can never be sure if they will be arrested," he said.

One contributor working in Belarus died when scaffolding fell on him as he was walking home after filming. According to Mr. Pelesa, the staff at Belsat TV viewed the accident as suspicious.'

One of Belsat TV's goals is to help revive the Belarusian language, which Mr. Pelesa says has been forced into a "language ghetto" as Russian dominates the state media.

"We produce programs in Belarusian and dub films into Belarusian," Mr. Pelesa said. "We want to show that Belarusian is not just a rural villagers' language."

Still, in the war of ideas, Belsat TV remains an underdog. In a survey conducted by the channel last year, 47 percent of Belarusians said they trust the state-owned television.

That worries members of the politically minded Belarusian diaspora.

"We should not underestimate the danger of indoctrination in Belarus, in early childhood, in schools, later in universities and everywhere," said Anatoly Mikhailov, rector of the European Humanities University, now based in Lithuania.

Expatriate university

The university, formerly located in Belarus, came into conflict with Mr. Lukashenko soon after he took power. The institution insisted on maintaining academic freedom and was forced out of the country.

"They wanted to impose all kinds of regulations," Mr. Mikhailov recalled. "It had nothing to do with education. It was about indoctrination."

"I have never participated in any kind of political activity, but Lukashenko [thinks] that free thought, in itself, is dangerous," he added.

The university reopened in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in 2005, where it has been educating young Belarusians ever since.

About two-thirds of its 1,800 students are studying through Internet courses in Belarus, and the rest attend classes on the campus in Vilnius.

"The university can educate a new generation, people who will look at Belarus as citizens of a European country rather than citizens of a Soviet country," Ms. Kobzova said.

Dissidents say initiatives such as Belsat, ARU TV and the university provide hope for a post-Lukashenko future.

"So many of the best minds of Belarus — the young, active professionals — have left the country because they were pressured by the regime,” said Mr. Marozau.

"They are the most valuable resource for democratic forces in Belarus."

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