On July 21, OMON troops attacked and clubbed demonstrators around Yakub Kolas Square on Skaryna Avenue in Minsk who were protesting the president’s ten years in power and likely referendum to run for a third term.
The protest action was organized by several opposition groups, including deputies of the parliamentary faction Respublika, the Belarusian Popular Front, and the youth group Zubr. The confrontation followed two events that symbolize the current impasse between the president and his main critics: the official celebration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Minsk from the German occupation regime on July 3; and a hunger strike held by the leading members of Respublika, based at the apartment of General Valery Frolau.
There have been widely varying figures as to the number of participants in the demonstration. Official sources maintain that less than 200 people were involved. The president himself cited a figure of 150-170 people, while mocking the organizers’ alleged anticipation of a march involving 40,000-60,000. Russian and Belarusian unofficial sources, however, cite a figure of between 2,000 and 5,000. Moreover, they state that the numbers would have been considerably larger, had not GAI highway inspectors barred numerous vehicles at the road entrance to the city of Minsk.
Even the president did not deny that the demonstration potentially could have been larger. In his opinion, the opposition tried and failed to recruit demonstrators from the regions with the promise of hard currency. He noted that when such currency was not made available prior to arrival in Minsk, these people returned home.
The response to the demonstration was predictably harsh and resembled the earlier years of the Lukashenka administration. The government refused to permit marchers to assemble in central Minsk, although it is apparent that many of those present were unaware of the ban. As a smaller group became separated from the rest of the protesters, it was attacked by OMON militia, with several protesters being hospitalized, including one with a ruptured spleen. Altogether, some 60 people were arrested. Of those that have appeared at the Minsk court, 20 have received jail sentences of between three and 15 days.
The Lukashenka regime remains firmly in place. The president extended his original five-year term in office by holding a referendum after a confrontation with Parliament in 1996. That referendum expanded the authority of the president while reducing Parliament to a rump body of 120 members and establishing an upper chamber called the Council of the Republic. In the spring of 1999, the opposition held a mock presidential election to draw attention to the fact that the term of Lukashenka’s original mandate had now expired.
The president did stand for election again on September 9, 2001, but that event received relatively little publicity because of the terrorist attacks on the United States two days later. Though most polls suggested Lukashenka had a comfortable lead over his nearest challenger, Uladzimir Hancharyk, most international observers remained skeptical about his alleged total of over 75% of the votes in what the president described as a “beautiful and elegant victory.”
According to the Constitution (even in its amended form of late 1996), the president cannot run for a third term. On July 20, however, the president gave the strongest hint to date that he may amend the Constitution again in order to seek a third term in office. He commented that the office of president was tiring, but that it was in this same role that he envisaged his future. The key question for most analysts is not whether there will be a new referendum, but when.
The likelihood is that Lukashenka will await the results of the parliamentary elections of October 17. The president has expressed his hope that the new parliament will be limited to his supporters, signaling the eclipse of the troublesome Respublika group, which has already dwindled from its original 11 deputies to five.
The opposition has, somewhat typically, split into two main camps to contest these elections. The largest group, formed mainly on the initiative of Anatoly Lebedzka, leader of the United Civic Party UCP), called 5-Plus combines five opposition parties: the UCP, the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), the Social Democratic Party led by Stanislau Shushkevich, the Party of Labor, and the Party of Communists, as well as over 200 NGOs and smaller groups. The 5-Plus will contest every seat in the election, but is still not well known on a national level. Mikola Statkevich, leader of the Social Democratic Party “Naradnaya Hramada” heads a Euro-Coalition that perceives Belarus as a future member of the EU (recently the United Civic Party also embraced an EU future for Belarus, as has consistently the BNF).
The parliamentary election forms the prelude to what is likely to be a new constitutional and political crisis in Belarus in the fall of 2004.The brutal suppression of the peaceful demonstration on July 21 is a clear manifestation that Lukashenka intends to remain in office for the foreseeable future, and he is willing to resort to force to extend his term if necessary.