Belarus Tension Mounts as Candidate Arrested, Pastor Jailed

Alex Murashko

ASSIST News Service

Minsk, Belarus (ANS) -- Strong-arm tactics by the Belarus government appear to be on the increase against political challengers and religious leaders as a presidential election looms, and prospects of a revolution are mulled over by analysts.

In recent weeks, a challenging candidate was beaten and then arrested when trying enter a Soviet-style congress held in Minsk. Also, a pastor from Minsk was given a 10-day prison term for conducting a religious worship in his home, according to reports from several news services.

Under the current regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed by some as Europe's last dictator, political opponents are having difficulty running a campaign and religious people are having a hard time assembling for worship. The election is scheduled for March 19.

Opposition candidate Alexander Kozulin was knocked to the ground by plain clothes officers and beaten after he tried to get into the All-Belarussian People's Assembly, according to BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg.

Kozulin was then dragged off and taken into custody, witnesses said.

Outside the police station, a number of Kozulin's supporters and journalists were detained, too. One newspaper photographer at the scene was beaten up by police, according to the BBC report. He received a concussion and a broken nose.

Another presidential candidate from the opposition, Alexander Milinkevich, also had problems. Milinkevich attempted to hold an election rally in the Minsk city centre, but authorities declared the activity illegal and sent in the security forces.

Hundreds of riot police blocked off the roads and dispersed a crowd of several thousand Milinkevich supporters, according to the BBC report.

Lukashenko, whose ties and fondness for communist principles are well documented, has been president of Belarus since 1994. In 1996 he persuaded voters to approve a new constitution that gave him sweeping additional powers, including the right to prolong his term in office.

Evidence of Lukashenko's iron hand and police state surfaced again on March 3 when Pastor Georgi Vyazovsky of the Minsk-based Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church was sentenced to ten days' imprisonment for conducting religious worship in his home, according to Forum 18 News Service.

"The accusations against him were that people were reading the Bible, praying and singing hymns in his house," Vladimir Bukanov, a fellow Reformed Baptist pastor who was at the hearing, told Forum 18. The judge at Partisan District Court gave no explanation for the sentence, he added, "Only that it was not open to appeal."

This is the first time since before the Soviet era of perestroika twenty years ago that religious worship has incurred a prison sentence on the territory of Belarus, Forum 18 reports. The church held its Sunday service on March 5 without its pastor.

Vyazovsky is scheduled to be released from jail March 13, according to the Forum 18 report.

Radio Free Europe senior regional analyst Julie Corwin writes in a recent story that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev is suggesting that foreign intellegence services are seeking ways to overthrow the current Belarusian government.

This observation has focused new attention on Belarus's political opposition and possible parallels to the recent colored revolutions in the region, Corwin states.

In her story, Corwin tackles the question of a possible Belarus revolution with various political leaders.

Asked whether Belarus has some of the key elements that made the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine possible, Olha Stuzhinskaya, coordinator of We Remember!, an independent news gathering organization dedicated to informing the Belarusian and international community about the course of investigations into disappearances, noted that Ukraine was already a lot more democratic than Belarus: it had opposition members in the parliament and at least one independent television station.

"We do not expect the same scenario in Belarus," Stuzhinskaya said. "Probably there will be much more blood."