The united opposition campaign during the 2006 Belarusian presidential election was a creditable effort, particularly in the weeks leading up to the vote as well during the protests afterward in October Square. Though hundreds were arrested, and the crackdown by the authorities is continuing, there was a genuine sentiment of new unity. As a result, the youth group Zubr announced its self-dissolution in order to combine its efforts with others in the movement “For Freedom!” (Narodnaya volya, May 12).
However, there are some disturbing signs that this unity, attained with great difficulty under the most adverse conditions, may be weakening. The main issue is how to maintain the momentum generated during the presidential campaign now that President Alexander Lukashenka has been firmly reconsolidated in power (the manipulation of the vote count notwithstanding). Viktar Karneenka, a member of the Political Council of the united opposition, has commented that the opposition must emerge from its “ghetto” and go to the people. It cannot, in his view, be distracted by bureaucratic issues, such as how its executive committee is supposed to function (Belarusy i rynok, May 29).
Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, and the candidate narrowly defeated for the united leadership by Alexander Milinkevich, attended a meeting of the Political Council of the democratic forces, but refused to vote for a new two-year strategy to bring democracy to Belarus. Lyabedzka proposed instead another full-scale Congress that would presumably vote on a new leader, but his proposal was rejected by other members of the Political Council, who consider this a waste of time. Political scientist Uladzimir Matskevich maintains that the campaign “For Freedom” is little more than a play on words, lacking in concepts. The people who gathered in the square, in his view, cannot be fooled by political mottos and do not believe “either Lyabedzka or Milinkevich” (Belarusy i rynok, May 29; Narodnaya volya, May 30).
Lyabedzka was reelected chairman of the United Civic Party at its 10th Congress in late May, receiving 138 votes from a possible 164. During his speech on this occasion, which appealed for another democratic congress, he declared that the supporters of jailed presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin should also be invited as well as participants from the October Square tent camp. His party’s priorities for the future, he stated, would embrace a campaign to release political detainees as well as an international public tribunal for the Lukashenka regime (Belapan, May 28).
Meanwhile within the Social Democratic camp, rivalries and dissensions remain. Politicians such as Mikhail Statkevich (a former leader and, like Kazulin, still in prison) oppose any sort of agreement with the united opposition, according to deputy chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), Anatol Lyawkovich. A common strategy of action, in Lyawkovich’s view, should be founded on “common values” but not on personal political interests. The first step in his view must be the release from prison of Kazulin (arrested on March 25 during a clash with militia). However, the united pro-democracy forces have not been actively involved in the campaign for Kazulin’s release. Only 218 signatures have been gathered on a petition, and of the united democratic camp, only Lyabedzka has signed it (Belapan, June 1). The Milinkevich team has been somewhat reticent in its support for Kazulin, a man with whom it had mixed relations during the election campaign.
The other major leader in the united democratic campaign, Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Party of Communists of Belarus, has his own problem –a state-engineered campaign to unite the two branches of the Communist Party at a congress scheduled for July 15, which would effectively oust him from authority and create a potential party of power should the president opt to move in that direction. In such a situation, Kalyakin intends to form a new party (Belapan, June 5). Meanwhile yet another democratic leader, the exiled Zyanon Paznyak, was recently reelected as the leader of the Conservative Christian Party of the BPF by 94 votes to 2 at the party’s 7th congress, held at the Palace of Culture of the Minsk Tractor factory on May 27 (Belapan, May 27).
Are there really major problems within the united opposition? There are several key issues. In the first place, there is a danger that Milinkevich may be perceived by the more radical elements in society as too passive and out of touch. For example, the For Freedom campaign is vague, too sweeping, and lacking in any immediate and attainable goals. Second, Lyabedzka’s disaffection, as well as the various party congresses, reflects an alarming tendency to allow party politics to supersede the urgent need to maintain unity, form a common strategy, and to encompass all democratic forces within Belarus — from Kazulin, to Kalyakin, and even Paznyak, who has yet to support any of the common platforms of the opposition movement.
Lastly, Lukashenka faces difficult days ahead, particularly with Russia concerning gas prices. But his task will be rendered considerably easier by public bickering within the opposition camp, which could easily result in the loss of trust of its supporters, particularly the radical youth. At the same time it may give credence to Lukashenka’s common references to the futility of the opposition.