Belarus target of latest 'democracy' campaign

A recent scuffle outside of the All Belarusian People's Congress in which presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin was arrested and suffered minor injuries has drawn international attention, with much of the media saying Kozulin is a "pro-democracy advocate" who has suffered at the hands of a "dictatorship."

However, there is growing evidence that the U.S. and Europe are backing Kozulin's campaign and the campaigns of others like him with the aim of ousting a progressive, democratic government. The scenario is reminiscent of the media-savvy "Orange Revolution" that catapulted a pro-Western politician into office in the Ukraine two years ago.

Belarus, a former republic of the USSR, will hold its presidential election on March 19. Four candidates are vying for office.

According to public opinion polls, President Aleksandr Lukashenko is the clear frontrunner. Lukashenko has the backing of the Communist Party and the allied Agrarian Party, and enjoys widespread popular support.

Under Lukashenko's leadership, Belarus has been the only former Soviet republic that has maintained its stability and kept its public sector from completely falling into the hands of capitalist oligarchs, observers say.

While the rest of the former Soviet Union is full of homelessness and poverty, Belarus is, relatively speaking, an island of stability and prosperity. Wages, for example, are projected to grow significantly by the end of the country's next five-year plan.

The Western media, however, has been harping on Lukashenko's alleged "anti-democratic" tendencies. The Kozulin incident is a case in point. Even though critics say Kozulin entered the Congress with the aim of provoking an incident, including the picking of a fight with security guards, he has successfully managed to portray himself as a persecuted democrat.

In general, Lukashenko's government has been careful to avoid charges of bias against opposition candidates. Nikolai Lozovik, head of the Central Elections Commission, said that the authorities have been lenient toward Lukashenko's opponents, even when it comes to campaign law violations. "In the latest parliamentary elections candidates were denied registration for far smaller violations," he told the ITAR-TASS news agency.

For example, the authorities allowed a rally by another opposition candidate, Aleksander Milinkevich, which drew a few thousand people, to proceed even though rally organizers lacked a permit.

The charge that another pro-Western "Orange Revolution" is under way is not that far-fetched.

Two radio stations - the Poland-based Radio Racja and the Lithuania-based Baltic Waves - have recently sprung into existence in order to beam anti-Lukashenko propaganda into Belarus. While the stations call themselves bastions of "independent journalism," the BBC has reported that Baltic Waves, at least, is part of a $2.4 million media campaign by the European Union. Plans are under way for weekly television programs as well.

A U.S.-based organization called Students for Global Democracy (SGD) has instituted the "Bell Campaign," which explicitly aims to remove Lukashenko. The campaign's web site calls for people to "donate money to support the Belarusian democratic opposition." SGD is linked to the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S.-government-aligned group that is notorious for its efforts to subvert democratic governments and install dictatorships.

There is substantial evidence of foreign interference. For example, Milinkevich's campaign boasts that it has volunteers from 17 countries, something that would no doubt be condemned in a comparable U.S. campaign, for example.

Belarus' security forces have warned that a coup d'etat is being plotted following the election. Stepan Sukhorenko, head of the country's intelligence agency, said that Western embassies are involved in planning the coup, which could involve the staging of riots, bombings and terrorist attacks. He said security forces have found evidence that the opposition has already drawn up plans to falsify exit polls, showing Lukashenko with only 41.3 percent and Milinkevich with 52.7 percent.

It remains to be seen whether such interference will succeed. According to The Economist, Lukashenko "remains by far the country's most popular political figure, having satisfied the desire for stability of much of the electorate." But the opposition can still cause turmoil and violence.