Tensions rise ahead of Belarusian presidential vote

by Evgenia Mussuri, Kyiv Post Staff Writer

About 1,000 supporters showed up for this March 12 rally to back Alexander Milinkevich, an opposition candidate in the Belarus presidential elections scheduled for this week.

Pre-term presidential voting kicked off in Belarus on March 14, five days before the official election day, but tensions continue to rise in the country, which some believe is about to reach a political turning point.

Even though Alexander Lukashenko, the current president of Belarus, knows that he will win the elections on March 19, he is still pressing his opponents hard and using administrative resources to make sure that he receives upwards of 80 percent of voter support, analysts say.

A poll conducted by Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nearly 55 percent of Belarusians intended to vote for Lukashenko, while just 17 percent supported his main opponent, Alexander Milinkevich.

Political analysts said that Lukashenko's popularity rating is high enough, and in theory there is no need for him to rig elections if he simply wants to remain in office. But the man widely described as Europe's last dictator apparently wants more.

Lukashenko came to power in 1994 and has been steering the post-Soviet republic of 10 million people ever since. He won two consecutive elections then a referendum that swept aside provisions of the Belarusian constitution which limit the number of terms that a president can serve. Despite criticism of the referendum in the West, around 70 percent of the population supported Lukashenko's desire to stay in power. This 70-percent figure is what the Belarusian leader will be shooting for in the upcoming elections, analysts said.

Meanwhile, the opposition is calling on citizens to fill the central square of the nation's capital at 8 p.m. on March 19, after polls have closed, in a scenario that resembles non-violent revolutions conducted in Ukraine, Georgia and Serbia.

The opposition

A total of four candidates, including Lukashenko, are running for the office of president. But political analysts on the ground say that only Alexander Milinkevich is fighting for democracy.

One candidate, member of parliament Sergey Gaidukevich from the Liberal Democratic Party, is reportedly loyal to Lukashenko.

The other, Alexander Kozulin, claims opposition credential, and in recent months has managed to garner substantial publicity both in Belarus and from abroad. Kozulin attracts attention due to his predilection for making fiery speeches and flouting of Lukashenko's oppressive authority.

Some political analysts call Kozulin a charismatic character with a strong voter base among the working class.

However, others suspect that Kozulin is running to steal votes from the 'real' opposition candidate, Milinkevich, and position himself as a future alternative to Lukashenko. Kozulin, the theory goes, is backed by Moscow business interests independent of the Kremlin.

Milinkevich reportedly receives funding from Western donors.

Unlike Kozulin, the 'real' opposition candidate is a weak speaker and has a strong following among better-educated people.

As in most countries, Belarusian legislation prohibits foreign financing of domestic political parties. Officially, each candidate receives campaign funding from the Belarusian government of about $32,000.

The media

Maybe that's why the pre-election atmosphere in Minsk pales by comparison to Kyiv, where national voting will take place just a week later.

The Ukrainian capital is filled with billboards, posters and informational tents ahead of the March 26 parliamentary elections, but Minsk is decorated only with political adverts supporting Lukashenko. Opposition candidates in Belarus have been barred from media coverage; their street posters are repeatedly and almost immediately stripped off lamp posts.

"There are only two opposition newspapers that publish critical stories of the president and give the opposition their say," said Natalia Radina, editor of Charter 97, a Western-funded human-rights watchdog for Belarus.

"The only way that people can get information is over the Internet, which is not yet under the control of the government."

Radina said that there is a total of about 10 websites that cover the opposition in Belarus, adding however that the number of Internet users in the country is small - only about 400,000.

Both Kozulin and Milinkevich have regularly toured Belarus, but their meetings with voters are frequently harassed by authorities and labeled as illegal by the government.

The rallies

At a rally in Minsk on March 12, Milinkevich spoke to about 1,000 of his supporters, both young and old.

"Milinkevich is our president," "Lukashenko should be in prison," and "Market Economy in a Free Belarus", read some of the signs held by people at the rally.

The country's historical white-red-white striped flags could be seen waving among the crowd. Lukashenko re-adopted the red and green banner of Soviet times in 1995

"Free speech, democracy and freedom. These are the three words that Belarus will pursue after the elections," Milinkevich proclaimed at one rally held near the city's Ice Palace, which hadn't been sanctioned by the local authorities.

Plain-clothed police officers with radios mixed among the demonstrators.

At the end of the rally, six Ukrainian citizens who had come to Minsk to support the opposition were arrested. As of March 14, only one of them had been released and sent back to Ukraine.

"Let's turn the day of March 19 into a celebration of April Fool's Day," Milinkevich said to the crowd, exhorting them to take to the streets after voting to protest expected election fraud.

"If the elections are rigged, we want to call for all Belarusian citizens to come out into the streets," said Milinkevich's press secretary Pavel Mozheiko. "We don't want any violence, and we won't bring any stones or iron pipes - nothing like that."

Mozheiko said that Milinkevich's opposition group expects the government to start taking preventive measures soon. According to him, the authorities are most likely going to block off the streets and try to prevent people from attending the gathering.

The Belarusian authorities announced on March 13 that police and other law enforcement bodies would be doubled up on election day.

"It is difficult to say what will happen or how many people will come," Mozheiko said. "But there will be people who are tired of being constantly humiliated and living in fear."