Belarusian election scene heats up, Ukrainian activists involved

by Evgenia Mussuri, Kyiv Post Staff Writer

Belarusian opposition candidate Alyaksandr Kozulin, left, reportedly beaten by Belarusian police, and Ukraine's Pora party leader Vladyslav Kaskiv, discuss the upcoming Belarusian elections at a press conference in Kyiv on March 6.

"The current Orange parties of Ukraine are actively trying to export their own experience [to belarus] in forcibly seizing power."

- Natalia Vitrenko, Ukrainian politician

As Alyaksandr Lukashenko, the man described in the West as Europe's last dictator, prepares to run for a third term of office in Belarus, Ukrainian politicians are increasingly getting involved in the pre-election polemics, which largely reflects a broader struggle by Moscow against the wave of democracy that has threatened its rule in the former Soviet Union.

Election day in Belarus is scheduled for March 19, just one week ahead of Ukraine's parliamentary poll, but heated exchanges between the two countries on the diplomatic level reveal a regional political battle being waged beyond the border of either country.

President Lukashenko accused Ukraine on March 2 of channeling money into his country to overthrow him, recalling the string of revolutions held over the last few years in Ukraine, Georgia and Serbia, which brought to power pro-Western leaders.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry denied the accusations in an official statement which, in line with criticism raised by Western governments and observers, also questions the democratic standards used by the Belarusian authorities in holding the elections.

All the while, the country of 10 million wedged between Russian and the European Union, has become the destination of Ukrainian politicians intent on showing their support for one or the other of the contenders for the Belarusian presidency.

Not invited

Vladyslav Kaskiv, head of Ukraine's Pora party, which became well known when it was a non-governmental youth organization playing an active role in Ukraine's Orange Revolution, was banned from entering Belarus on March 2.

Kaskiv, two members of his party and three Ukrainian television journalists arrived in Belarus to cover the presidential election campaign, but were detained at the airport and sent back to Ukraine the same day.

According to Serhiy Yevtushenko, one of the members of Pora, which is running in Ukraine's parliamentary elections in a bloc sympathetic to President Viktor Yushchenko, the moment the Ukrainians arrived at the airport in Minsk, they were taken to a separate room and interrogated by the Belarusian KGB.

"When we got in, there was a group of KGB employees led by Alyaksandr Zharsky, who introduced himself as the head of the KGB's department for terrorism," said Yevtushenko.

The group of Ukrainians was then put on a plane and flown back to Kyiv without explanation. In response to inquiries by Ukraine's pro-Western Foreign Ministry, the Belarusian authorities said that "as a sovereign state, Belarus is entitled to such a decision."

"The Ukrainian authorities have declared that they have a list of individuals who are not welcome in Ukraine.

We respect the position of our Ukrainian colleagues," said Andrey Popov, press secretary at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

The events mirror an incident in Ukraine early last month when a radical Russian scholar, Kiril Frolov, was banned from entering Crimea.

Welcome home

From the opposite end of Ukraine's political spectrum, radical leftist Natalya Vitrenko and Communist leader Petro Symonenko have also made a visit to Belarus lately, but they didn't have any trouble at the border.

On March 3, both Vitrenko and Symonenko, who favor establishing a union between Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, joined President Lukashenko at an all-Belarusian Forum. At the forum, the two Ukrainian politicians said that Belarus was on the right path of development.

Symonenko praised Lukashenko for Belarus' economic growth over the past several years, while Vitrenko assured her audience that no "Orange Revolution will be exported to Belarus."

"The current Orange parties of Ukraine are actively trying to export their own experience in forcibly seizing power," Vitrenko said at the Forum, adding that she agrees with the seditious allegations against Ukraine made by the Lukashenko regime.

Western interference?

Also on March 3, the Belarusian KGB arrested four Belarusian election observers from an unregistered NGO that receives funding from the US-supported National Democratic Institute and works closely with the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO).

According to the head of Belarusian KGB, Stepan Sukharenko, his people confiscated from the election observers forged results of exit polls dated March 19, which gave Lukashenko 41.3 percent of the vote, with one opposition candidate said to have 53.7 percent support.

Sukharenko said that the NGO and other local activists were going to present these exit-poll results as authentic ones to disrupt the election. The Belarusian KGB also reported confiscating thousands of dollars in cash from the NGO's office, computers with encrypted files and more than 100 mobile phones.

Political analysts say that NGOs in Belarus cannot become registered officially and thus cannot open bank accounts, so donor organizations that support them have to bring money into the country in cash.

According to the head of ENEMO's mission in Ukraine, Peter Novotny, the four local observers were only involved in monitoring activities.

Lukashenko announced on March 3 that his secret services uncovered a total of 72 organizations that were planning to disrupt the presidential elections and overthrow his regime.

Lukashenko is being challenged in the elections by united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kozulin who was reportedly beaten and later charged by Belarusian police when he tried to enter the all-Belarusian forum.

The incident was harshly criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations and the United States, who accused the Belarusian authorities of oppressing the opposition through mass arrests, media closures and the banning of foreign observers and journalists from entering the country.

A poll taken by Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nationwide nearly 55 percent of Belarusians want to vote for Lukashenko and just 17 percent for Milinkevich.

Yet Lukashenko has been almost universally criticized for his huma rights abuses and poor democratic record. The notable exception has been neighboring Russia, which has also been increasingly accused of deviating from democratic standards, including a recent ban on foreign NGOs.