The term “Belarusian opposition” is practically a platitude. It is deployed by the Belarusian authorities to denote a small sector of the population that is dissatisfied with the presidency of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. For the official media it is a term of abuse. However, in Belarus it can refer to practically anyone who has fallen foul of the government: politicians, diplomats, trade unionists, youth activists, former cabinet ministers, communists, and registered and unregistered parties or associations.
Recently, the opposition has formed several coalitions as a prelude to electing a single candidate for the presidential elections anticipated in February 2011. The main ones are the New Generation (uniting several youth movements), Coalition of the United Democratic Forces (UDF), the European Coalition (ES), and the Belarusian Independence Bloc (BIB). Each, in theory, can advance its own candidate –the ES, for example, has already nominated Mikalay Statkevich (Novae Pakalen’na, April 16) –but they do not encompass several others who have declared their intention to run.
In the background lie the recently completed municipal elections. On May 5, the United Democratic Forces Political Council issued a statement saying that “problems remain with a lack of transparency on vote counting.” It is evident also that the composition of the electoral commissions was heavily weighted against opposition figures. Out of 85,210 members, only 194 were from the democratic forces, or 0.2 percent. Whereas some 2,500 oppositionists expressed their wish to be candidates in the April 25 elections, only 500 did so, and out of 21,288 deputies elected, just 10 derived from their ranks (Telegraf, May 6).
The task ahead, based on this evidence, is formidable. On May 5, the Council of the Belarusian Intelligentsia (CBI) held a meeting to discuss possible presidential candidates, a move supported by several actual and potential nominees including Mikalay Statkevich, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Vital Rymasheuski, the Co-Chairman of the Christian Democratic Party, Lyavon Barshcheuski of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Alyaksandr Kazulin, the former Rector of the Belarusian State University (www.charter97.org, April 23). Yet, just two days before the CBI meeting, the leader of the Movement for Freedom, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, officially announced his candidacy and outlined his platform. In theory, reported one source, he has agreed to step down if the democratic forces select a stronger candidate but that was a politically correct stance as it is unlikely that he will do so (www.belmy.by, May 6).
European Belarus leader, Andrey Sannikau, took a more forthright position and simply refused to cooperate with the CBI. He saw little sense in taking part as no results could be anticipated. Belarus needs a strong democratic candidate, he acknowledged, but it is immaterial whether it will be a “single candidate” (www.charter97.org, April 23). The first leader of independent Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich, publicly backed the candidacy of Sannikau in a sensational interview with Euramost, in which he commented that Milinkevich showed cowardice during the 2006 campaign –Kazulin by contrast acted heroically– and that he has betrayed the opposition by obeying the current authorities even though there have been no substantial changes to the electoral law (Telegraf, May 5).
The 75-year old, Shushkevich, also dismissed the youthful candidates, Ales Mikhalevich, the former Deputy Chairman of the Popular Front, and Rymasheuski. If a person has never worked in his life and has not experienced leadership for several years, he stated, then it is “laughable foolishness” to think that he can rule the country, adding: “These candidates have no one to vote for them because they have done nothing serious in their lives” (Telegraf, May 5). Such a comment not only lowers the tone of debate by denigrating individuals, it also runs counter to the Belarusian constitution, which permits anyone over 35 to run for election providing that they have been resident in the country for ten years.
Differences have also surfaced between the Belarusian Christian Democratic Party and Milinkevich. Co-leader of the former, Paval Sevyarynets, maintains that Milinkevich misinterprets the party’s position (and implicitly that of its candidate Rymasheuski) on Europe. Milinkevich claimed that the party was disillusioned with European values, but according to Sevarynets, it is committed to joining Europe and spreading its policy of Christian values. Sevyarynets also added that in local elections, his party was the most active, whereas representatives of the Movement for Freedom were practically invisible. He claims that the Christian Democrats have a significant national presence (Euramost, May 6).
All factions maintain that the presidential election may end in street protests, but whereas Milinkevich speaks of a non-revolutionary and peaceful demonstration, Young Front leader, Zmitser Dashkevich, maintains that the opposition’s strategy should remember the errors of 2001 and 2006 and be focused “on the square” (Naviny BKhD, May 6). These multi-sided attacks on Milinkevich reflect also the fact that he and his party are well ahead in terms of organization and platform. He proposes to raise $10 billion for investment in the economy, reform of the courts, health care, and utilities, European education for Belarusian youth, and a halt to the current nuclear power plant construction though not the industry in general. He also supports private property, a transparent national budget and EU membership for Belarus (European Radio for Belarus, May 3).
However, there is currently over ten potential candidates, with Kazulin perhaps being the likely choice for the CBI, his criminal record notwithstanding. The key issue is for the opposition to set aside personality clashes and reach an agreement on a single candidate. To do otherwise will only play into the hands of the authorities.