Q&A-Belarus: Opposition Leader Sees Little Hope Of Fair Election

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MINSK, Belarus, Sep. 26, 2008 (IPS/GIN) -- Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich fears signs that Sunday's elections in Belarus will not be free and fair. President Alexander Lukashenko's government continues to stifle the media, he said.

Milinkevich, founder of the Movement for Freedom, one of the strongest opposition parties in Belarus and a former presidential candidate, sees an increasing possibility of social and political tension, abuse of human rights and an escalating economic crisis.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: What is the general feeling among voters? Would you say a majority of the citizens are keen on regime change?

Alexander Milinkevich: Unfortunately, in Belarus, as in many undemocratic countries, a very large proportion of election statistics, especially those directly related to politics, are simply falsified by authorities, and independent surveys are almost impossible to carry out. And there are many signs that the vote count will be "as usual" during and after the parliamentary election due to be held on Sunday.

Over the last three months, I have done numerous field trips throughout Belarus and can tell you the practical views of the ordinary people whom I have had discussion with about the current political situation, and people I continue to meet every day.

The meetings make me more convinced that the number of people calling for changes in Belarus is growing. The regime is losing grassroots support and even that of the elite. The mood of the people clearly indicates that Belarusians are not satisfied with Lukashenko's regime.

Rising prices, denial of social benefits and the helplessness of citizens in the face of arbitrary rule are the most common concerns of Belarusians. These issues have been raised by people in almost every region. From this point of view, the country is very homogeneous, and people are gradually identifying their collective political interest.

I should also add that I have met a few government supporters. At the same time, there is a very dangerous phenomenon that has appeared: apathy and pessimism. People don't believe they can change anything in the country. I feel that the forthcoming parliamentary election will rather have a low turnout, and there are not many explicit signs which show the parliamentary election will be free and fair.

IPS: What, in your opinion, is wrong with Lukashenko's government?

AM: Lukashenka's model of development for Belarus obviously leads to a deadlock. This path lacks a long-term vision for the development of my country. Our economy has not significantly been reformed, and the market is far less competitive than expected, and depends too much on cheap Russian oil and gas. We need modernization, opening up of our entire economy, and developing the private initiative and entrepreneurial spirit of Belarusians.

We are at the crucial stage right now. If the country does not undertake structural economic reforms, we have no future as an independent European nation.

IPS: Are voters not interested in a regime change?

AM: I know that there are very many people in Belarus that are interested in change. But, interestingly, they are passive to effect the necessary change, many want the change to happen by itself or want somebody to make a change instead of their radical involvement. Many don't believe they are able to change something themselves and for themselves. All my work is to explain to people that it is they who have to act. We, the opposition politicians, can assist them in many different ways and together we can achieve for the country and its people a new progressive political era. But, as long as the people sit and wait for a miracle, it won't happen.

A very positive sign is that there is an increasing number of Belarusians, especially young people, who want change, and stand for independence, democracy and the European choice for Belarus.

IPS: How prepared are the opposition groups to face the forthcoming elections?

AM: The Movement for Freedom believes that electoral campaigns, carried out by opposition activists in their districts, have become a good opportunity to maintain contact with people and discuss crucial issues they face in ordinary life. One of the main goals [and] why I frequently visited the regions is to have open and straight discussions with people about elections in Belarus.

The closer the election day approaches, the more evident the fact becomes the next parliament will be chosen neither freely nor fairly. The organization of the electoral process has not changed seriously from prior campaigns. All levels of electoral commissions are still using old rules and practices, which cannot be accepted as just, transparent and equitable. Therefore, one may argue that current elections will not be carried out without fraud either. The fact is that the Belarusian elections do not depend on the will of voters at all.

We have sought to achieve two main goals during this electoral campaign. The ultimate task was either to have open and fair elections in Belarus or to show a positive image of democratic forces to the general public, which remains mostly brainwashed by the state media propaganda. We realize that the Belarusian regime aims to get these parliamentary elections recognized by the international community. Therefore, democratic forces have the aim to contribute to the openness and fairness of elections while demonstrating the cosmetic changes undertaken by authorities.

IPS: Lukashenko has moved to tighten control over the media. What does the opposition, such as your Movement for Freedom, feel about this?

AM: You are absolutely right that there is no free conventional media in Belarus. The independent media is working mostly on the Internet. There are also several radio stations that are broadcasting from abroad both online and live in some districts of the country. Concerning TV, the Poland-based satellite BelSat became a great step forward for the free Belarusian media. I am happy that this TV station managed to overcome the initial technical troubles and is now actively spreading information and raising its quality.

IPS: Do you think the human rights situation is getting worse?

AM: Frankly speaking, the situation with human rights in Belarus is so bad that it cannot be much worse. Although the country's last three political prisoners were freed in August, and that is surely a very positive move, one should not be misled by this. In Belarus, political prisoners are very easily created. It is enough to be an independently thinking person with your own views and respect for your human dignity. What we need is a change of the whole system, so that political imprisonment as such would be impossible. Cosmetic changes cannot be enough because they do not touch the essence of the regime.

IPS: Are sanctions an effective way to get Lukashenko to observe democracy?

AM: I believe that those who suffer most from sanctions are the ordinary people. The sanctions of the West will leave Lukashenko no other option but Russia. Today, Europe has a window of opportunity to trigger change in the country. After the start of even a small-scale dialogue with the E.U., you can see that the old anti-E.U. propaganda has simply disappeared in Belarus. Dialogue is producing interesting things that hadn't been expected. The E.U. needs to set a road map for reform rather than insisting on fulfillment of all the 12 steps set out in a 2006 paper on Belarus at once. The E.U. needs to start negotiations with the authorities in Belarus. Otherwise the chance will simply disappear.

Today the E.U. visa policy is a de facto sanction against the Belarusian people. The high visa prices have reduced the contacts of Belarusians with the outside world, and especially our neighbors -- Poland and the Baltic states. In the past, Belarusian authorities themselves isolated the country and didn't allow foreign travel. Unfortunately, today the E.U. with the high prices of visas is isolating us from the civilized world. These visa prices are a kind of Berlin Wall.

IPS: If you had won the previous election, what would you have done as president?

AM: Well, we did not win the previous election although we did not lose it, as there was no free election in Belarus in 2006. However, if you insist on such a question, I would realize my election program that is still relevant today. My team and I are looking forward to building Belarus as a free democratic country, built on European values, with an open-market economy, and establishing good relations with all our neighbors.

IPS: Is there any hope that you will stand for the presidency next time when elections will be held for this position?

AM: I have never disappeared from national politics ever since the 2006 election. I am working in conditions of an authoritarian state, and so the work of opposition here definitely varies from democratic countries. I think the most important thing we are doing in our country, Belarus, is to continue talking to people, meeting them, listening to them, formulating their needs, providing them with any possible help, educating and motivating them, explaining our position. I surely will participate in next presidential election.



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