Belarusian authorities have made some concessions to the opposition during the presidential election campaign, but they have also used violence and provocations to ensure that there are no surprises on March 19.
The violence began on February 17, registration day for presidential candidates. A scuffle broke out when guards refused to allow candidate Alexander Kazulin to enter the National Press Center building. One of the guards sprayed a liquid into the face of the main lawyer at Kazulin’s headquarters, Aleh Volchak, who was temporarily blinded.
A series of dramatic events occurred in the early days of March. On the initiative of the government and in conformity with past practices, an all-Belarusian People’s Assembly was held at the Palace of Sport and Culture of the railroad workers in Minsk on March 2. At 9 am, Kazulin tried to enter the building with a request that he be registered as a delegate to the assembly, which is essentially a forum for President Alexander Lukashenka to announce his policy for an anticipated third term in office. Belarusian Special Forces, headed by Dmitry Paulichenka, the commander believed to be responsible for the deaths of several opposition leaders, detained and severely beat the 50-year old Kazulin, who is a former rector of Belarusian State University.
On this same day, and in opposition to the official Assembly, opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich called a meeting of his supporters in Freedom Square, which was subsequently blocked by OMON troops. According to Western accounts, between 1,500 and 3,000 people attended the meeting. Charter 97 maintains that the real figure was closer to 10,000. Clearly this was the largest public demonstration in Belarus for many years, and, perhaps because of the size of the crowd, the militia did not attempt to disperse it. Kazulin, released from detention, also addressed the gathered crowd, an indication that the two opposition candidates may be cooperating at crucial times.
Both opposition candidates have been permitted to air two television broadcasts of around 30 minutes — in reality they were somewhat briefer because several items in the second speeches of both speakers were censored. Though these broadcasts were aired at inconvenient times, as people were returning home from work, they represent the first instances of public criticism of Lukashenka and his policies (and even his family and social life) since his first election in 1994.
Though giving way in some areas, the regime has struck back in others. Belarusian TV has several times cited fabricated exit poll bulletins that it alleges were issued by the Vilnius office of the Gallup sociological service. It claims that these bulletins were confiscated from the offices of the unregistered organization “Partnerstvo” and that they were dated March 19. They purported to show that, according to data in 107 election precincts, Milinkevich had gathered 53.7% of the vote, Lukashenka 41.3%, Kazulin 3.8%, and Syarhey Haidukevich, 1.2%. The director of the Gallup Baltic Bureau, Rasa Alisauskene, denied any knowledge of the bulletins. Aspects of their contents suggest that the government issued them to discredit the opposition, and, as one observer pointed out, no election poll would ever add up so neatly to 100%. Lukashenka has also maintained that Kazulin has tried to make a deal to attain the position of prime minister, and he has accused the Americans and Czechs in particular of overtly backing the opposition and trying to effect regime change.
Following the beating of Kazulin, the opposition newspaper Narodnayavolya ran a special issue of 250,000 copies, including many photographs of the events (these have also appeared on the web pages of Zubr and Charter-97). The authorities confiscated the issues shortly after the truck transporting them crossed the border from Smolensk, Russia, into Belarus. Numerous criminal cases have been concocted against opposition activists, particularly those from youth organizations (principally Zubr and the Young Front) for daubing graffiti in various places (specifically “Dostal,” which has been translated literally as “Fed up.” In Hrodna, criminal cases have reached a mass scale, with investigations, searches, and the confiscation of computers and various political literature. In one case Ivan Kruk of Hrodna Oblast destroyed his computer in order to avoid its confiscation by the militia.
The two opposition candidates meanwhile effectively complement each other. Kazulin infuriates the authorities with his direct actions and insults to the president (a criminal offence in itself), but the Central Election Commission has declined to force him to step down. Milinkevich has gradually become an effective candidate who is genuinely popular in his native Hrodna, and he is making inroads also in the city of Minsk. His blue jeans emblem now adorns many areas of the city and main universities. Milinkevich has called for a public meeting at 8 pm on March 19, which could serve as a protest action if the election results are manifestly false. His campaign “to win the hearts and minds of the people” has gained momentum. Yet the harsh and often brutal over-reaction of the regime to opposition activities is a sign of its nervousness. The “elegant victory” of 2001 will be succeeded by the ugly one of 2006.
(Belarusy i rynok, February 20 and 27; Narodnaya volya, February 24, March 4-5; Belarusian Television, February 22-23 and March 2; SB Belarus Segodnya, March 3, BBC Monitoring, March 3-6, Charter 97, March 3-6)