Belarus Dictatorland


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Belarus

Ben Zand visits Belarus. To find out what life is like in a dictatorship, he bathes in the rumoured source of the president's powers and comes face to face with the KGB.


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Transcript


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What do all these very average-looking men have in common?

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That's right, they are all dictators.

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And that means they love power, they hate journalists like me,

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and they are, quite frankly, ridiculous.

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I'm on a journey to three former Soviet Union countries to find out

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what makes some of the world's most powerful tyrants tick.

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I'm going to see the good...

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the bad...and the completely mental

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about living under a dictatorship.

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This programme contains some strong language

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This time, Belarus.

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The country is next door to Poland, slap bang between the EU and Russia.

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It's been ruled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.

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So, what does it take to be a Belarussian dictator?

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Well, you've got to look the part. And, of course,

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that means a military uniform even if, like Luka,

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you've only ever done National Service.

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If you're ever doing any sport, you'll need a huge, adoring audience.

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And showing that your goons aren't scared of hurting people is essential.

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In fact, Luka's managed to pass himself off as such an alpha male

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he can even get away with watching this.

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So, I'm on my way to Belarus.

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I want to give you a little taste of what's to come,

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and I'm going to do that by showing you a video.

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It features this man, who is the German Foreign Minister, happens to be gay...

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..and the guy who runs Belarus.

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And there you have it.

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The key rule of dictatorship, Belarussian style.

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Don't be gay.

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It's going to be a fun trip.

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Getting into these countries is hard,

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so we told authorities we were making a travel programme,

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and none of the interviewees would know it was actually a series

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about dictatorships. For their safety and mine.

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So, I'm on the way to Alexandria,

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which is the actual birthplace of Lukashenko himself.

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And although we have filming permissions in Belarus,

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things get a bit more precarious here due to the fact that this is

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the place he was born. So, not entirely sure how things are going to work out,

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or even if we'll be able to film at all.

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'When we got to Alexandria,

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'we were allowed to continue as long as we had someone official with us.'

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Hi, I'm Benjamin.

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Under Larisa's watchful eye, we headed for the big man's home village.

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It isn't actually the village he was born in,

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this is the village he was raised in.

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The village he was born in is over a bridge somewhere but we're not allowed

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to go there because it doesn't look quite as nice as this one, so this

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is the place they want to show us.

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'First stop, Lukashenko's old school.'

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'Ah, so sweet.

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'A nice family lad.

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'Nothing to suggest he likes locking up his opponents.'

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Are people very proud who live here, because this is the home of Lukashenko?

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But apparently there is a short cut to becoming more like him.

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Lukashenko's often talked about a magic spring in the woods.

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I read somewhere that he believes that the fact that he drank from

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this spring is the reason that he then became the man he is today,

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and even President.

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Is that true?

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So, here's some locals actually drinking some of the sacred water right now.

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'Supposedly people come from across the country just to drink

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'from the spring that Lukashenko drank from.'

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I'm just wondering why you drink this water.

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'But to really tap into the essence of tough guy Lukashenko,

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'to get the full benefit of the spring of eternal manliness,

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'I've heard you have to bathe in it.'

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It looks like the pit of death.

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Oh, my goodness gracious me.

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It's actually minus two degrees Celsius.

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Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?

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All right, just remind yourself

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Belarussian men do it, they are big and strong,

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I want to be big and strong, too.

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Oh...

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Right, sometimes people exaggerate for television.

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This is not one of those times.

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This is absolutely fucking freezing.

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All right, here we go.

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HE PANTS

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I can feel it.

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I can feel the energy...

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Oh, no, that's hypothermia.

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That's what that is!

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'I felt like a changed man.'

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Oh, God.

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Look at my nipples. They're about four inches long.

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There we go, been in the spring, got the big man's quote on,

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this is it. Never felt like more of a man in my life.

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I headed to the home of Lukashenko's power,

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Belarus's capital city, Minsk.

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Doesn't feel like Europe's last dictatorship, I'll be honest.

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There's loads of really fancy cafes, fancy perfume shops.

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If I wasn't freezing my tits off right now I could well and truly be

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in Italy or something.

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Although it's a beautiful city, Brits hardly ever come here.

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Most of us only hear about Belarus once a year.

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# Solayoh, Solayoh

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# Where the sun is always shining on ya! #

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Hello, Europe! Minsk calling.

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# Let's come together, so here is my hand... #

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In the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest,

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Anastacia Vinakova represented Belarus with this beauty.

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# I love Belarus! Got it deep inside

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# I love Belarus! Feel it in my mind... #

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And guess what? I get to meet her.

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Anything I've ever heard of Belarus, it always seems to be, like...

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a kind of scary place, a place that no-one ever goes to.

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Very Russian, very Soviet.

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# I love Belarus! Got it deep inside

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# I love Belarus! Feel it in my mind... #

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I mean, some people in the West would think that you didn't have as

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much freedom here, you didn't have as much free speech.

