The recent rift between Belarus and Russia has caused some soul-searching among the Belarusian political opposition, including proposals for a new dialogue with the government. At the same time, the proposed Second Congress of Democratic Forces is scheduled to take place in March, but it seems unlikely that Alyaksandr Milinkevich will remain leader. Already the Belarusian Popular Front has decided to sever its ties with the United Democratic leader over his “For Freedom” policy. The country is facing its biggest crisis since independence, but there is a lack of consensus as to the best way to proceed.
The issue of a potential dialogue with the authorities emanates from two quarters: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and a well-known political activist associated with the Charter-97 movement, Dzmitry Bandarenka. PACE President Rene van der Linden visited Belarus on January 18-20, meeting with the chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Kanaplyou, as well as members of the opposition. Van der Linden called not only for the release of political prisoners, but also for a new dialogue between the government and the opposition in the wake of the energy crisis and conflict with Russia. Ostensibly the Council perceives an opportunity for the development of closer relations between Europe and Belarus. Van der Linden concluded his visit with the words, “I feel that after the disputes with Russia, the Belarusian side is more ready for cooperation with European structures and that is why I appeal for participation in an open dialogue.”
Bandarenka expressed that same sentiment in an interview that appeared on the website of Charter-97. Bandarenka called for a Day of Unity and Reconciliation of all Belarusians on March 25, the traditional commemoration day of the Belarusian National Republic of 1918. Citing the new unity in Ukraine (a dubious example), he stated that this was no time for Belarus to be divided into “friends and foes.” He maintained that Russia was seeking to remove Alexander Lukashenka as president and to end Belarusian independence. Bandarenka, who has referred to Lukashenka in the past as a criminal, suggested that the March 25 event should include the country’s leadership and opposition, the head of the Belarusian People’s Republic in exile, Ivonka Survilla, representatives of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, as well as prominent community figures. The direct association between the removal of Lukashenka and an end to independence was not explained.
In the face of these changing circumstances, the Belarusian opposition seems disunited. In late January the editorial office of the opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya asked the United Democratic leaders what concrete steps they had taken toward the new program of the Congress of Democratic Forces and plans for the street protests organized by the For Freedom movement. The editors complained that the opposition leaders avoided giving straightforward responses and wondered how they propose to force the president to adopt more democratic laws and practices.
In late January, Yuri Khadyka, deputy chairman of the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), announced that the party could no longer comply with the Milinkevich team’s “uncontrolled actions,” which evidently included “stampeding” BPF activists into the For Freedom movement. In November 2006 the party agreed to form the basis of the movement, but Khadyka and party leader Vintsuk Vyachorka have since concluded it is detrimental to the interests of their party.
Further problems were generated by the disparate attitudes toward the municipal elections in January, and what has been termed the opposition’s “ritualistic” participation in some instances and outright boycott — the Party of Communists of Belarus, for example — in others. Whereas Milinkevich, according to one source, feels that Russia is justified in requesting market prices for its oil and gas, Vyachorka considers the larger neighbor to be a threat to Belarus’s independence and has appealed for popular support to protect it. In short, there is no point in holding another Congress unless the opposition forces can find a common platform. There is also dissension on the process to gather signatures for the election of delegates, with complaints from the BPF in Hrodna that some of these signatures — gathered initially for the municipal elections — were falsified.
Another analyst, writing in Belarusy i Rynok, comments logically that Milinkevich really needs his own political structures in order to continue as the leader of the united opposition. Unity is essential because the rift with Russia, which for several years has been perceived by many observers as the best means to remove Lukashenka, has in fact served to further consolidate his power and potentially be recognized by European structures.
Yet little has changed within Belarus. Even at the height of the dispute with Russia, opposition activists were being arrested. Any change of attitude on the part of European structures toward the Lukashenka regime may lead — as Andrei Sannikau has pointed out — to more repression. Moreover, a dialogue was tried in the late 1990s at the behest of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk but collapsed after the authorities’ violated the agreement signed on July 15, 1999. The key question is surely why the opposition is now being asked once again to cooperate with a regime that has not shown the least signs of mending its ways.
(Svobodnye Novosti Plus, January 24-31; Charter 97, January 25; BelGazeta, January 29; Belapan, January 29; Narodnaya Volya, January 26 and February 2; Belarusy i Rynok, January 29-February 5)