Tbilisi Campers Should Look to Minsk, Yerevan

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A gust of wind blows open a canvas tent flap to reveal a man reclining on a camp bed, flicking through a newspaper, while his wife puffs daintily on a cigarette. This middle-aged couple are not, however, vacationers enjoying the early spring sunshine and the healthy air of the great outdoors. The exhaust-filled atmosphere of Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue isn't really the best location for that. Instead, they're part the latest group of opposition activists to highlight their political grievances by setting up a protest camp, in what seems to have become a contemporary post-Soviet tradition.

The concept was perfected by Ukrainians during the 2004 Orange Revolution. The huge tent camp in central Kiev became a powerful symbol of the uprising -- a statement of defiance and a seductive show of "people power," as well as a cultural phenomenon in its own right. As the days passed, it took on a life of its own, like outlaw hippie festivals do, with pavement kitchens, samizdat art shows and do-it-yourself campfire entertainment. "This is a revolution of the mind," one camper said.

But since the Orange Revolution, similar attempts to use tent camps as a political weapon have ended in failure. Two years ago, a courageous group of young dissidents led a daredevil picket against the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. Dodging the police and the KGB, they managed to occupy a downtown square for several days, despite subfreezing temperatures, creating what one of their leaders described to me as "an isle of freedom in this sea of dictatorship," until the riot squads arrived in the middle of the night to take them all away to jail.

There were similar scenes in Yerevan a few weeks ago, where an illegal opposition encampment had grown into a colorful protest village. Some people decorated their tents with paper flowers and graffiti; others brewed hot tea on makeshift braziers. A photo exhibition was set up outside one tent. Outside another, there was a bulletin board with the latest opposition propaganda.

"There is a spirit here that no one can do anything to stop," one young woman insisted cheerfully. "People here believe that no one could attack them in Freedom Square because that would be a big, big mistake."

Her confidence turned out to be misplaced. A couple of days later, just before daybreak, I got a phone message from one of her friends: "Something terrible is happening here," it read. The riot police had arrived. After driving the protesters out, they brought in trucks to clear away the piles of limp canvas and discarded possessions which remained. Within minutes, it was all over.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi and author of "The Time of the Rebels: Youth Resistance Movements and 21st Century Revolutions."