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Is that true?

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-Do you think most people like the system, here?

-Yes.

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It's true that there isn't much protesting here,

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but maybe that's not surprising

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because of what can happen if you do step out of line.

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The secret police are famous for beating up protesters,

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harassing journalists, and locking up opposition politicians.

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This building behind me here is the secret service of Belarus.

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Have to be a bit careful about filming here because we're not really meant to.

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It's called the KGB, which, as you probably know,

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was the name of the Soviet Union secret service,

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which was infamous for being just ruthless in its search for information.

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Killed people, basically snooped on the entire population.

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No other former Soviet Union country still uses the name KGB

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apart from Belarus.

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I don't want to look at it because we'll get in trouble.

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Despite his firm grip on power,

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Lukashenko still doesn't take any chances.

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He rigs his elections,

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and doesn't really seem to care if the world knows about it.

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Since taking power,

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Lukashenko has rewritten the constitution so that he's pretty much free to

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make any law he wants.

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And he can more or less live out any fantasy he likes.

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Ice hockey is his favourite sport,

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and the Belarussian media regularly reports on his exploits on the ice.

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He likes getting quality players together so he can pretend to be one of them.

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And there he is, wearing the number 1 jersey.

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You can probably guess what team usually wins.

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Lukashenko's ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into building

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ice-hockey stadia around the country.

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The biggest, right here in Minsk.

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Wow!

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This is most definitely the noisiest sport I have been to

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for a long time.

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Unnecessarily loud!

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If there's one thing I knew about Luka,

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it's that he doesn't like gay people.

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So I wondered what it was like to be gay in Belarus.

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'I'd met up with Oleg Rascov, a TV journalist who covers LGBT rights.'

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'The station Oleg works for is banned in Belarus,

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'so they have to broadcast from neighbouring Poland.'

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I mean, it surely can't help that one of kind of Lukashenko's most

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famous quotes is, "It's better to be a dictator than to be gay."

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Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

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-Really?

-On these places.

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Imagine, say, we are two gay guys

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and all of these guys find out,

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what would their reaction be?

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-Really?

-Yeah, yeah.

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Lukashenko isn't the only local leader who appears to have enjoyed

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the spring of eternal manliness.

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Until recently, his closest ally was his neighbour and all-round

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alpha male, Vladimir Putin in Russia.

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But apparently, when Putin sent troops into Ukraine,

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Belarus's neighbour,

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poor old Luka got a little nervous that the same could happen to him.

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DOG BARKS

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So, all of a sudden, to make friends with Europe,

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he started releasing political prisoners.

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Hello.

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Nice to meet you. 'On the outskirts of the city,

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'I met up with someone who's spent more time in local cells than most.'

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This is a big dog, is this to keep out the KGB?

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Yes.

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'At 28 years old, Pavel's been to jail 19 times.

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'Once for more than eight months.'

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Why become the face, you know, of a kind of opposition movement,

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and make life difficult for yourself?

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-Did you put this up because I was coming?

-Yes!

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-Only today.

-'To try to keep smiling during his spells out of the cells,

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'Pavel makes home-brewed spirits.'

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So, this is basically medicine is what you're saying?

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-Yes, yes, yes.

-I will be cured of all my ailments?

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Fantastic!

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'Pavel became a minor celebrity in Belarus a couple of years ago when

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'one of his protests landed him and his friends behind bars yet again.'

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First tonight, a story that the government of Belarus doesn't want you to see.

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The protest went international when a Swedish organisation,

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in solidarity with Pavel,

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flew into Belarussian airspace and dropped 1,000 teddy bears with

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pro-democracy slogans.

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Lukashenko was apparently terrified by the teddy-bear invasion.

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He fired the head of his air force and expelled the Swedish ambassador.

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This one looks a bit heavy!

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'And his henchmen have kept an eye on Pavel ever since.'

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Do you think we could be bugged right now?

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I mean, it just sounds like a ridiculously stressful life.

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'I was beginning to appreciate how all the moonshine

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'could help take the stress out of Pavel's situation.'

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I think I'm getting to the point where I'm off me tits.

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"Off me tits?"

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No...

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He doesn't know!

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Off my tits.

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I know what is tits.

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But I don't understand...

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I am off my...

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It's just a term. I don't know where it comes from,

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I don't know the etymology,

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but it is an accurate description of how I'm starting to feel,

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do you know what I mean? Thank you very much for meeting me.

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-It's a pleasure.

-Good luck, hopefully I won't get arrested in about ten minutes.

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All right, so I'm not going to lie to you, I am definitely a little bit

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smashed, probably had about seven too many shots, but...

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Yeah, meeting those guys was genuinely interesting.

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I've spent, like, the first half of my trip here

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thinking that it didn't really seem that bad,

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the streets seemed quite normal

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and it's quite a nice city centre, and then these guys have really

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put it all into perspective. Once you go against the regime here,

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once you go against Lukashenko, life changes for you,

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and it changes very dramatically for the worse.

