The apocalyptic phrase “last summer of the opposition” was the title of an article by Dmitry Drigailo, which prognosticated that after the 2006 presidential elections in Belarus, the political opposition would cease to exist. Either it will come to power or “it will be taken to the prosecutor’s office” in the event that current president, Alexander Lukashenka, is reelected to office (Belorusskaya gazeta, August 26).
This summer has been marked by the inability of the national organizational committee to obtain permission to use a building in September that will accommodate at least 700 delegates for the purpose of electing an alternative candidate to Lukashenka at an all-Belarusian Congress of Democratic Forces. The urgency of the convocation of this forum is evident, given that the date of the next presidential elections will be announced in January 2006. The chairman of the organizing committee, Alexander Bukhvostov, noted last month that 80 out of 143 planned meetings had been held to elect delegates, the majority of which are nonparty people, while the United Civic Party occupies the second place. The two leading candidates to emerge — and the almost certain contenders — are Alexander Milinkevich and Anatol Lyabedzka (Belorusskiy rynok, August 8).
Lyabedzka is perhaps more familiar to the Belarusian public. Aged 44, he is chairman of the United Civic Party and a native of Minsk region, and he has been a strong critic of the Lukashenka administration for some ten years. He has incensed the government by denouncing it at meetings in the United States (October 1999), and for leading demonstrations. In late August he attended a conference in Poland devoted to the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity trade union and was detained by the authorities upon his return, and materials gathered at the conference confiscated from him (Narodnaya volya, September 3).
Milinkevich is a 57-year old physics professor from the Hrodna region, with no party affiliation, though he was proposed by the Soim of the Belarusian Popular Front last February, and nominated by the Belarusian Green Party at this same time. He was a member of the Hrodna city council for six years and speaks five languages (Charter 97, February 14).
An important role could also be played by the fringe candidates such as Syarhey Kalyakin of the Communists and Stanislau Shushkevich of the Social Democrats, who must decide to whom to give their support. To date, neither leading candidate would be expected to fare well in a straight contest with Lukashenka. Of the two Lyabedzka has a slightly higher rating — both are below 2% according to a May 2005 survey by NISEPI. Other surveys suggest that the president has the support of about 40% of the electorate, but an opposition candidate could expect to receive 23-25% (Svobodnye Novosti Plus, August 10-17). The election campaign is to be conducted by a political council, which will include the leaders of the national political parties and active public organizations, and the Council in turn will create a National Executive Committee (Shadow Cabinet) (Narodnaya volya, August 19).
However, the next stage of the process — the location of a building for the forum — has proved to be a problematic. The organizers have sent some 50 applications signed by the leaders of the five registered political parties (the Popular Front, the Women’s Party, the Social Democrats, the United Civic Party, and the Party of Communists) to different organs of executive power, but none has received approval. The response from Babruisk region was typical: it declared that that several concerts were planned for the month of September, and that the rental of the hall would cost 62.2 Euros per hour! (Narodnaya volya, August 17). General Valery Fralou, an opposition deputy in the House of Representatives, commented, “If the opposition is not provided with a place to meet, it is one more sign of the sort of system we have” (Narodnaya volya, September 1).
Conceivably, the forum could be held in the Palace of the Republic in Minsk. However, it could even be held outside the country — both Smolensk and Kyiv are cited as possible alternative venues, though both may give rise to government accusations of trying to “import revolution” (Narodnaya volya, August 19). The holding of the forum would not necessarily bring success. Relatively small attendance at some meetings has been brought about by fear of official recriminations, especially dismissal from employment for participation — the exception to this general picture is the city of Minsk. There have also been instances of preventive arrests of delegates, detention by border guards, and infiltration of meetings by members of the police (Belorusskaya gazeta, August 26).
Perhaps most critical is the unity of the opposition. The election process requires the partial sacrifice of party “sovereignty” for the formation of a supra-party opposition bloc. Milinkevich has maintained that if a single candidate is not chosen, then the coalition will be destroyed, but he remains optimistic that this outcome is unlikely (Belorusy i rynok, August 29). Nevertheless, the Congress has already required several compromises from both the Five Plus and broader Group of Ten opposition parties and organizations. It is a bold venture with numerous potential pitfalls.