As the proposed date for the Second Congress of the United Democratic Forces (UDF) of Belarus approaches (March 17), leaders of the Belarusian opposition are engaged in an animated debate on the future of the organization and whether its leadership should be elected on a rotational basis. The current leader, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, has alternated between statements that he does not plan to attend and that he definitely intends to take part. As a compromise, the leader of the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, Vintsuk Vyachorka, has suggested postponing the Congress until May and of making a distinction between the head of the Presidium of the Congress and the leader of the UDF, with the former being rotational and the latter remaining Milinkevich.
Time is of the essence. Rarely has the opposition been presented with such a gilt-edged opportunity to wrest concessions from the Lukashenka regime, which recently received the news that neither the United States nor the EU has any intention of relieving travel bans on its leaders or engaging in a new dialogue with Minsk in light of its current difficulties with Russia without significant changes in the way the government operates. Further, the pivotal date of March 25 is also traditionally the time for mass protests and coordinated actions of public associations and political parties that oppose the Belarusian government. Some opposition leaders would rather organize actions for this date before turning attention to another Congress.
There has been a confusing series of statements and events with regard to the Second Congress. On February 14, Milinkevich declared that he would not be attending the Congress because the Political Council of the UDF had opted for a rotational leadership and had allotted priority to party forces over civic activists. Consolidation of parties, Milinkevich was cited as saying, was important but is not the same thing as the consolidation of democratic forces. A week later, he elaborated on this notion, commenting that the movement “For Freedom” represents the “consolidated democratic forces” of the country, embracing supporters of democratic change, European choice, and the independence of Belarus regardless of party affiliation.
More recently, Milinkevich stated that “Certainly I am going to the Congress.” He qualified this more positive statement by adding that he would attend as long as it did not result in a major rift, and providing that a single, strong leader (implicitly himself) were accepted. He perceives his role not as a dictator, but as a consolidator of forces at the center and regions, and as the defined and accepted leader of the UDF, recognizable already in Western capitals and of growing stature in the regions of Belarus. “We are at war,” he has stated, and therefore “we need a general, headquarters, officers, and soldiers.” His critics continue to assail his attitude. Syarhey Kalyakin of the Party of Communists commented that he has been unable to ascertain Milinkevich’s objections to the proposed procedures. Through his lawyer, imprisoned Social Democratic leader Alyaksandr Kazulin remarked that the opposition had achieved a great deal when it elected Milinkevich as the UDF leader in 2005, but now he was jeopardizing the existence of the entire coalition. (Interestingly Kazulin neglects to say why he opted to run against Milinkevich in the 2006 election rather than joining the UDF.)
As for delegates elected to date, and many have yet to receive final approval, the Party of Communists has 149, the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front 89, and the United Civic Party and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) both have 53. However, there are 96 supporters of Milinkevich’s For Freedom movement, and he is likely to garner support from a number of fringe groups, as well as rank-and-file members of the Popular Front. An option is also being floated of inviting delegates from the 2005 Congress to participate as well. Thus, assuming the Congress takes place as scheduled and Milinkevich attends, he would have a reasonable chance of being reelected as leader.
Last week three prominent opposition leaders, Vyachorka, Kalyakin, and Anatol Lyabedzka, visited Washington, DC, for meetings in the U.S. Department of State and major non-government organizations: (United Civic Party). It is evident that both United States and the EU remain supportive of the UDF for now. Thus it is critical for unity to be maintained at all costs, and whether a potentially fractious Second Congress, only eighteen months after the first one, would be beneficial to the opposition cause remains a moot point. Though the quest for democratic procedures is admirable, there is no immediate reason why Milinkevich should be replaced so suddenly, particularly in view of his achievements to date. That he is better known outside the country than within is merely a reflection of the brevity of his leadership. As he notes himself, he remains outside party structures, but that is hardly a disadvantage given the general apathy or disdain of the electorate toward the current batch of political parties.
There seems little justification, therefore, for any radical change of course by the United Opposition during this difficult period between the frenetic activity of presidential and parliamentary elections.
(Belarusy i rynok, February 19-26, February 26-March 5; Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, February 28, March 1; www.milinkevich.org, February 22, 23; European Parliament, March 1; Charter 97, February 28)