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Back in the centre of town,

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there was more evidence that Lukashenko might be lightening up a bit.

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So, just round this corner is something I really did not expect to see in a dictatorship,

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which is an opposition protest rally.

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This is the anniversary of a referendum that Lukashenko held 20 years ago

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to this day, which essentially allowed him to stay in power forever,

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so this is what they see as the moment he became a dictator in this country.

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The man everyone had come to see was Nikolai Stakovich, who was released

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from prison a few months ago.

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He spent four years in jail for daring to stand against Lukashenko

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in the last presidential elections.

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'I was beginning to feel a bit more positive about the state of Belarussian democracy.'

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I would not expect this to be even allowed to happen.

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'But then I looked a little closer.

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'Instead of filming the speaker,

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'a lot of the camera crews seemed to be filming the protesters.'

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It's the KGB coming with cameras to basically get the protesters' faces

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on camera, and also just to intimidate people.

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And I think this guy behind me is doing that thing

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and so I'm going to see what he's doing.

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Excuse me? What's happening here?

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Are you filming for the media?

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-No comment.

-No comment?

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Filming for KGB...

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Excuse me? Can I just ask you a quick question?

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Are you filming us for the media or KGB?

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What are you filming me for right now?

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There's another guy to the left... right. Your left.

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It is a bit weird and intimidating, I can imagine,

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especially if you live here. Some random dude, won't talk to you,

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sticks a camera in your face.

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Wondering what's going on.

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Is it possible to get an answer?

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This is kind of awkward.

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So the protest is pretty much over,

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and the only people who remain are me and about 12 people from the KGB.

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I'm not going to lie to you, I'm slightly pooing my pants,

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and that was quite a small protest,

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but I can kind of understand why you wouldn't want to go to one, mainly due to

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the fact that there is a reasonable chance that afterwards you'll end up

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in jail for two weeks, or quite simply just have the shit kicked out of you by the KGB.

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My time in Belarus showed that Lukashenko is still a brutal authoritarian ruler.

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But there are at least some signs of hope.

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On the one hand, it's obviously not a blossoming democracy.

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But on the other, it is going through a change,

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is going through this period of liberalisation which, as you've seen,

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means people can protest, they can speak out a bit more,

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they're going to jail less,

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but the question is whether that is like an actual concrete change,

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and whether things are going to keep getting better,

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and people keep getting freer,

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or whether, at some point, everything will just go back to the way it always has been.

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And I just don't know the answer to that.

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In this episode, Ben Zand travels to Belarus to experience the sinister and at times bizarre side to living in a dictatorship.

Ben begins his journey in Belarus by heading to President Lukashenko's home town. He sees a small shrine to the president before setting off to find a mysterious spring in the woods which Lukashenko apparently drank from as a child, and to which he attributes some of his dictatorial manliness and prowess.

Ben then heads to Belarus' capital city, Minsk. This is a country that most Brits only hear of once a year, during the Eurovision Song contest. And so Ben gets an introduction to the place from Belarus's 2011 Eurovision entrant, Anastasia. She sang a song called I Love Belarus, and from Ben's conversation with her it doesn't sound like she was lying. She insists that people in the country are content with the leadership.

But, Ben wonders, perhaps that's because of the infamous KGB. Belarus is the only former Soviet Union country that hasn't bothered to rebrand its secret service, and still calls it the KGB.

Perhaps it isn't surprising - this is a country in which the president apparently isn't worried about PR. When accused of being a dictator by the German foreign minister - who is homosexual - President Alexander Lukashenko responded by saying that he would rather be a dictator than be gay.

Given which, Ben wants to know more about what life is like for gay people in the country. So he heads to one of the most testosterone-fuelled environments he can find - an ice hockey stadium - to talk to a journalist who covers LGBT rights for a channel that's illegal in Belarus, and has to broadcast from neighbouring Poland.

Having had a taste of dissent in Belarus, Ben goes to visit Pavel, a serial protester who at only 28 years old has already been to prison 19 times. Ben hears about his most famous protest, which saw him place teddy bears with pro-democracy slogans outside government buildings. Pavel was arrested, and when a Swedish organisation heard about the stunt, it decided to go even bigger: it flew a plane over Belarus and threw 1,000 teddies out of the window, with more slogans attached. Lukashenko was so terrified of the teddy bear invasion that he fired the head of his air force and expelled the Swedish ambassador.

But Ben also hears from Pavel how Lukashenko seems to be softening up a bit, in a bid to cosy up with Europe. Pavel hasn't been to prison for over a year. And there's even a protest happening in Minsk, which Ben decides to go to.

Though the protest is a promising sign of increasing freedoms in the country, Ben still comes face to face with the KGB, who are busy filming all the protestors - including Ben. It's a surprising and uncomfortable end to a journey through a country that seems to be trying to change, slowly.