Belarus on the eve

Amy de Wit

Alexander Lukashenko is confident of election victory, but Belarus's brave opposition is making him fight for a democratic mandate, reports Amy de Wit.

The Russian word vibor can mean either "vote" or "choice". As the elections of 19 March 2006 approach in Belarus, the ambiguity is something of a black joke. President Alexander Lukashenko has been in charge for twelve years, and the contests he has won since his election in 1994 (referenda in 1996 and 2004, and a presidential poll in 2001) have been loaded in his favour.

The Belarusian president's taste for power has grown in office: Lukashenko changed the constitution in October 2004 to allow himself to run for a third term, and brought the 2006 election date forward by four months in an apparent attempt to outfox the opposition. So far, so good: Lukashenko is ahead in the polls and confident of victory. But not so fast: this is a country where many people have been imprisoned for "defamation of the president" and where some dissident voices have disappeared. There are brave people among the Belarusian opposition, and they will not be deterred. So, what are their chances on Sunday?

The circus and the ringmaster

There are four candidates in the race, though with almost no profile in the largely state-controlled media, it's hard to find out about the other three. Sergei Gaidukevich, a member of the house of representatives and a public supporter of Lukashenko, is widely supposed to be a puppet, a government attempt to create an appearance of democracy (Gaidukevich's party, the Liberal Democrats, is known to have had friendly ties to Saddam Hussein).

To a certain extent this illusion seems to be working. The limited tolerance of the opposition's activities, including the unprecedented step of allowing each candidate two uncensored, thirty-minute television broadcasts, has led observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to declare that a democratic process is indeed underway.

There is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Supporters of the other two candidates, Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kazulin, are routinely intimidated by the police and their literature confiscated. The security forces also deny them entry to legally agreed meeting-places, forcing the waiting crowd to be automatically classed as an illegal demonstration.

On 8 March, for example, an opposition meeting pre-booked at a Minsk cinema was broken up by police who declared that a children's party should take priority; ten supporters of Alexander Milinkevich, some as young as 18, were arrested, tried immediately and sentenced to fifteen days imprisonment. In Magilov, Vladimir Shantov, assistant to Milinkevich and leader of the United Civic Party, was arrested and fined the equivalent of $700 for organising an illegal demonstration in similar circumstances.

On 10 March, two Milinkevich supporters in the southeastern city of Homyel (Gomel) were arrested and sentenced to fifteen days for swearing at men who were throwing snowballs at them. Alexander Kazulin himself was badly beaten on 2 March while attempting to register at the all-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk.

Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, is the elected representative of a united opposition, eleven different groups and more than 200 NGOs. A former university professor and head of Grodno city council, his image as an intellectual contrasts with Lukashenko's profile as an ice-hockey-playing ex-farmer. Milinkevich's ticket is democracy: a free vote, truth and transparency. He has already begun to tour the world, shaking hands with heads of state, promising that a country disliked by all of its neighbours will develop good international relations. At the moment only Russia will countenance Lukashenko, and Vladimir Putin does so with bad grace: bad news for a landlocked country.

Detractors say that Milinkevich lacks charisma, which cannot be said of Alexander Kazulin. Formerly head of the Belarusian State University, and a former associate of Lukashenko, Kazulin was sacked following a scandal over thirty kilos of gold missing from the university laboratory. Kazulin is good at publicity stunts and people admire his courage without, perhaps, liking him. Belarusian journalist Maryna Rakhiel described his first TV election broadcast as "like an information bomb - he managed to say everything".

The broadcast was indeed a startling irruption onto Belarusians' normally placid television screens. Kazulin spoke of rumours that Lukashenko has a mistress and an illegitimate child; claimed that Lukashenko has appointed the mother of this mistress as vice-minister for health; and accused Lukashenko of making huge personal profits from the sale of arms in each of his twelve years in office. "Alexander", he said "where is the money? Give the money to the people!" He ended with a flourish, tearing up a photo of Lukashenko with the head of the election commission and declaring: "They say we are to choose? They are to choose!"

Kazulin's antics have so incensed the president that he appeared to divert from his own scripted speech on television in order to call Kazulin a "retard". After alleging that Kazulin had offered to declare the election free and fair in return for the job of prime minister, Lukashenko spent twenty minutes angrily repudiating Kazulin's claims, and charging him with slander.

Also in openDemocracy on the Belarusian elections, March 2006

Margot Letain "Denim and democracy: what Belarusian voters need"

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Anger and apathy

In spite of this circus, the Belarusian people are generally uninterested in this election. Naturally there is some fear of the repercussions of political involvement. The punishment for criticising the president, classed as defamation of Belarus, is anything from being sacked to five years in prison, and Lukashenko has clearly stated that he is ready to shoot at crowds of protestors. But more importantly, few believe that any of the opposition candidates have the qualities to become president.

One NGO worker (whose organisation is accused of falsifying documents on the grounds that they used wrongly-sized staples) told me that she dislikes them because "they don't protect their people". Misha, a musician in his 30s said: "The opposition themselves don't believe they will win, so how can I believe in them?" Milinkevich is generally liked - he seems a nice man, people say, but not a man to be president.

Many who feel this way simply do not intend to vote. There is a universal certainty that the vote will be rigged. Everybody - from activists handing out leaflets on the street to the many who turn their back on politics on the grounds that it is boring - says "the election is already won". "Freedom?", said Sasha, a 29-year-old computer programmer from Minsk. "I'm free. I work, in my head I am free. That's all that matters."

Lukashenko's promise is stability. Giant posters ram this point home with images of smiling children, happy babushkas holding flowers and a grim looking soldier guarding a war memorial. "Belarusian stability" the posters say, with no mention of Lukashenko. Though by European standards quality of life is poor, with GDP per capita a mere $7,600, IMF statistics show that Lukashenko has presided over a 24% increase in wages over the past year, is increasing pensions by 11%, has cut value-added tax and reduced inflation (albeit still high). Only the youngest voters are unable to remember the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union: no food, no wages, and the complete loss of savings. For most people, even those under 30, this memory is ever-present. As long as their lives are stable and minimally secure, even if meagre, they are happy to accept their lot.

On the whole, it is those who have directly experienced the sharp edge of Lukashenko's rule who have become politicised. Pavel and Sergei were handing out leaflets in support of Kazulin in central Minsk. Sergei, a 21-year-old student, is the son of a former customs officer imprisoned for impounding a shipment of luxury goods belonging to Lukashenko. Pavel is formerly a lecturer in international affairs at the Belarusian State University and a member of the national parliament's international commission during the brief period of free government between Belarusian independence and the election of Lukashenko. In 1997 Pavel was sacked after an anonymous report claiming that he was criticising Lukashenko's politics to his students. One of his pupils at the time was Lukashenko's eldest son, Victor.

Pavel now has difficulty finding a job: "All the activists who oppose Lukashenko have no legal possibility to work." He works (unpaid) as a lawyer for a Belarusian language group, and as a caretaker. He has twice been to America, working in a factory with asbestos. "It is bad, but I earn $150 dollars a day, for three months. Now I am agitating, but tomorrow I may be arrested. I've been arrested in this country maybe twenty or thirty times; imprisoned fifteen days, maybe six or seven times. I'm ready to be arrested again because I believe in God and everything depends on God. Who knows what will happen?"