Belarus opposition could shape future


Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus - Opposition supporters in Belarus face a ban on demonstrations against a vote they fear is sure to be fraudulent and the possibility of terrorist charges if they do gather. So they're pinning their hopes on flowers.

Hard-line incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko is widely expected to win Sunday's election and his opponents have slim chances for contesting the results.

But the opposition hopes to at least muster public support for the democratic cause that could pave the way for a future victory.

Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, called on his backers to carry flowers Sunday to signal that their intentions are peaceful and that they can resist repression without bloodshed.

"We will come out with flowers, we will come out peacefully, without any violence," he said Saturday.

The 58-year-old former physicist has called on voters to gather on Minsk's central square after polling stations close to protest suspected election fraud and call for a fair vote. But with a ban on demonstrations on that day, government warnings of subversive actions by provocateurs and likely attempts by authorities to close off the center of the city, the opposition faces difficulties in drawing a big crowd.

Regardless of the results, Milinkevich insisted his efforts to promote democratic reforms on the campaign trail and in rare speeches on TV and radio would lead to the opposition's eventual victory.

"We will win, if not on the 19th, then later, it doesn't matter, but the victory will be ours," he told a crowd of over 5,000 supporters in Minsk, the biggest such rally yet in the capital.

Analysts say the opposition has conducted an unexpectedly successful campaign given virtually no access to media and persecution by the authorities.

"Protest voters have been inspired, they have seen that there is an alternative (to Lukashenko)," said Valery Karbalevich, an independent analyst.

"They've created a resonance; essentially, for the past two weeks Lukashenko has been forced to justify himself - the opposition managed to set the agenda, the topic of public discussion, which was unthinkable before," Karbalevich said.

Yekaterina Bachinskaya, a 29-year-old economist, was at the rally Saturday and said she would attend protests on Sunday as well.

"It's been a gulp of freedom, I have gotten tired of being afraid, I have overcome my fear," Bachinskaya said.

According to a study by the independent pollster Oleg Manayev, only 10 percent of Belarusians had heard of Milinkevich at the start of his campaign, compared to the current 80 percent.

Manayev predicted that if the opposition receives more than 20 percent of votes - and is able to prove it to their supporters - it could further consolidate democratic forces.

However, some expressed fear that a successful showing could also provoke the government.

Karbalevich predicted a further crackdown on opposition leaders and supporters, who already claim over 300 of their activists have been detained in the course of the campaign.

He said Milinkevich's success was a "psychological, moral and political shock" to Lukashenko, adding "I think if they had known he would be that successful, they would never have registered him" as a candidate.


Associated Press reporter Yuras Karmanau contributed to this reported from Minsk.