Youths applaud as they participate in a peaceful rally to...

Youths applaud as they participate in a peaceful rally to protest what they say is the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, July 20, 2011. Credit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

A tattered group of rebels fights fitfully against the eccentric dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. In Syria, a serious confrontation continues between gutsy demonstrators and what is essentially a police state.

But further north in Eastern Europe, with little coverage by the press, imaginative young people are showing a special kind of bravery as they challenge one of the most brutal dictators in the world.

The place is Belarus, a nation of 10 million, directly to the west of Russia, that was once part of the Soviet Union. The dictator is Alexander Lukashenko, president since 1994.

And what the young people are doing is challenging that dictatorship with humor, sarcasm and nonviolent but highly visible demonstrations. Their tactics are right out of the playbook used effectively by regime opponents in the old communist satellite countries when they lived under the heel of Soviet oppression.

My father was Hungarian, and when I was growing up, my uncles and grandparents would tell me what life under Soviet rule was like for those still living in Hungary. They told me about ways people invented to oppose the regime without appearing to cross the line of overt activity deemed "criminal" that would lead to arrest and imprisonment.

One tool they devised was not to go to the movies. Sounds like an unlikely form of protest, doesn't it? Yet in the early days of communist rule, all the movie houses were state-owned and state-run.

To protest something the state had done, a friend might come up to you and say: "I'm not going to the movies this weekend, I'm really too busy. What about you?" If you were slow on the uptake, they might go on to tell you that two neighbors were unwell, and three others had to visit relatives out of town -- and therefore none of them would be able to go to the movies, either. Word spread quickly, and when the weekend came, a remarkable thing happened. Every movie theater in a given town or region -- and once or twice, I'm told, in the entire country -- was empty. The signal to the regime was clear, but there was no crime and no offender. How could the police arrest someone for not going to the movies?

The protesters in Belarus today are organizing in the same tradition, but with a more daring sense of theater. Beaming, cheering crowds have appeared recently, apparently expressing approval of Lukashenko and his government. Occasionally the demonstrators have even burst into laughter -- and that, a reporter for the Italian paper La Repubblica reported, was so infectious that sometimes even the police joined in.

The regime, which has jailed more than a thousand political activists so far this year, has not failed to understand that the "applause" and "cheering" were sarcastic and, in fact, represented visible, popular-based criticism of the government.

So what did the Belarusian government leaders do? They made it a crime to applaud the president, his troops or the security services. For the country's Independence Day celebrations in July, the government announced that anyone caught clapping would be arrested.

Like the movements now dubbed Arab Spring, the Belarusian opposition relies heavily on social-networking websites for instant communication. And the unrest in Belarus is fueled by economic problems as well as the drive for political freedom. The economy, which is 70 percent state-owned, is slumping badly, and Belarus has applied to the International Monetary Fund for emergency financial aid.

It takes guts to confront a regime that's been termed the last outpost of total tyranny in Europe. But that's what the brave people of Belarus are doing. While our freely elected representatives were stumbling through the latest minuet in the tawdry debt-deadline drama, the demonstrators in Belarus were risking their lives for the right to have freely elected representatives in the first place.