On Sunday, October 14, the United Democratic Forces of Belarus plan to hold a “European March” in central Minsk, which they hope might lead to a dialogue with the regime of President Alexander Lukashenka and ultimately start Belarus on a democratic path toward European Union membership. The opposition considers the initiative to be a goodwill gesture toward the regime, according to the head of the organizing committee, Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy chairman of the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front. However, the priority goal is to demand that the regime fulfills the 12 requirements set forth by the EU. The government’s response remains ambiguous, with a combination of anticipated repressive actions and uncertainty, ostensibly because of the close links between the organizers and EU leaders.
On September 10 organizers — including representatives of leading opposition parties, the unregistered Youth Front, the civil campaign “Jeans for Freedom,” Charter-97, and the unregistered Movement for Freedom — sent a letter to Natallya Pyatkevich, deputy chair of the Presidential Administration. Over the next two weeks, the authorities declined to respond to the letter, but a series of arrests were carried out, particularly of youth activists planning to attend the event. These included the detention of Kastus Hrakhau in central Minsk on September 23, who was carrying a bag with badges appealing to people to take part in the march. He received a 10-day prison sentence. The previous day activists Alina Hladkaya and Vital Tsikhanovich were arrested, also while carrying materials about the demonstration. They received the customary sentence of 15 days for “petty hooliganism” (Narodnaya volya, September 28). On October 1 Zmiter Barodka, a member of the organizing committee, and Svyatlana Harahavik, a human rights activist, received identical sentences at the Central District Court of Minsk.
March organizers insisted that the onus was on the authorities to make the next move. The webpage devoted to the European March points out that Belarus will have a trade deficit of $7 billion with Russia by the end of the year and an external debt in the region of $10 billion. The Lukashenka regime must take responsibility for the forthcoming price increases, it states (www.europeanmarch.org, October 4). On September 20-21, Andrei Sannikou, the international coordinator of Charter-97 and a former deputy foreign minister, visited Brussels, where he met with representatives of the European Commission, the Council of the EU, and the Secretary-General of the European Movement, Henrik Kroner. He provided information about the march and proposals for dialogue with the regime, as well as information about official intimidation and harassment of the supporters of the event (www.charter97.org, September 25).
Perhaps because of the international publicity accorded the event (it has been ignored by the official media in Belarus), the authorities finally responded to the appeal to hold the march. The reply declared that the matter was not the business of the president’s office, but rather pertained to the executive committee of the Minsk City Council (Belorusskie novosti, October 8). This maneuver provides some hope that the demonstration may take place and negotiations are continuing. The opposition hopes to start the event at the central Kastrychnitskaya (October) Square and then move along Nezalezhnasti (Independence) Street eastward to the National Library (www.charter97.org, October 8). The organizers have invited foreign ambassadors resident in Minsk to take part, as well as deputies of the European Parliament, national parliaments of EU countries, and Belarusian specialists in various European organizations (Belorusy i rynok, October 8-15).
Moreover, the leader of the Movement for Freedom, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, has initiated the creation of a Council of European Integration as a representative-observation organ directed toward the European integration of Belarus once the state conforms to European standards of human rights and democracy. The first meeting of the Council is scheduled for October 10. Milinkevich has stated that it must stand as an authoritative public center, uniting the potential of various political and social forces, guided by the idea of the European path for Belarus (Belorusy i rynok, October 8-15).
The European March is an interesting initiative on the part of the opposition, one of the few that has not focused on an election or commemorative holiday. The regime’s response suggests that it may change its tactics from confrontation to passive acquiescence, although the Minsk Council is likely to demand a less central route. The regime can hardly deny the geographical position of Belarus within Europe, but to date it has not made significant progress on alleviating the repressive atmosphere within society. In particular, it has failed manifestly to restrain the militia from making arbitrary and unwarranted arrests.
As for the march itself, it has resurrected the appeal for dialogue set forth at the 2nd Congress of the United Democratic Forces last March. Key questions lie ahead: How many people will attend the European March? What will be the extent and level of representation from Europe? How will the authorities react? And to what extent will the latter address any of the 12 EU requirements, which include free elections, the liberation of political prisoners, an independent media, an investigation into the disappearance of several political leaders since 1999, the existence of independent labor unions, and an end to attacks on the Belarusian language and culture (www.europeanmarch.org, September 14)?