Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 142

Some 5,000 supporters of opposition parties demonstrated in Minsk on July 21 to mark the official end of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s presidential mandate and to reject its arbitrary prolongation after July 20 (see the Monitor, July 21). Held under the motto, “an end to dictatorship in the center of Europe,” the action included some burlesque, happening-style events, such as parodies on pan-Slavist propaganda and a mock ceremony of farewell to Lukashenka. OMON police using batons and tear gas broke up the peaceful procession when it approached the presidential residence, and dozens of demonstrators were hauled from October Revolution Square to the Lenin district court (both still so named) to be charged and stand trial. Those charged include the prominent opposition figures Vyacheslav Shivchik and Valery Shchukin and the editor-in-chief Irina Khalip of the beleaguered independent weekly “Imya.” Amnesty International has announced that convictions would trigger its intervention.

The rump of the legitimate parliament–forcibly dissolved by Lukashenka in 1996, but enjoying uninterrupted international recognition–held a special session underground on July 21. Chairman Syamyon Sharetsky announced that Lukashenka is henceforth to be treated as a private citizen in accordance with the 1994 constitution. Yet Sharetsky stopped short of taking the next step under that constitution–namely, the transfer of presidential powers to the chairman of parliament in the event of presidential vacancy. Because that measure had figured on the session’s preannounced agenda, and because the legitimate parliamentary leadership favored declaring Sharetsky acting head of state, some local observers inferred that Sharetsky had been pressured into temporizing.

The chairman had recently moved into the Minsk mission headquarters following police threats of violence against him. That Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission, while criticizing Lukashenka and supporting democracy in Belarus, wants to avoid a situation of dual power and opposes the creation of an alternative presidency. The mission had, for those reasons, sought to discourage the alternative presidential election which the opposition held in May of this year (see the Monitor, May 10-11). The rump parliament’s July 21 session nevertheless elected Belarus’ first vice president–Viktar Hanchar–to automatically step in for Sharetsky if the latter is declared acting head of state. Hanchar is a former chairman of the country’s Central Electoral Commission, who joined the opposition and administered in May the alternative presidential election (Belapan, Charter-97 press release (Minsk), Belarusan Television, NTV, Amnesty International press release, AP, Reuters,July 21-22).