The campaign to collect signatures for the remaining seven candidates in the Belarusian election (Alyaksandr Voytovich has dropped out of the contest) is in full swing. Each candidate needs to gather at least 100,000 signatures of support to be eligible for the March 19 vote. The Belarusian authorities, however, have adopted a dual strategy: on the one hand they are warning the electorate of a Western-backed campaign to foment a “color revolution” and overthrow President Alexander Lukashenka; and on the other they are obstructing the campaigns of rival candidates.
Evidence of the former is an article in the country’s largest daily newspaper, Sovetskaya Belorussiya, by Vladimir Gurin, a political scientist affiliated with the Institute of Social-Political Research at the Presidential Administration. Through the “orange virus,” he writes, chaos was brought to countries of Western Europe (Germany, Belgium, and France are cited), and with certain modifications, Ukraine and Georgia. To bring about the transformation of states, it is necessary to seize control over public opinion and bring about what the author terms “a media-cratic dictatorship” that is more totalitarian than the worst sort of administrative-police dictatorship (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, January 18).
The author maintains that in the cases of Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia, there occurred a combination of intervention by the leadership of the United States and “European bureaucracies” on the one hand, and specific initiatives of “sponsors” such as George Soros, interested in overthrowing the authorities for various personal reasons, on the other. In the case of Belarus, however — and here the author cites the deputy director of the Institute of the CIS Countries, Vladimir Zharikhin — a change of regime cannot be achieved by democratic means because the majority of the population supports Lukashenka.
The image of outside forces seeking to subvert Belarus has been a useful presidential ploy. Since the Lukashenka forces have a complete monopoly over the media (delivery of the main opposition newspaper from Smolensk is regularly held up at the border), the barrage of propaganda is quite effective. In addition, a series of measures has already been deployed to complicate rival candidates’ efforts to collect signatures.
Thus Uladzimir Lavbkovich, who works for the group backing candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, has commented that every day the militia detains about 10 members of initiative groups. Another activist for the same camp reveals that many people are afraid to sign his list because they do not wish to be in trouble with the authorities. One of the campaigners supporting the Social Democratic candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, was not permitted to enter hostels in Hrodna to collect signatures. Staff on duty reportedly complied with a regulation issued by the Central Election Commission (CEC) that an individual could only enter a hostel if invited to do so by a resident. The invited person must then remain in the room of the resident and not knock on other doors (Belarusy i rynok, January 9).
The editorial office of Narodnaya volya constantly receives telephone calls from people declaring that they are being forced to provide signatures in support of Lukashenka. At one large self-service store, employees were given two lists to sign: one to prove that they had received their salaries and another supporting Lukashenka. Those who refused to sign were warned that they might not be paid. One visitor to the editorial office checked into a local clinic, and his doctor asked him to sign a list supporting the president. The doctor told the patient that she had orders to collect signatures in this way. Students at the Belarusian Institute of Law (a non-state institution) were informed that in order to gain course credits they also must provide signatures to support Lukashenka. Voters are also confused. In theory one person can provide signatures for different candidates, but the Lukashenka team evidently has been telling signatories that they may only sign in support of a single candidate (Narodnaya volya, January 16).
Myacheslau Hryb, who is running Kazulin’s initiative group, submitted four complaints to the CEC and to the Prosecutor’s office concerning the actions of the authorities in Vitsebsk region. Here, the authorities obtained the list of names supporting this candidate and threatened to dismiss these people from their jobs. Similarly a woman collecting signatures for Milinkevich was detained in Brest region, the lists were confiscated, and she was ordered not to continue with her campaign. The lists were returned to her several days later (Belarusy i rynok, January 16). Opposition candidates are also incensed by the announcement of the “Third All-Belarusian People’s Congress” for March 2-3 in Minsk, because the previous congresses have been little more than propaganda mouthpieces for the president. Kazulin has called for a Congress with delegates from all political parties, independent trade unions, and public organizations to discuss the system of power in the country (Narodnaya volya, January 16).
The opposition candidates are well aware of the limitations on their campaigns and the government’s tactic of instilling fear. Milinkevich plans a mass meeting with Minsk voters on the same dates as the People’s Congress (Charter 97, January 20). Such contact with voters, however fraught, is invaluable as a rare opportunity to expose them to views that differ from those they hear and read daily.