Opposition candidate challenges Belarus' strongman amid persecution and fear

MOZYR, Belarus (AP) - Opposition presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich began his rally in this city by telling supporters he is going to lose Sunday's vote. It is an unorthodox strategy, but his backers still find him inspiring.

Just his appearance at the rally is a victory of sorts. Scores of his aides and supporters have been arrested and he has had virtually no access to media coverage, but he is pressing forward all the same in his challenge to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, characterized in the West as Europe's last dictator, is widely expected to win the vote amid fears that opposition calls for peaceful protests against possible election fraud could lead to violent confrontation with the authorities.

But Milinkevich, 58, a former physicist, city official and rights activist says his chance to reach out to this ex-Soviet republic of 10 million is worth the struggle.

"We know the election will not be free, fair or transparent," Milinkevich told voters in the southeastern city of Mozyr this week. "But we simply wanted to appear on television once in five years, meet with you, engage in dialogue with you."

Milinkevich and two other challengers have been given small amounts of airtime for speeches on state-controlled TV and radio, but state media otherwise either ignore him or slam him as a traitor in the paid service of the West.

Many of his planned rallies have been banned, and those that occur are repeatedly interrupted by pro-government activists.

Milinkevich, soft-spoken and modest in demeanor, seems an unlikely player in the tough world of Belarusian politics, which is dominated by Lukashenko's aggressive style and penchant for hours-long hectoring speeches.

Born in the western Belarusian city of Grodno in 1947 to a family of school teachers, Milinkevich graduated from university with a physics major and went on to teach and study physics in Belarusian universities while also going on training programs and postings to Algeria, France and the United States.

Milinkevich combined academic research with advocacy work by founding the country's largest network of regional non-governmental organizations. He has also worked as campaign manager for an opposition political candidate in 2001 and had a brief stint as deputy mayor of Grodno in the 1990s.

In October, Milinkevich became the candidate of an opposition coalition that includes democrats, communists, greens and nationalists.

He pledges economic reforms aimed at increasing Belarusians' living standards and democratic changes that should end the country's international isolation.

Milinkevich calls for the partial privatization of state enterprises and collective farms, which now amount to some 80 percent of the economy. Profitable plants and farms could remain in the state hands, he says, while the rest should be transferred into private hands, including foreign investors.

He promises democratic reforms which would free the country's mass media from state control, increase the parliament's power at the expense of the presidency and go back to electing, rather than appointing regional officials.

Milinkevich says he will not seek to join NATO and will strike a balance between the West and Russia, unlike ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine, whose pro-Western aspirations have led to a significant souring of political and economic ties with Moscow.

Belarus is heavily dependent on the Russian economy and Milinkevich promised to boost economic cooperation with Russia while also opening up its market to Western countries.

"We should take advantage of our unique position of a bridge between Russia and Europe," he told voters.

Independent analyst Oleg Manayev praised Milinkevich's election campaign as "quite effective" given his scarce access to media and official pressure. According to a study conducted by Manayev's research team, Milinkevich went from less than 2 percent of support at the start of his campaign to about 20 percent now. Lukashenko is estimated to have the support of about 60 percent of the electorate.

Although analysts say Milinkevich has no chance of beating Lukashenko, they see his showing as an important test for the future of the country's beleaguered opposition.

Manayev said if Milinkevich is able to muster more than 20 percent of votes - and prove it to his supporters - "it will mark the beginning of a serious consolidation of democratic forces calling for change."