By Judith Latham
Voters in Belarus went to the polls last month and re-elected President Alexander Lukashenko, whom critics call the "last dictator in Europe." The EU and the United States have denounced the elections as a fraud and have pledged to increase sanctions against members of the Lukashenko regime. And, in a setback for Ukraine's reform movement, the pro-Russian "Regions Party" of former Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, garnered more of the vote in recent parliamentary elections, than his rivals, both leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Notwithstanding President Lukashenko's lopsided re-election victory in what are widely seen as fraudulent elections, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she thinks a lasting democratic opposition might still emerge in Belarus. And she said the reform movement in Ukraine remains strong despite mixed election results there.
Russian journalist Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, mocked official election results in Belarus - showing that President Lukashenko won 83 percent of the vote. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now's International Press Club, Ms. Lipman said independent polls gave the president no more than 50 percent, which would still have catapulted him to victory. Ms. Lipman praised the courage of members of the opposition, many of them young people who were arrested for protesting the election results. Ms. Lipman noted that they have pledged to continue their struggle.
But Dmitri Siderov, Washington bureau chief of Kommersant, a business and political daily in Moscow, was not so impressed by Belarus' nascent political opposition. Furthermore, he questioned whether European and U.S. sanctions against the government in Minsk would be effective, given the country's heavy economic dependence on Russia.
However, Iryna Vidanova, editor of the magazine Student Thought in Belarus, was more optimistic than Mr. Siderov about the opposition's political future and she called it a "great sign" that people had declared publicly that they want change. She suggested it was only a "question of time" before President Lukashenko would have to step down.
But Ukraine's parliamentary elections demonstrated that even the forces for political and economic reform are vulnerable if they do not deliver on campaign promises. Voters there dealt a stunning blow to Victor Yuschenko's pro-Western party, which had won a mandate to govern during Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. According to journalist Yavhen Hlibovytsky of independent Channel 5 television in Kiev, President Yuschanko's weakened party will probably form a coalition with his former Prime Minister Yulia Timochanko's bloc. Nonetheless, Mr. Hlibovysky calls last week's elections an "incredible achievement" in the democratic process. And comparing the recent elections in Belarus to the situation in Ukraine in 2004, Mr. Hlibovysky suggested that the political shift in Belarus is "definite," even if for now, Alexander Lukashenko has managed to suppress the opposition.