The oldest opposition party in independent Belarus, the Popular Front, appears to be on the verge of yet another split within its ranks, one that according to its leader Lyavon Barcheuski, might result in its extinction. On June 20, the Popular Front will hold a meeting to establish its future direction, prior to staging an extraordinary congress (Soym) in September. One of the goals of the congress will be to investigate the activities of members, many of which have been working actively for the Movement for Freedom, led by Alyaksandr Milinkevich. The front also intends to elect a candidate to run in the presidential elections, which are likely to be held in 2011 (Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, June 3).
The comments by Barcheuski, who was elected leader of the Front in 2007, illustrate the current dilemma facing the party. Many of its members are preoccupied with duties for the erstwhile allied Movement for Freedom, thereby neglecting the party. In a letter, co-signed with several other leaders, Barcheuski deplored what he perceived as the "manageable" part of the opposition that has begun to cooperate with the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in order to promote Belarus’ European integration. These politicians, in the view of the co-signatories, overlook the crimes and repressions of the present government of Belarus in order to promote the country’s path into Europe through agencies such as the Eastern Partnership Project (www.charter97.org, June 3).
Interestingly, the letter, which presumably serves as the main platform for the forthcoming meeting, accords with recent remarks by Zyanon Paznyak, chairman of the Christian Conservative Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (CCP BPF), who has also criticized Milinkevich for being too conciliatory in his attitude to the Belarusian government. He believes that the initial criterion for any form of cooperation with the Belarusian government must be the removal of Lukashenka as president (www.charter97.org, May 14).
In a related development on May 26, twenty-eight activists signed a manifesto headed by the slogans "Independence! Freedom! European Choice!" to establish a European Forum. One-third of the signatories were from the Movement For Freedom, while others were members of the unregistered political parties Belarusian Christian Democracy (which was again refused registration in May), the Party of Freedom and Progress, and two unregistered youth movements Maladaya Belarus’ and Malady Front. The writers expressed their support for Milinkevich and his efforts to bring Belarus into Europe while promoting democratization, partly through a dialogue with the Lukashenka regime. The group held a meeting on May 30, and in addition to European integration, listed as its priorities "family values" and opposition to the construction of a new nuclear power station in Belarus (www.naviny.by, May 24; Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, June 3; Belorusy i Rynok, June 1-7).
According to one of the leaders of the European Coalition, Mikola Statkevich, several opposition groups will combine to hold a Congress on European Values in Minsk on June 21. The congress is to discuss proposals for European integration, an anti-crisis program to address current economic dilemmas, and it will elect a united candidate to run in the next presidential election. Interestingly, Statkevich included the Popular Front, several leaders of which are cited for their support, as a key member of the alliance (www.naviny.by, May 26).
Meanwhile, the Party of Communists of Belarus, which is led by Syarhey Kalyakin, has announced plans to change its name in order to distance itself from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -which has become increasingly anachronistic and irrelevant in present-day conditions. Kalyakin, a key leader of the United Democratic Forces that contested the 2006 presidential elections, suggested that the names "A Fair World" or the "Belarusian Leftist Party ‘A Fair World’" might be more appropriate. He noted that the membership of the party has been declining. Kalyakin stressed, however, that the party will remain loyal to the United Democratic Forces and had no plans to withdraw from the alliance (Belorusy i Rynok, May 25-31).
What do these events signify for the opposition of Belarus? Several preliminary conclusions can be offered. First, the mainstream leadership of the Popular Front is separating itself from the forces gathered around Milinkevich and refocusing its activities on opposition to the Lukashenka administration. Second, some leaders of the Front are likely to be asked to leave the party in the coming months, if they do not sever links with the Movement for Freedom. Third, Belarusian youth activists appear more inclined to offer support for Milinkevich, provided that the developing coalition (it could be termed the renewed United Democratic Forces) operates on a horizontal rather than a vertical basis allowing them scope for their own initiatives.
Finally, as a result of these developments there might be opportunities for a reunification of the two wings of the Popular Front, which could emerge as the only opposition force opposed unequivocally to any form of cooperation with the Lukashenka government. But the future of the party looks doubtful, given the loss of youth activists and members to the camp of Milinkevich.
According to Milinkevich, the defining moment will come at a forum of pro-European forces in November, to unite and mobilize those who support the Belarusian path into Europe (www.by.milinkevich.org, June 3). As in March 2006, he is emerging once again as the candidate most likely to be accepted as the main opposition challenger to Lukashenka.