On October 2 about 1,000 delegates attending the Congress of Democratic Forces of Belarus, meeting at the Palace of Culture of the Minsk Automobile Factory, elected Alexander Milinkevich as the single candidate for the presidential elections of 2006. Milinkevich received 399 votes, defeating his closest challenger, Anatol Lyabedzka, by just eight votes. Other candidates, such as leader of the Party of Communist Syarhey Kalyakin and Social Democrat and former parliamentary chairman Stanislau Shushkevich withdrew (Itar-Tass, October 2). Ostensibly Milinkevich now has the support of all major opposition parties and public associations in the country.
The election of Milinkevich surprised some analysts. Lyabedzka, though much younger at 44, is a more seasoned campaigner with a well-developed organizational structure behind him in the United Civic Party. Milinkevich was also the candidate of the nationalist Belarusian Popular Front, and initially proposed by the Green Party. Aged 58, he is an academic who was a member of the Faculty of Physics at Hrodna State University for more than 20 years. Fluent in five languages, he also attended the University of California, as well as an institute for security studies in Germany. He is known for his tolerance and moderation, as well as for his leadership of a now-dissolved public association in Hrodna called Ratusha (Charter 97, February 14, October 2; AP, October 2).
In addition to his impressive credentials, Milinkevich is firmly oriented toward Poland, both through ancestral ties and through his interest in ethnography. Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski has taken a particular interest in his campaign, and it is through support from Poland that Belarus has the best chances of leaving the Russian orbit and joining the EU. Publicly, Milinkevich has expressed his belief in the possibility of winning the 2006 elections in the event of a “normal” campaign. In that event, he would restore the country to the democratic path and return the authority to the legislature that it possessed from the 1994 Constitution, subsequently amended by President Alexander Lukashenka.
In private, however, Milinkevich takes a more realistic view. In a penetrating analysis of Milinkevich’s chances for victory, Yaroslav Shimov has noted that the electoral support for Lukashenka hovers around 40%, while no opposition leader to date can muster more than 3%. In a direct contest that situation is likely to change — the opposition leader won more than 15% of the vote in 2001, and around 30% in the city of Minsk — nevertheless, given the state monopoly over the media, new laws preventing outside financial support for the opposition, and the conditions of a personal dictatorship, the chances for anoposition electoral victory remain remote (Gazeta.Ru, October 3). That situation led some opposition leaders (Andrei Klimau, Zyanon Paznyak) to stay clear of the Congress and to prefer the policy of boycotting the election.
Shimov cites Milinkevich as being well aware of this situation and favoring a “Maidan” situation similar to that in Ukraine last year, when a popular uprising forced an overturning of official election results. However the situation in Belarus is dissimilar to that of Ukraine: Belarusians in general adhere to the values of the Soviet era — stability, a provincial perspective, the absence of wide contrasts in standards of living and salaries. The president has worked well into his propaganda the contrast between peaceful Belarus, with its lack of ethnic conflict, absence of terrorism, and distance from “great power conflicts” and its neighbors. In this sense, it is perceived as a typically East European country oriented toward Russia, whereas its Polish and Czech neighbors are more inclined toward the West (Gazeta.Ru, October 3).
While realistic, such a viewpoint may underestimate the potential for change or “quiet revolution” in Belarus. For one thing, both the United States and the EU have taken more interest in Belarus than hitherto, imposing sanctions, on the government, restricting its travel to their countries, and denouncing Lukashenka for his abuses of human rights. Both the United States and the EU are actively engaged in developing and expanding TV and radio broadcasts into the country to counter official propaganda (Pravda, October 3).
The official portrait of a thriving and increasingly prosperous nation is belied by increasing concern over social and health problems, as well as by a rapidly declining population that has fallen by over 500,000 since the 1990s. Though the opposition has often failed to bring substantial forces to the streets for public protests — rarely more than 5,000 people and often 1,000-2,000 on commemorative occasions — when those protests have been allied with economic issues, such as that of public traders earlier this year, the government has felt obliged to compromise.
The key issue for Milinkevich is to be able to campaign overtly and publicly in the face of official harassment and propaganda that will undoubtedly depict him as a nationalist extremist supported by Poland and the West. His attitude to Russia is also notable — one of his initial slogans supported entry into the EU alongside Russia. More important, however, is his advocacy of neutrality, signifying an end to the path of a union with Russia. It must be a campaign to win the hearts and minds of people reconciled to the Lukashenka dictatorship and often convinced by state media that they have the best of several possible alternatives.