Keeping the Opposition in Check, if Not in Jail

Though Favored to Win Today's Vote, Belarus Leader Uses Fear as Tactic

By Peter Finn

Washington Post Foreign Service

MINSK, Belarus, March 18 -- Syrghei Marchyk, a 20-year-old former law student, has been running from the law since being charged recently with "unsanitary practices." He said he could only guess that an arrest warrant was issued for him because he was spotted putting up posters for Alexander Milinkevich, an opposition candidate in the presidential election here Sunday.

The last couple of months have been tough for Marchyk. In February, he was expelled from law school for "disciplinary problems." He said the action resulted from his political activities against the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko. Before his expulsion, he was briefly jailed for silently holding candles on a street with about 20 other young people to commemorate four government opponents who are missing and presumed dead. The authorities called it an unsanctioned rally.

"This may sound a little pathetic, but I love my country and I want to fight for my motherland," Marchyk said. "If I have to wait for a change of regime to continue my studies, I'll wait."

Dissent carries a real price in this country of 10 million people, sandwiched between the European Union and Russia, where Lukashenko has ordered that no one other than Lukashenko can be called "president." Hundreds of presidents of companies, clubs and associations have had to change their titles.

Opposition activists say students who step out of line often receive failing grades or face trumped-up disciplinary charges that lead to expulsion from school. State workers, who commonly have one-year contracts, are routinely dismissed if they question the president's rule. Political activists are arrested and sometimes beaten. Independent newspapers are shut down or lose an entire edition to police seizures.

"We will wring their necks as one might a duck," Lukashenko, 51, said Friday while touring an auto plant, referring to unnamed opponents he said were planning a coup. The head of the KGB, as the security service is still called in this former Soviet republic, said this week that people who protest the outcome of the election could face the death penalty.

"There are two problems in Belarus: The first is fear and the second is apathy," Milinkevich, 58, a physics professor, said in an interview at a campaign stop. "We can ruin apathy at least. Fear is more difficult."

The repression, activists say, is designed to prevent the emergence of a strong opposition to Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager who came to office as a reformer in 1994 and has ruthlessly centralized power since. Members of his inner circle have declined to be interviewed, but analysts say they are particularly anxious about preventing the kind of popular revolt that toppled post-communist governments in Ukraine and Georgia.

What makes Lukashenko more than an average autocrat is that he is genuinely popular with a significant segment of the population -- people who value the modest but secure life that the state-controlled economy offers. Lukashenko plausibly could win a free and fair election, the opposition concedes.

According to a recent survey by Washington-based InterMedia, Lukashenko will receive at least 52.9 percent of the vote and looks set to win in the first round Sunday, avoiding a runoff. Milinkevich is projected to get 6 percent.

Lukashenko also faces Alexander Kozulin, a former rector of Belarusan State University who was once close to the president, and Syarhey Haydukevich, seen by political analysts as a Lukashenko ally whose role is to create the appearance of competition. The InterMedia poll of 1,085 Belarusans gave Kozulin 4.7 percent and Haydukevich 0.5 percent.

About 17 percent said they were undecided. Others declined to answer or said they would not vote. Polls sanctioned by the government show Lukashenko winning at least 60 percent of the vote.

Andrei Vardomatskii, a Belarusan pollster, said in an interview that the climate of fear in the country causes many people to say publicly that they will vote for Lukashenko. That results in an overestimate of his support in polls by at least 10 percent, meaning he probably could not secure a first-round victory in a fair vote, Vardomatskii said.

But there is no question that Lukashenko remains popular among many Belarusans. In a historically brutalized country -- as much as one-third of the population was killed during World War II, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 in Ukraine blighted a large swath of the Belarusan countryside -- stability is a value that can trump liberty.

"I don't love him like an idol, but during his time many positive changes have occurred," said Natalia Kazachenko, 52, who retired from her job as a kindergarten director last year. She said her pension was generous and stable, allowing her to vacation in Egypt and remodel her apartment. Kazachenko said she was also happy that both her sons had free educations, followed by secure jobs as construction engineers. Her eldest, who is 30, just bought his own apartment, she said proudly.

"People have something to lose with change," Kazachenko said, adding that her entire family would vote for Lukashenko.

Through his absolute control of the broadcast media, Lukashenko has warned repeatedly of chaos if the opposition, which is demonized as a puppet of the West, should ever gain political power. The dislocation, emigration and poverty caused by the transition to capitalism in the neighboring Baltic states and Poland is a constant Lukashenko theme.

The political divide is as generational as it is ideological. At a rally this week in the industrial city of Zhodino, about 50 miles northeast of the capital, Minsk, younger members of the audience enthusiastically welcomed Milinkevich. But he received glowers from older people, many of them local bureaucrats, who emulated the state media by portraying him as a Western stooge of uncertain background and values.

"Why didn't your son serve in the military?" one man asked during a question and answer session.

"Because he has a serious kidney condition," Milinkevich replied.

As Milinkevich spoke, three of his local campaign workers were sitting in jail. Police would not say what they were charged with.

In the interview, Milinkevich said he was not running to win -- not this time. The goal of his campaign, he said, is to raise the possibility of an alternative to Lukashenko as president for life. In 2004, in a referendum that outside observers condemned as rigged, the country adopted a constitutional amendment that lifted the two-term limit for presidents.

Kozulin said in an interview that he entered the race to siphon off disaffected voters, particularly among state workers, who would never support Milinkevich in part because he is a favorite of students and the well-educated.

Both Kozulin and Milinkevich said the president's control of the media has limited their ability to present their ideas to the electorate. The 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that more than 94 percent of news broadcasts about the candidates were devoted to Lukashenko.