Election in Belarus is test of appetite for democracy

Nation suppressed reform, but many still hope for change

By Erika Niedowski

Sun Foreign Reporter

MINSK, Belarus // Anatoly Lebedko keeps a bouquet of miniature flags next to his office desk, including one that commemorates the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine. For him, an opposition politician in Belarus, a country seemingly trapped in Soviet-style politics, the flag is a reminder that the impossible sometimes is possible.

In Ukraine, thousands of orange-clad demonstrators peacefully brought to power in 2004 a president who promised democratic rule. Lebedko was in the crowds there, and he couldn't help but imagine revolution also shaking Belarus.

The main uncertainty here, however, as Belarus prepares for elections Sunday is not whether President Alexander Lukashenko will win a third term but by how large a margin. Officially, he won 76 percent of the vote in 2001 and then 88 percent in the referendum that changed the constitution to allow him to run again, votes that European observers said were neither free nor fair.

The election is a test of the appetite for democratic change in the European country that has done the most in the post-Soviet era to prevent it. The vote tests the government's powers of intimidation against would-be reformers' ability to make their message heard. They are working in a society where apathy has been the antidote to fear.

"In the center of Europe, this cannot carry on for very long, what we witness in Belarus today," says Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party, one of the largest opposition blocs.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, is known here as "batka," or father, a nickname many use less as a sign of respect than of derision. During nearly 12 years in office, he has consolidated power in the presidency. Through a series of flawed elections, he helped remove all opposition voices from parliament. He has muffled the press - the government has closed dozens of independent newspapers for alleged irregularities - and made the courts a servant of the presidency.

In its most recent report on human rights in Belarus, released last week, the U.S. State Department pointed to "serious abuses" by Lukashenko's government, including politically motivated arrests, torture of people detained by police and the use of force against peaceful protesters. During a visit last year to neighboring Lithuania, President Bush called Belarus the "last dictatorship in Europe."

With help from "ideology" departments at every university and a near monopoly on television, Lukashenko has convinced a substantial part of the population that Belarus is a stable, prosperous country under threat from the West. In December, parliament made it a crime to organize protests or otherwise "discredit" Belarus, a measure intended to prevent the mass gatherings that sparked the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

"All these color revolutions are not really revolutions," Lukashenko said last year, calling them "open banditry under the cover of democracy."

But there is evidence that a growing number of people do not share his view.

In a survey conducted last month, about a fourth of the Belarusians who were questioned described their quality of life as "bad" to "very bad." Nearly a third said their lives could not significantly improve as long as Lukashenko remained in power.

That such data even exist is something of a feat.

Oleg Manaev is the sociology professor at Belarusian State University who conducted the poll. Lest he be jailed, he implores anyone wanting to refer to his findings to make this clear: He gathered the data as a private citizen. Last year, the country's supreme court closed his research organization, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, and prohibited it from working in Belarus. The institute is now registered in Lithuania.

The government doesn't hide its tactics. On March 2, security police roughed up one of Lukashenko's election challengers, Alexander Kozulin, as he tried to enter a pro-government conference. The same day, police and security forces prevented people from gathering at Minsk's Freedom Square to hear a speech by Alexander Milinkevich, the leading opposition candidate. When Milinkevich's supporters tried to meet elsewhere, many were cut off by a line of riot police wielding shields and carrying tear gas.

The president's critics hope the government's heavy-handed tactics will help their cause. If the government is seen preventing candidates from speaking or blatantly falsifying election results, that may be the opposition's best chance to inspire people to protest.

"This is what persuades people to overcome their apathy, overcome their fears and to fight for their rights," Lebedko says. "In conditions of total fear, the fact that people will rise from their knees and go out into the streets, that would definitely be success."

On a wall in his office, Lebedko has hung black-and-white photographs of five prominent dissidents and a journalist. Four of those six people have disappeared since 1999 and are presumed dead; a fifth died in what his family describes as mysterious circumstances; the sixth is imprisoned. On Tuesday, Lebedko was briefly detained in Mogilyov, a city in eastern Belarus, and fined $700 for holding an unsanctioned rally.

For critics of the government, Ukraine and its Orange Revolution seem an inspiring example. Ukraine, however, was far better prepared for a debate about democracy. There were dissident voices in its parliament. Some newspapers and television stations were independent, and Western governments and nongovernmental organizations had long helped finance pro-democracy groups.

In Ukraine, the youth coalition Pora openly distributed millions of pieces of campaign literature on behalf of the pro-democracy candidate for president, and it organized more than 750 rallies. When the government tried to falsify election results, activists erected a tent city on the main thoroughfare of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Thousands of protesters camped there for weeks.

There will be no tent city here.

Simply holding an opposition newspaper on one of the capital's broad avenues is enough to attract attention from authorities wearing military fatigues.

"All the methods that were used there are illegal here," says Alexander Atroshchenkov, 24, an activist with the Belarusian youth group Zubr, who traveled to Ukraine in 2004.

Atroshchenkov says his political activism led to his expulsion from Belarusian State University and to numerous detentions. He describes what happened in Ukraine as the "most beautiful revolution in the world" for its peace and civility, but he is unsure what election day will bring.

"The more people, the less violence," Atroshchenkov says, thinking about possible public protests.

Critics of Lukashenko talk not of victory at the polls, but of incremental progress.

"We can win in different ways," says Milinkevich, a physicist who was elected by a congress of opposition groups to challenge the president. "He can win in this electoral farce. He can announce false results. We do not think this is a real victory. Our victory will be a victory in the minds of people.

"Even if they imprison me and my supporters," Milinkevich says, "it will be the beginning of their end."

Lukashenko became president in 1994 after Belarus' first - and so far only - free presidential election. He campaigned promising to eliminate corruption, institute market reforms and bring greater integration with Russia.

He portrays himself as Russia's most loyal ally, and the president is the main advocate of the union of the two countries that was agreed to in principle a decade ago. Belarus enjoys significant benefits from its alliance with Moscow. Belarus imports Russian natural gas at below-market rates, marks up the price and then resells it abroad, earning nearly $4 billion a year, according to Andrei Suzdaltsev, an independent political scientist here.

"Belarus needs economic support from Russia; Belarus understands that," Suzdaltsev says. "Europe is not going to take Belarus under its wing. Independence costs money, and democracy costs even more."

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has kept some distance from Lukashenko. Putin has not campaigned on his behalf, apparently reflecting the lesson learned from his open support for the losing presidential candidate in Ukraine. And his comments have been circumspect.

Asked in January about prospects for free elections here, Putin said, "Free elections are always possible." He characterized his occasional meetings with Lukashenko not as support "for the regime" but "for our fraternal Belarusian people."

Here, conversations often come back to Ukraine, as both a blessing and a curse. Its Orange Revolution brought hope that change is possible; Ukraine's economic problems, the disappointedly slow pace of reform and splits among the reformers have made it easier for supporters of Lukashenko to call the revolution a failure.

"Every Belarusian looks into Ukraine: Are there any positive changes or not?" says Vladyslav Kaskiv, an activist with the Ukrainian youth group Pora's political wing. "Until we have evident positive changes, we can't expect anything to change in Belarus."

Lebedko, of the United Civil Party, still looks to Ukraine for inspiration. He recalls meeting with two leaders of the reform movement there a few months before the revolution.

"They both told me that nothing will happen - they had no hope," Lebedko recalls. "But it did happen."