Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 149

The Belarusan Popular Front (BPF), oldest and most active pro-independence movement, stands a good chance of gaining mass support if it succeeds in replacing its sectarian leader Zyanon Paznyak. The Popular Front congress, held in Minsk on July 31-August 1, came very close to making that decision.

Chairman of the BPF since its inception in 1988, and almost a symbol of that heroic effort to topple Soviet rule, Paznyak later turned into a divisive figure and a liability to his organization. His strident rhetoric, ignoring the low level of national awareness in Belarusan society, scared away potential supporters and antagonized allies. Paznyak fought then President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the nonnationalist opposition groups with equal ferocity, sometimes treating the latter groups as the main target. Operating abroad since 1996, Paznyak sought to retain control over BPF policy through a loyal faction under Vice Chairman Syarhey Papkou, which ultimately clashed with the BPF’s other senior leaders. In May of this year, Paznyak torpedoed the opposition’s alternative presidential election, accusing the BPF’s allies of electoral fraud and sellout to Russia (see the Monitor, May 10, 12, 20, June 2; Fortnight in Review, May 21).

The BPF congress heard a message from Paznyak who warned against alliances with the “nomenklatura opposition,” that is, former state officials and parliamentary leaders opposed to Lukashenka. This category includes the leaders of the forcibly dissolved parliament, the jailed former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir–who was ahead of Paznyak in the alternative presidential election when Paznyak quit the race–and the “disappeared” former Internal Affairs Minister Yuri Zakharenka, thwarted economic reformers such as the former National Bank chairman Stanislau Bahdankevich and others, who enjoy Western recognition and are political allies of the BPF’s senior leaders in Minsk. Paznyak’s message, however, suggested that those groups are ultimately more dangerous than Lukashenka: “If these forces manage to remove the current president from power, Belarus will be fully enslaved, and literally all the Belarusan factories, operating more or less effectively today, will be bought by Russian oligarchs.”

Paznyak’s policy message, furthermore, came out against the BPF’s participation in a political dialogue with the authorities, such as sought by the West and by the Belarusan opposition. It called, too, for the retention of the lion’s share of decisionmaking authority in the emigre chairman’s hands, rather than in those of the Minsk-based leadership.

The BPF’s senior leaders nominated Vice Chairman Vintsuk Vyachorka to replace Paznyak as chairman. The vote on Paznyak’s candidacy for another term as chairman ended in a tie–Paznyak’s first setback in BPF history. Vyachorka’s candidacy received 152 votes in favor and 160 against. The congress resolved to recognize Paznyak as acting chairman and to reconvene in September in order to settle the issue conclusively. Papkou responded by threatening to formalize the Front’s de facto split. Vyachorka and the BPF’s senior vice chairman, Yuri Khadyka, for their part said–with an eye to the forthcoming test–that a Front emancipated of Paznyak’s influence will have a real chance to turn into a modern political organization apt to perform effectively in elections, cooperate with all groups that support democratization and national independence, and introduce European-type politics to Belarus (Belapan, AP, NTV, July 31, August 1).