Belarus is headed for a simulated presidential election on September 9, which should give President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a third term of office. Lukashenka, however, does not consider it necessary to simulate an electoral campaign. He announced from the outset that he would neither campaign, nor set up a campaign organization to promote his candidacy. Instead, he is blanketing the country with the coverage of his presidential activities by government-owned media.
For their part, the alternative candidates are trying hard to campaign, but are being shut out completely by state television and radio. More than twenty presidential hopefuls had embarked two months ago on the effort to collect the 100,000 voter signatures, required for official registration as candidates. Lukashenka had encouraged a proliferation of less-than-serious candidacies in order to lend the exercise a veneer of pluralism.
The opposition entered five presidential aspirants, reflecting only in part the diversity of views within that camp. These are: former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, former Defense Minister Pavel Kazlouski, former Hrodna Region Governor Syamyon Domash, the incumbent Trade Union Federation Chairman Uladzimir Hancharyk, and Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin. While all of them are vocal critics of Lukashenka, their roots are in the Soviet nomenklatura, and they supported Lukashenka in the early stages of his presidency. The turning point for most of them was the November 1996 “velvet coup” in which Lukashenka seized absolute powers.
On July 21, the five designated Hancharyk as a common candidate and pledged to merge their respective support groups into a single organization to campaign for him. Should the authorities frustrate the legal registration of Hancharyk’s candidacy–for example, by challenging the validity of some of the signatures that he collected–the five agreed on July 21 that Domash would be the backup candidate.
Hancharyk broke with Lukashenka later than the others, but with equal conviction. His final turning point came in 1999 as a result of two developments: first, the rapid pauperization of industrial workers, requiring the trade union leadership to distance itself from the authorities; and, second, Lukashenka’s political decision to subvert the trade union establishment and replace it with his own loyal nominees. Lukashenka became the first–and, thus far, the sole–post-Soviet leader to risk a confrontation with the Soviet-era trade union establishment. By the same token, Hancharyk’s became the first such establishment to ally itself with Western organized labor and to call for market reforms as part of the confrontation with the state leadership. The International Confederation of Free Trade Union and other Western unions have helped Hancharyk’s union resist Lukashenka’s moves.
On July 17, Hancharyk made public a set of documents, apparently originating from within the repressive apparatus, which purport to show the complicity of top state officials in the “disappearance” of prominent oppositionists. Those documents suggest that the disappearances were in fact assassinations, ordered from on high. The victims are former Internal Affairs Minister Yury Zakharenka, former Electoral Commission Chairman Viktar Hanchar, businessman–and substantial donor to the opposition–Anatol Krasouski and television cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski. The first three disappeared in suspect circumstances in 1999; Zavadski–a critic of the regime though not a political figure–vanished last year. The authorities not only failed to account for the disappearances, but seemed to stonewall any serious investigations.
The documents Hancharyk made public seem to corroborate the testimonies of two investigators for the Belarusan General Prosecutor’s Office, who recently fled to the West in fear for their lives. The authenticity of the documents and testimonies has not been conclusively proven. Their gist is that Zakharenka, Hanchar, Krasouski and Zavadski were shot, while in the custody of the secret police, by a special death squad on orders from top officials. Those so incriminated include Yury Sivakou, Uladzimir Navumau and Viktar Sheyman, who have in recent years rotated in the top posts of the repressive apparatus and are among Lukashenka’s closest associates (Belapan, Belarusan Television, NTV, July 17-21).
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