On May 26-27, the 2nd Congress of United Democratic Forces (UDF) was held at the Palace of Culture of the Minsk Automobile Factory. It ended the single leadership of Alyaksandr Milinkevich and replaced him with a system of co-chairs. The UDF also modified its previous strategy by adopting a policy of constructive dialogue with the authorities and the Belarusian elite.
Such a radical change signifies the clout of political parties in determining the policies of a would-be united opposition that has struggled to make an impact on the Belarusian electorate. Eight different factions were represented at the Congress. Milinkevich’s Regions for Freedom had 201 delegates; the Party of Communists of Belarus (PCB) 124; the faction of the United Civic Party 119; the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (PBNF) 98; the Union of Labor 95; the Social Democratic Hramada 94; the European Coalition 50; and the Party of Freedom and Progress 28. Those factions with at least 92 representatives automatically receive a place in the Presidium of the Political Council of the United Democratic Forces.
The majority has approved a “National Roundtable” campaign that is directed at overcoming an anticipated economic crisis that will bring about a dramatic reduction in living standards. To facilitate such a discussion, the Congress adopted a “Small Constitution” and an “Economic Platform.” The Small Constitution deals with matters such as elections, branches of power, and international treaties, whereas the Economic Platform proposes the adoption of a market economy with more widespread privatization and an end to the state’s monopoly. The Congress approved a 44-member Political Council and concluded after approving four co-chairs — originally the proposal was for five, but Milinkevich refused to stand. Those approved are Anatol Lyabedzka (United Civic Party); Syarhey Kalyakin (PCB); Vintsuk Vyachorka (PBNF); and Anatol Lyaukovich (SD Hramada).
Clearly not all of the participants are satisfied with this outcome. Milinkevich, unsurprisingly, regards the new path as misguided. He remarked that the place of political activists is “on the street” and among the people, rather than in roundtables, which are a more fitting domain for political scientists, economics, and experts. Without a single leader, in his view, a future victory is impossible. His movement, “For Freedom,” has refused to join the revised structure and will instead operate independently, although not in “opposition to the opposition” as one delegate commented. Mikola Statkevich, a recently released political prisoner who represents the Belarusian Social Democratic Party “Naradnaya Hramada,” advocates an “alternative action” policy that is founded on the European Coalition movement allied with social democrats and youth activists. However, both he and Milinkevich’s factions were outvoted.
Those who support a dialogue with the “leading political and social forces” of Belarus maintain that it can take place only after the release of all political prisoners. They demand strict adherence to rights and freedoms enshrined in the Belarusian Constitution. Yet essentially they have provided the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with an invitation to work together to offset an approaching economic crisis presaged by a serious oil and gas conflict with Russia that will bring about a sharp rise in prices over a five-year time span. Moreover, leaders of traditional political parties have again come to the fore. Milinkevich, the compromise outsider elected to run in the 2006 presidential elections, has been discarded abruptly. What are the chances of success for these new policies?
Although official Congress statements were notably moderate in tone, the prospects for the division of the opposition into two parallel but essentially competing bodies seem high. The Milinkevich and Statkevich factions could conceivably make common cause, along with youth leaders such as Paval Sevyarynets, also a leader of the European Coalition. They would then represent a more radical section of the opposition that refuses to compromise with the Lukashenka regime.
Overall, the Belarusian government will hardly have been overawed by the results of the Congress, and in several respects its position has even been strengthened by the change of tactics by the UDF. In the first place, the key problem for the democrats is that their entire program is predicated on an economic crisis that has not yet occurred. In 2006, GDP rose by 9.9% over the preceding year and there are as yet no signs of a slowdown.
Second, the roundtables represent a return to the policy introduced by the OSCE in the late 1990s. They could conceivably drag on endlessly, enhancing the standing of the Belarusian government in international circles without entailing for the latter any serious compromises. With the recent release of Statkevich and Sevyarynets prior to the completion of their full sentences, the regime can claim to have adopted a more moderate stance. The government, in short, has little to lose by participating in such ventures.
Finally, the name of Milinkevich is well established outside Belarus as the voice of the united opposition. The EU has honored him with the Sakharov Prize, and he offered an alternative disassociated from the various, relatively insignificant political parties. His departure seems premature. The concept of a collective leadership, on the other hand, may only confuse the Belarusian public. The Congress appears to have taken a step backward.
(Belorusskiy rynok, May 21-28; Associated Press, RIA-Novosti, May 27; Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, Charter 97, May 28)