On Eve of Vote, Belarus Braces for Aftermath


Published: March 19, 2006

MINSK, Belarus, March 18 - There are no campaign posters or billboards here, not even for President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has otherwise thoroughly orchestrated his re-election to a third term on Sunday.

Aleksandr Milinkevich, an opposition candidate for president of Belarus, greeting a rally on Saturday in Minsk.

The security services barred campaigning in the city's center. Handing out leaflets - even possessing them - risks arrest. Dozens have already been jailed in the prelude to the vote, some of them senior campaign workers for the democratic opposition.

The results of the election on Sunday, widely denounced here and abroad as undemocratic, are a foregone conclusion. But the vote is only a prelude to the real struggle against Mr. Lukashenko's government, one that many fear could end in violent reprisals along the monumental streets of Minsk, the capital.

A text message sent to Belarussian mobile phones on Saturday, from an unknown sender, carried an ominous warning about what might unfold on Minsk's central square. "On the evening of March 19, 2006, on October Square, provocateurs are preparing bloodshed," said the message, apparently intended to discourage attendance. "Protect your life and health."

In an attempt to replicate the popular uprising against a rigged presidential election in Ukraine in 2004, two opposition candidates, Aleksandr Milinkevich and Aleksandr V. Kazulin, have called on their supporters to assemble Sunday night to protest what they denounced as a chimera of a democratic process. They have done so in defiance of a ban on Election Day rallies and threats that those who gather could face charges of terrorism.

"We will stay for 24 hours," said Alyaksei Yanukevich, a close aide of Mr. Milinkevich's, describing a plan to occupy the square in peaceful protest. "If on Monday night there are more people than on Sunday, then that means the process will continue."

What might happen after that, he could not say. Mr. Lukashenko vowed to crush any protests, warning Belarussians not to participate and foreign governments not to encourage them.

"We know where they met, whom they met with and what discussions they had," Mr. Lukashenko said during remarks made at an auto factory in Zhodino on Friday, according to the Interfax news agency. "God forbid that they should try to perpetrate something in the country. We will twist off their heads as though they are ducklings."

The United States and European Union have warned of sanctions. In Washington, the White House released a report on Friday that accused Mr. Lukashenko of having created "a repressive dictatorship on the doorstep of the European Union and NATO."

The report, citing news accounts and critics, accused him of personally enriching himself and asserted that he was "likely among the most corrupt leaders in the world."

Mr. Lukashenko, already shunned in the West, has responded with defiance as the election campaign unfolded. The arrests of opposition workers and the restrictions on public events "have limited the scope for a vibrant election campaign," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a report based on the findings of its observers here.

The most prominent independent newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, or People's Will, had 250,000 issues seized on March 3 as they were being delivered from a printer in Smolensk, Russia. On Monday, the printer suddenly annulled the paper's contract, said the editor, Iosif Seredich.

He found another printer in Russia, but after Tuesday's copies were seized, he shut down the newspaper, one of the last public forums available to the opposition candidates.

"There is no sense," he said.

Mr. Lukashenko himself forswore campaigning. He has instead carried on with official duties, which state television has extensively covered while it has ignored the opposition except to criticize it.

One of his campaign managers, Vladimir Gostyukhin, declined a request to be interviewed. He said that he was very busy, and that he would vote early on Saturday - a widespread practice that Mr. Lukashenko's critics warn would be used to rig the results in the absence of observers - and then leave Minsk.

On Friday night, Mr. Lukashenko gave a short, televised address. He urged people to vote, defended his government from accusations of authoritarianism and reassured viewers that there would be no coup.

"The fact that four candidates are taking part in the ongoing election campaign is also evidence of democracy in this country," he said in remarks transcribed by the BBC. (In addition to Mr. Milinkevich and Mr. Kazulin, a fourth candidate, Sergei Gaydukevich, is a Lukashenko supporter.)

"Some candidates insistently call on people to take to the streets if the results of the vote are not in their favor," he added. "Is this their understanding of democracy? It is unrest, pogroms and violence?"

His opponents vowed only peaceful demonstrations. "I beg you to come out with smiles and flowers and balloons," Mr. Kazulin, who was beaten and detained during a confrontation with security officers on March 2, told an overflowing crowd of hundreds in a tattered movie theater on the edge of Minsk on Friday night. "Take chocolates or sweets and give them to the police."

The rally was the first joint appearance for Mr. Kazulin, a former university rector, and Mr. Milinkevich, a former physics professor who is the more prominent opposition candidate, representing a coalition of 10 parties. The audience erupted into chants of "Long live Belarus."

"The mood of the people now is different," Mr. Milinkevich said when asked about the expected announcement of an overwhelming victory for the president. "The people will laugh now, and that is what the authorities are most afraid of."

Beyond those who attend opposition events, fear remains pervasive. People asked about the election invariably refused to give their names. "Are they filming?" a middle-aged woman asked near Victory Square. She had no doubt about the outcome, she said, because she had no illusion about democracy here.

"Like Fidel Castro, he will be president forever," she said and hurried off.

The democratic changes in Ukraine - as well as in Georgia in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 - inspired many here, but Mr. Lukashenko's government took note, too. In December, his government enacted new laws increasing criminal penalties for organizing the sort of public protest now being planned.

"He analyzed very well the mistakes made by Shevardnadze and Kuchma," said Igor Marinich, referring to former leaders of Georgia and Ukraine whose autocratic governments were swept aside by protests. He is the son of Mikhail Marinich, an opposition leader who was jailed in 2004, the first of what he predicted then would be a wave of politically motivated arrests.

"And they," he added, "were not the dictators he is."