Activists jailed before election

By Michael Mainville


MINSK, Belarus -- More than 300 opposition activists have been jailed in Belarus in the run-up to an election Sunday, which is all but certain to result in a third five-year term for President Alexander Lukashenko.

Many more have been threatened, expelled from universities and forced out of jobs.

"Every day, people are going to prison. The authorities are doing everything they can to hold on to power," opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich said in an interview in the run-down, Soviet-era apartment that serves as the opposition's campaign headquarters.

"As the authorities do not want to have honest elections, people who want to fight for freedom will have no choice but to take to the streets."

Bolstered by Western support, the opposition is calling for public demonstrations on Sunday and is urging people to draw inspiration from the popular uprisings that overthrew authoritarian leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

"It isn't going to be easy; the level of fear in Belarus is very high," said Alexander Astroshenko, a spokesman for the opposition youth group Zubr. "If there are only 2,000 or 3,000 people, then the police will use force against us and people will be severely beaten. If we can get 20,000, I think the police may be with us. They can always smell which way the wind is blowing."

Mr. Lukashenko has said that protests on the streets will be met with force. And the head of the Belarusian KGB, Stepan Sukhorenko, warned yesterday that demonstrators face stiff prison sentences or even the death penalty, saying the opposition was planning a "violent coup."

The election also is shaping up as another proxy battle between Russia and the West over influence in the former Soviet Union.

The United States openly supports the opposition, with more than $14 million in assistance to the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and other groups to hold seminars for opposition activists and cover printing costs for campaign materials.

Western governments have warned Mr. Lukashenko of economic sanctions if the elections are not conducted fairly. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not eager to see another former Soviet republic turn its back on Moscow, is supporting Mr. Lukashenko, despite reports of an icy relationship between the two.

Mr. Lukashenko rose to power in 1994 in what is considered the last free election in Belarus, a country of 10 million wedged between Poland and Russia.

Since then, the former collective-farm boss has reintroduced Soviet-style economic and political controls, removed all opposition voices from parliament and closed down nearly all independent media.

A widely condemned 2004 referendum removed constitutional term limits for the office of president, allowing Mr. Lukashenko to seek re-election indefinitely. His secret police, still known by their Soviet-era acronym of KGB, are powerful and feared. Opposition activists say the KGB is responsible for the disappearances of at least four prominent dissidents since 1999.

Yet Mr. Lukashenko remains popular, especially among pensioners, rural voters and government employees, who make up a large part of the country's work force.

Wages and pensions have increased significantly and, in recent years, the Belarusian economy has shown steady growth, thanks in large part to cheap oil and gas supplies from Russia. Mr. Lukashenko also is frequently praised for bringing stability to a country that was thrown into turmoil by the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Milinkevich and others in the opposition see themselves as the political descendants of the Solidarity movement in Poland, whose long campaign of dissent was instrumental in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe.

"When there was the Soviet Union, nobody knew how long it would take to fight it, but they had to," Mr. Milinkevich said. "Victory will come in the end."