Belarus opposition leader challenges Lukashenko

MINSK - Agence France-Presse

The leader of the most prominent opposition movement in Belarus on Monday announced that he would stand against strongman President Alexander Lukashenko in elections scheduled for next year.

Alexander Milinkevich, whose party Za Svobodu, For Freedom, is legal in Belarus but has repeatedly complained of harassment, also warned of street protests if there was any sign of the authorities trying to rig the vote.

"I will stand as a candidate in the next presidential elections," he declared at a news conference in Minsk.

"Some people have reconciled themselves with dictatorship but the majority does not want to live under it," he said. Lukashenko is widely expected to run for a new five-year mandate in the election.

Lukashenko has ruled the state of 10 million that lies between three EU states and Russia since 1994. His last election victory in March 2006 prompted unprecedented mass demonstrations in Belarus by opposition supporters and the arrests of hundreds of activists by the authorities.

The protests fizzled out and Lukashenko has enjoyed a relatively untroubled term in office since.

Milinkevich, who was the main opposition candidate in the 2006 polls where he won six percent of the vote, warned there would be a repeat of the street protests if the opposition suspected foul play.

"We do not need elections where the votes are not counted. If the authorities do this there is one option - to take to the street."

He said his election platform would be centred on building a market economy in Belarus, promoting its entry into the European Union and a neutral foreign policy.

Lukashenko - who promotes a folksy image at home and likes to be known as "batka" or dad - has over the last months sought to improve ties with the European Union and sometimes taunted traditional ally Russia.

Last month he raised eyebrows by granting sanctuary to ousted Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev after voicing displeasure over his fall from power in Bishkek.


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