Training the opposition in Belarus

by Margreet Strijbosch

In the run-up to presidential elections in Belarus on Sunday, a number of opposition politicians and supporters have been arrested on questionable charges. In fact, very little active campaigning is taking place. Most people are too scared - even members of the opposition parties.

In a grey provincial town in one of the countries bordering on Belarus, in an unspecified location with a view of railway tracks covered in snow, some 20 politically-active Belorussians are receiving training from the Alfred Mozer Foundation, the Dutch Labour Party's democratisation organisation for Eastern Europe. Trainer Berend Jan van den Boomen dismisses the idea that the trainees are learning how to start a revolution. "Our aim is to teach political parties which want to stimulate democracy in their own country how to present themselves better to the voters."

However, for the Belorussians, taking part in this course feels like a revolutionary act in itself. The organiser of the seminar, who like many Belorussians does not want to reveal her name, explains that it has become impossible to organise anything similar in Belarus. "The owners of the rooms we hired for previous courses got into trouble. They were threatened with closures, the electricity was cut off." Those taking part also run risks: "For seminars like this you have to supply the local authorities with a list of names. There are dangers in having your name on one of these lists."

'Igor' explains what happens if your employer finds out you are a member of the opposition. "You can be sacked on the spot. The employment laws have been changed. Everyone is on a one-year contract these days. If your boss objects to anything about you, whether it's your appearance or the fact that you are politically active, you can kiss your job goodbye."

On 19 March, Belarus goes to the polls to elect a new president. The front runner is current president Alexander Lukashenko, who has now been in power for 12 years. He is an authoritarian and populist leader. In recent years he has reversed economic reforms and, thanks to cheap Russian gas and tough price controls, has given Belarus a safe climate of stable poverty. His popularity is on the wane, but the Lithuanian branch of the Gallup research institute says he is still likely to take 53 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich is in second place in terms of popularity. He is not expecting to win, by running for the presidency he hopes to show Belorussians they need not be afraid. There are two other candidates but they have little or no popular support.

The OSCE will be monitoring the elections on Sunday with 400 observers. A delegation of seven members of the European Parliament has not been granted a visa to enter Belarus.

Unemployment is a serious matter, particularly since almost all Belorussians are employed by the state. Igor lost his job four years ago, he says, after he was falsely accused of theft. He ended up in prison and was beaten by the police. Nowadays he scrapes a living as a street trader. "But there are inspectors everywhere. They can close you down for no reason at all."

Most of the participants believe there will be no need for electoral fraud to ensure the president is re-elected on Sunday. The two opposition candidates are hardly known to the electorate. An interim report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe says President Lukashenko gets 94 percent more airtime than the other three candidates. 'Masha' is a member of an opposition party and lives in a small town in central Belarus. "We can't organise anything. We can't get permission from the local authorities because we're regarded as 'enemies of the people'. Just because we belong to the opposition."Only a brave few openly challenge the authorities in Belarus. In first place, of course, are the opposition candidates themselves, Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kozulin. The latter actually spent several hours in prison earlier this month. Then there are the young people of Zubr (Bison) who organise political happenings in the capital Minsk, and seem quite prepared to end up in prison on a regular basis. This is not the case with the people on the Mozer Foundation training course. As course leader Berend Jan van den Boomen points out: "They are taking personal risks. The situation in Belarus is worsening all the time. The regime is taking tougher action. Repression is on the increase. I have enormous admiration for people who are politically active."Apart from Berend Jan van den Boomen, the names used in this article are fictitious.