Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 36

Opposition rally violently shut down by Belarus authorities

The Central Election Commission in Belarus announced on February 17 that four candidates have been officially registered for the presidential election of March 19. These include: President Alexander Lukashenka; leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Syarhey Haidukevich; and two opposition candidates, Alexander Kazulin of the Social Democratic Party and the leader of the united opposition, Alexander Milinkevich. The CEC announced that Lukashenka had received 1,903,069 valid signatures (this is almost one-third of the entire electorate), whereas over 180,000 had signed the lists legally for Milinkevich (his original total was over 226,000), and slightly lower totals were recorded for the other two candidates (Itar-Tass, February 17).

The Lukashenka team is essentially the government of Belarus team, and it has adopted a clear strategy that might be summarized in four points: project an image of stability and contentment among the citizens of the republic; maintain tight control over all aspects of the campaign; deploy harsh repressions against opposition structures; and provide almost blanket coverage of the presidential campaign on television, radio, and the official media. It is anticipated that, despite a much more watchful attitude on the part of the EU than hitherto, and some ambivalence toward the Lukashenka regime on the part of Putin’s Russia, these factors will be enough to ensure a third term in office for the incumbent president.

Thus on February 18, the main government newspaper cited an opinion poll conducted by the Institute of Sociology, Belarusian Academy of Sciences, using more than 9,000 respondents from all parts of the country, and under the direction of Institute director, Hryhory Evelkin. The poll’s results purported to show a notable rise in positive feelings about the political situation in Belarus from 29.02% in 2002, to 55.45% at the end of 2005. Not less than 76% of citizens expressed their readiness to support Lukashenka in the presidential campaign, with figures of around 3-4% for opposition candidates. Evelkin declared that the results indicated strong support for state policies (SB Belarus Segodnya, February 18).

The popularity of the president and his regime aside, the election results are virtually preordained by the composition of the CEC and the territorial commissions. Uladzimir Labkovich, who heads the legal office of the Milinkevich campaign, remarked, “The gravest violations” of the legal code are to be found in these commissions. The United Civic Party, for example, nominated around 800 people for the election commissions, many of which had experience as state officials, in the parliament, and organs of local government. However, only one member made it through to acceptance. In the Zavadsky district of Minsk, representatives of the UCP were informed that the commissions had been formed prior to the submission of names (Charter 97, February 15; Narodnaya volya, February 13-14).

To ensure that the opposition candidates cannot mount a sustained campaign, the regime has clamped down on their activity since the first days of the campaign. Two parties have reached the stage of “second warning” from the Ministry of Justice, meaning that they are on the verge of official dissolution. The Party of Communists of Belarus received such a warning in early February after its leader, Syarhey Kalyakin, appealed to leaders of local governments to ensure that opposition candidates were included in the territorial commissions. The Party of the Belarusian Popular Front received a similar warning shortly afterward because of alleged invalid addresses of party headquarters in the Hrodna and Homel regions. Officially a party cannot be dissolved during an election campaign, but such warnings serve to curtail freedom of activity (Narodnaya volya, February 3-4 and 6-7).

Kalyakin has a dual role as the leader of the headquarters of the Milinkevich campaign. In that capacity he criticized strongly the enforced gathering of signatures for the Lukashenka campaign in the organs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the office of the State Prosecutor. In return he was accused of libel and of “denigrating the president of Belarus” and ordered to report to the Prosecutor’s office. On February 11, the chairman of the executive committee of Democratic Forces, Anatol Lyabedzka, was detained in Salihorsk while local militia checked his identity (Belarusy i rynok, February 13).

The EU has taken particular interest in the election, and the Milinkevich campaign in particular. This year Milinkevich has already met the French foreign minister, the Polish president, the German chancellor, and the head of the European Commission, and he has been given a rostrum in the Polish Sejm, the European Parliament, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He has also, together with Kazulin, visited Russia, though not at an official level (Narodnaya volya, February 10-11). Russian President Vladimir Putin, in turn, has declared that his meetings with the Belarusian president can be explained by his support for the fraternal Belarusian people (Belarusian Television, January 31).

However, the Lukashenka regime is aware of the limits to foreign intervention in the campaign. Its militia were not restrained from brutally repressing a demonstration by Milinkevich supporters in October Square on February 16 (“Jeans Day”) when dozens were arrested and beaten, including one of the organizers, Irina Khalip (Charter 97, February 16). Thus to date, the “happy and stable environment” remains under the close and watchful control of the Lukashenka government.