On January 18, the organization “Free Belarus” nominated Mikalay Statkevich as a candidate for the next presidential election, stating that its campaign must adopt the flag of the European Union and that its symbol should be a cornflower. The nomination followed two others from the Belarusian opposition: that of Zyanon Paznyak, chairman of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party. One week later, the leader of the Party of Belarusian Communists, Syarhey Kalyakin, was also nominated by his party as candidate (Nasha niva, January 21, Belorusskaya gazeta, January 24, and Narodnaya volya, January 25).
Of these leaders, Statkevich is perhaps the best known, but in recent times he has also become the weakest: the candidate who once led the largest of the two branches of the Social Democratic Party in Belarus (termed “Naradnaya Hramada”) has been undermined by his removal from the leadership following a party meeting. The Ministry of Justice of Belarus became involved in the dispute, and it released an official statement on January 6, stating that the expulsion of Statkevich by the Minsk city branch of the party should be recognized as legitimate (bsdp.org.eng).
In mid-January, a meeting of the rival branch of the Social Democrats (“Hramada”) led by Stanislau Shushkevich, and attended by 32 people, sent an appeal to the Congress of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party to unite the party. It included the following statement: “We are convinced that we must act together since we have the same ideological basis, respect the same historical legacy, and the same principles concerning how to create a prosperous society.” Shushkevich’s appeal was addressed to the members of Naradnaya Hramada that had resolved to remove Statkevich. Meanwhile the latter has retained some supporters in what technically constitutes a third (and weakest) branch of the party (Narodnaya volya, January 15).
Simultaneously, Shushkevich’s branch is a member of the so-called Five Plus group that has joined forces in an attempt to create a more credible opposition to the Lukashenka regime—the other four parties are the United Civic Party, the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, the Party of Labor, and the Party of Communists. Statkevich, by forming an alternative group called the European Coalition, effectively undermined the democratic opposition’s attempt to forge a united front.
The relative popularity of the numerous opposition groups in Belarus can change rapidly, but other than the Liberal-Democratic Party, which has often occupied a middle ground between the government and the democratic opposition, none has managed to break the 5% barrier. Prior to Statkevich’s expulsion, the two branches of the Social Democrats together could muster 7.7%, but there is little chance of a reunion.
And yet of all the political groupings in Belarus, the Social Democrats have the oldest pedigree and potentially the most support. The Socialist Hramada founded in 1902 was critical in the formation of a Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918, and the party was resurrected toward the end of the Gorbachev period, holding its founding congress on March 2-3, 1991. It has been mired in factionalism, however, and by 1998 there were three branches under Statkevich, Mikalay Sechka, and Shushkevich. The list of those who at one time or another were affiliated with the Social Democrats includes virtually the entire political elite of Belarus, including the late Henadz Karpenka, Myacheslau Hryb, and Shushkevich, both former chairmen of parliament (12th and 13th sessions respectively), and Alexander Lukashenka himself in the early 1990s, as a member of the so-called Party of People’s Accord.
Neither of the present leaders seems prepared to compromise. Statkevich, 48, a native of Slutsk region who had chaired the Naradnaya Hramada since 1995, has been arrested several times for his actions against the Lukashenka government. Shushkevich, who turned 70 in December and holds a doctorate in physics and mathematics, has been accused of arrogance. In 2001, for example, several members of his Hramada defected in order to support the “united candidate,” trade union leader Uladzimir Hancharyk, something Shushkevich had refused to do. In turn, Statkevich’s popularity appears to have fallen sharply, mainly because his political ambitions detract from his duties as party leader.
The opposition must now elaborate a procedure for coming up with a single candidate for an anticipated 2006 election. One can add to the names of those discussed at least five others who have expressed a desire to run: Syarhey Haidukevich of the Liberal Democrats, who finished a distant third in 2001; Andriy Klimou, a former political prisoner; Alyaksandr Malinkevich, a close ally of Syamyon Domash (former deputy chairman of parliament and a powerful figure several years ago); General Valery Frolou, a former leader of the Respublika faction in parliament; and Piotr Krauchenka, a former foreign minister and lately ambassador to Japan (Belorusskaya gazeta, January 24).
In 2001, the opposition believes, Hancharyk’s presidential bid failed due to his belated nomination. There is a very real danger that this mistake could be repeated, not least because of the divisions within the Social Democratic caucus, which are symbolized by the conflict between Statkevich and Shushkevich.