The October 17 referendum in Belarus was followed by several days of public protests by the opposition in central Minsk. Opposition leaders have suggested different strategies to adopt in the wake of the election and the international reaction to it.
Most analysts have concluded that the authorities largely engineered the results of both the referendum and parliamentary election. Commenting recently on the website of Charter 97, Oleg Manayev, director of the Independent Institute for Social, Economic, and Political Studies, stated that the exit poll carried out by the Gallup Baltic Service on October 12-17 interviewed almost 19,000 people and that the margin of error could not have exceeded one percentage point. That poll indicated that only 48.4% of all eligible voters supported the referendum motion to allow Alexander Lukashenka to run for a third term as president (the official result was more than 79%) (Charter 97.org, November 5). Rarely in the past has the gap between the official and exit poll results been so wide.
Similarly, the parliamentary races, which saw the election of 108 out of 110 deputies, were also conducted amid violations. One account indicates the presence of police officers in the voting rooms, the availability of cheap alcohol, and students being forced to vote in early polls. In one Gomel region, polling station chairs announced the results only after conferring with the district administration chief (Interfax, October 22). Several analysts suspect that the parliamentary results were contrived.
The most prominent deputy is Syarhey Haidukevich, a presidential candidate in 2001 and the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, one of the largest parties in Belarus. He has changed his allegiance openly. He received the backing of the pro-government newspaper Minskiy Kuryer and made an open appeal to the electorate to support Lukashenka at the referendum. A former member of the United Civic Party, Uladzimir Kruk, suspended his membership before winning a seat (Belorusskiy tynok, October 25-31). Olga Abramova, head of the Belarusian “Yabloko” party is an independent voice, but she has always steered clear of the opposition. She was also a member of the former parliament.
After the initial public protests, several opposition politicians provided their views on future strategy. Alexander Dabravolsky, deputy chairman of the United Civic Party, announced the beginning of a civic campaign to nominate a single candidate for the presidential election of 2006, and maintained that the 5-Plus group would continue to operate and attract other organizations. Similarly, Alexander Vaitovich of the civic initiative “For Fair Elections” believes that the regime will start to act more ruthlessly against opponents after the referendum, citing the recent brutal assault on journalist Pavel Sheremet, and that the opposition must unite and elaborate a common strategy (Nasha Niva, October 22).
Political analyst Andrei Kazakevich maintained that the regime’s legitimacy has been undermined and that political campaigns should be continued, but without resorting to public demonstrations on the streets. Zyanon Paznyak, the exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, stated that the violations of the law should be compiled and given to international organizations. He declared that whereas the regime should be isolated, Belarus as a whole should not be so treated. He also believes — as his party’s boycott of the elections demonstrated — that “a struggle that uses elections is finished forever” (Nasha Niva, October 22).
The European Union, OSCE, and Council of Europe have refused to recognize the results of the referendum and parliamentary elections. The EU stated that it would continue to assist “all democratic forces” in Belarus. Former head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus, Ambassador Hans Georg Wieck, observed that the “policies of careful rapprochement do not work” and that it is necessary to put pressure on the Lukashenka regime by means of establishing a radio station and supporting civic society (Svobodnye Novosti Plus, October 27-November 3). The Lithuanian parliament adopted a resolution on the elections and referendum in Belarus, in which the key statement reads, “The extension of the presidential office indefinitely is regarded as an evident violation of European democratic traditions” (Interfax, November 3).
Faced with almost unanimous condemnation of the votes on October 17 (the exception was Russia, though opinion in that country appears to be mixed), the Lukashenka regime made some outrageous comments on the validity of the U.S. elections, while the president carefully hedged his bets on the likely results in Ukraine, pointing out — with an implicit swipe at Vladimir Putin — that he had not intruded in that campaign despite his presence in Kyiv for the war commemoration, and that he had very friendly relations with Viktor Yushchenko, but also liked Viktor Yanukovych, a man of Belarusian ancestry. He made it plain, however, that he expects Yushchenko to win (Interfax, November 4).
The inference is clear. Lukashenka’s relations with Putin remain somewhat distant, and he is anxious to be on good terms with Ukraine, no matter what the outcome of the election there. As always he is looking east, but the east may soon become alien territory as well.