In Belarus, faint hopes for an unlikely event

Posted in Other | 18-Oct-05 | Author: Steven Myers| Source: International Herald Tribune

Aleksandr Milinkevich, the leader of a newly formed Belarussian opposition coalition, in its headquarters, a small, run-down apartment in Minsk.
MINSK, Belarus Ten men gathered in a dim three-room apartment one recent evening to plan the unseating of this country's autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko. They have little money, no slogans, no songs and, so far, no color like the orange that thousands rallied around during last year's popular uprising in Ukraine.

What they have is a hope - admittedly slight - that the wave of democracy that has washed over Ukraine and other former Soviet republics in the last two years might next come to Belarus.

"Lukashenko has exhausted the possibility of strengthening his power," said Alexander Milinkevich, a physicist who leads an improbable coalition of politicians and civic leaders mounting an even more improbable challenge in next year's presidential election.

"Sometimes he thinks if he raises wages a bit, people will love him again, but not everything is measured by bread and salo," he said, referring to the salted pork fat that is considered a delicacy in this part of the world. "There is such a notion as human dignity."

Few here or abroad believe Belarus's beleaguered opposition can win the election, expected before July. But with the support of the United States and Europe, its effort is shaping up as a new struggle over democracy in what was once the Soviet Union - one likely to inflame tensions not only with Lukashenko's government, but also that of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose government opposes Western efforts to democratize former Soviet states.

"There will be a road to democracy in Belarus," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared earlier this year after meeting with Lukashenko's opponents in neighboring Lithuania, calling his government "the last dictatorship in the center of Europe."

It is hard to underestimate how hard that road will be.

Lukashenko, first elected as a corruption-fighting reformer in 1994, has ruled with ever-increasing authoritarianism, weakening the other branches of power and stifling independent media and business. He is able to run as a result of a referendum last year lifting the constitutional limits on his term - a vote that was widely denounced as illegitimate.

When people gathered on Minsk's October Square to protest that referendum, the riot police swiftly suppressed them, beating and arresting dozens.

The police have responded similarly and repeatedly to any subsequent public manifestation of dissent.

"The Belarussian authorities are particularly concerned with preventing any small thing from becoming a big thing," a senior diplomat in Minsk said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. "They're not going to let people put up tents in October Square."

As it has in the months before previous elections, Lukashenko's government has intensified efforts to stifle any voices of opposition.

A former student, Nikita Sasim,when asked about his arrest, replied, "Which one?"

He was expelled from university last year, like dozens of others, and served 10 days in prison after joining the underground youth movement, Zubr, named after the wild bison that live in Belarus. Last month, he was beaten at an unauthorized rally. On Friday, he was arrested after posting anti-Lukashenko leaflets and held over the weekend by the country's secret service, still known, as in Soviet times, as the KGB.

"The pressure from the authorities," he said, "is becoming stronger."

Lukashenko has closed nongovernmental organizations by forcing them to re-register, then denying permission to those deemed disloyal. During the summer, security forces raided the headquarters of the Union of Poles, a group that represents the country's Polish minority, prompting a diplomatic dispute with Poland.

A presidential decree this year required all state employees - in a country where the state controls 80 percent of the economy - to work under one-year contracts, which, his opponents say, are used to enforce loyalty.

The state media-distribution monopoly last month ordered newspaper stands to stop selling the last independent daily newspaper, Narodnaya Bolya, or People's Will. The order - denounced by the European Union as an assault on a free press - has left the newspaper's survival in doubt.

"They are trying to mop up the media, so that the voters can receive information from only one source," the editor, Iosif Seredich, said.

Milinkevich, the opposition leader, said the events in Ukraine last year - when thousands poured into the streets to protest a rigged presidential election - inspired many Belarussians. He went on, however, to note the essential ingredients of the Orange Revolution that are lacking here.

"They had television, radio, newspapers," he said. "They had oligarchs who supported them. Our rich businessmen who support us are either in prison or abroad."

Lukashenko's opponents do have support abroad. The United States has pledged $5 million to support democracy in Belarus, though has not detailed how the money will be spent. The European Union is paying the German radio channel, Deutsche Welle, to broadcast into the country, prompting complaints of Cold War-like tactics from Belarus and Russia.

"The West will not spare any expenses," Lukashenko said this year, in one of his frequent denunciations of European and American support for democracy. A popular uprising like Ukraine's, he said, is "the last thing that we need."

There are indications, however, that external pressure - and the continued isolation of Lukashenko and several other officials, who are prohibited from traveling in Europe - might be having some impact.

Lukashenko last month agreed to allow 800 representatives of the opposition to meet in a cultural center in Minsk - instead of abroad, as they initially had planned. After meeting on Oct. 1 and 2, delegates from across the political spectrum, from communists to liberals, selected Milinkevich as a unified opposition candidate.

Milinkevich, a professor and television commentator, once served as a deputy mayor in Grodno and then headed a nongovernmental organization that Lukashenko's government banned in 2001.

Belarussians, he said, are ready for a change in leadership - something suggested by recent polls.