Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 180

The Belarusan Popular Front (BPF), strongest numerically among the national-democratic opposition parties, is splitting. On September 11, the BPF’s Soym [ruling body] rejected the emigre chairman Zyanon Paznyak’s idea to divide the BPF into two organizations: a “social,” nonpolitical one to focus on grass-roots activities and a political party to be headed by Paznyak himself. Paznyak wanted the Soym to call an extraordinary congress of the BPF on September 26 to effect that division. Instead, a clear majority of the Soym approved a resolution, titled “No Splitting,” which described the proposed division artificial and counterproductive. Further, an accompanying resolution invalidated Paznyak’s earlier instructions about dismissing the BPF’s acting chairman, Lyavon Barshchevsky, and other senior leaders from their posts. Those unilateral instructions were deemed contrary to the BPF’s charter.

Paznyak’s proposals represented a continuation of his efforts from abroad to unseat the BPF’s Minsk-based collective leadership or, failing that, to turn the BPF’s pro-Paznyak faction into a separate party under his control (see the Monitor, June 2). The pro-Paznyak faction proceeded to withdraw from the Soym and to organize the congress desired by Paznyak. The faction leaders formally notified the Justice Ministry–which is empowered to register and deregister political organizations–that Paznyak’s nominees were now the BPF’s leaders; such a notification looked like a request for recognition of the intra-party coup by the authorities. The faction held its congress on schedule on September 26 in downtown Minsk, with only 110 delegates out of the 298 originally elected in attendance; the majority of these apparently sided with the mainstream leadership. The assembly did not have the required official permission because the new organization is not yet legally registered, but the authorities, interested in fostering the split, tolerated the gathering.

The assembly elected a new, 45-strong Soym and the top leaders of a new political party, with Paznyak as chairman and four deputy chairmen. Best known among these are Syarhey Papkou, who ran Paznyak’s unsuccessful campaign for recognition as standard bearer of the entire opposition in April and May of this year (see the Fortnight in Review, May 21; the Monitor, May 11-12, 25), and Yury Belenki, who led the pro-Paznyak group in the BPF’s Soym during the recent factional infighting. In an address sent from abroad, which was read aloud to the gathering, Paznyak called for concentrating decisionmaking powers at the top, to the detriment of regional organizations, so as to avoid “excessive bureaucratization.” The new party, called Conservative Christian Party of the Popular Front, describes itself as a right-wing organization. Paznyak’s group can indeed be classified as right-wing conservative in the pre-World War II, Central-Eastern European sense of those terms: They imply nationalism, strong executive leadership and a measure of economic etatism.

The mainstream BPF leadership is no less dedicated to Belarusan national rebirth, independence from Russia and close relations with the West. Unlike Paznyak and his supporters, however, it favors decentralization of political decisionmaking and full-fledged market reforms. But the split within the BPF is hardly about ideology. The immediate stake is the strategy of the BPF and of the entire opposition. Paznyak opposes the BPF’s alliance with the 1991-96 leaders of Belarus, who tried in vain to resist the rise of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and are now resisting his policies. Those leaders include former parliamentary chairmen, cabinet ministers and other ex-officials, whom Paznyak fiercely fought in the 1991-95 parliament and has never stopped fighting. He and some of his supporters tend to treat those politicians as communist nomenklatura holdovers and covert instruments of Russia–a view apparently not affected by Moscow’s consistent support for Lukashenka and the latter’s reprisals against Viktar Hanchar, Yury Zakharenka, Mikhail Chyhir and others whom Paznyak suspects (see the Monitor, September 23). The BPF’s mainstream leaders have, for their part, after Paznyak’s departure from Belarus, steered the Front toward a coalition strategy designed to unite all political forces that oppose Lukashenka’s dictatorship and support independent statehood. Paznyak opposes that alliance and seeks to preserve a militant nucleus of disciplined followers under his control, even at the price of splitting the BPF in the process.

The BPF’s other senior leaders–Barshchevsky, Deputy Chairman Vintsuk Vyachorka, Secretary-General Yury Khadyka and, apparently, a majority of the regional organizations–have scheduled a congress for October 30-31 to confirm their leadership mandate, fill the seats which have become vacant on the Soym and issue a program which would remove doubts over the broadly based coalition strategy. The secession of Paznyak’s faction should prove politically advantageous to the BPF, ending disputes over policy and enabling the organization to return from the margins of the political spectrum–where Paznyak’s sectarianism pushed it–to its former role as a mass organization, with a national-democratic program acceptable to a large part of Belarusan society (Belapan, September 12, 21, 26, 27; see Paznyak profile in the Monitor, August 3).

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