Monday, 23 May 2005

Belarus: Planning The Next Revolution?

By Julie A. Corwin

Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev's recent suggestion that foreign intelligence services are seeking ways to overthrow the current Belarusian government has focused new attention on Belarus's political opposition, particularly its youngest members, since youths were at the forefront of recent colored revolutions in the region.

Judging by the comments of Belarusian opposition members who spoke recently at RFE/RL's Washington, D.C., bureau, the FSB might have reason to be concerned about the stability of Alyasandr Lukashenka's regime. Siarhei Salash, chairman of Skryzhavanne (Crossroads), an independent NGO dedicated to educating and training political active youth, declared that he is "absolutely sure our Belarusian youth will be very active in [Belarus's 2006 presidential] elections. They will be just as passionate as the youth in Georgia and Ukraine were and other countries of the former Soviet bloc. I am very hopeful that 2006 will be the year of great changes in our country."

Ripe For Change?

Asked whether Belarus has some of the key elements that made the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine possible, Olha Stuzhinskaya, coordinator of We Remember!, an independent NGO dedicated to informing the Belarusian and international community about the course of investigations into disappearances, noted that Ukraine was already a lot more democratic than Belarus: it had opposition members in the parliament and at least one independent television station. "We do not expect the same scenario in Belarus," Stuzhinskaya said. "Probably there will be much more blood."

Salash, for his part, agreed that Belarus "will not have the same kind of revolution as happened in Ukraine and Georgia." He continued, "Concerning the security forces, Lukashenka has a full circle of people who are funded from an undisclosed budget. I am absolutely convinced that nothing will stop these people." He concluded that the Belarusian opposition would need to get much more than even 50,000 people out on the street. "I think hundreds of thousands will have to go out into the streets, and then the opposite process will take place," he said "Those [people] who are protecting Lukashenka right now will be protecting the people from Lukashenka."

For Salash, a key to getting large numbers of Belarusians to act publicly is finding a single presidential candidate from the democratic opposition around whom people can unite. Salash said the process of selecting a joint democratic candidate is ongoing, although it has been "somewhat dragged out." Stuzhinskaya, however, suggested that delay is not necessarily bad because the "danger exists to a very high degree" that once a single candidate is identified, he or she will become a target for the authorities. United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lyabedzka told Belapan on 18 May that eight presidential hopefuls are going to participate in an effort to select a single candidate, and they plan to hold a congress by 1 October.

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 19 May, Alyaksandr Kazulin, the leader of the unregistered Will of the People movement, echoed these youths' sentiments. He declared that Lukashenka would no longer be president next year.

Wild Card

The wild card, however, in all of the calculations of Belarus's opposition is what role Russia would play. Kazulin believes that "Russian will not come to Lukashenka's aid and will not allow blood to be spilled" in the event that the current authorities in Belarus find themselves in a crisis. "Moscow's attitude to the Belarusian people will always remain positive, friendly, and sincere," Kazulin told Ekho Moskvy, "but its attitude to Lukashenka is different -- a fact demonstrated by the Belarusian leader's absence at the Victory parade [in Moscow]." He concluded, "I have no doubts that Russia will come to the aid of the Belarusian people, not President Lukashenka, and will play a key role in Belarus's civilized, democratic return to its true path."

Salash, however, was less hopeful. "Unfortunately, Russia is conducting a very imperialistic policy toward Russia," Salash said. "Of course, again, talks of the union have been renewed. Of course, Putin has to pay attention to his political rating. He lost Ukraine. He lost Georgia. He doesn't know what is happening in Kyrgyzstan.... Putin will not have any kind of political future if Russia loses Belarus. And right now Russia is going to do everything in its power to support the regime. I do not believe that Russia will or can change the situation in Belarus. Of course, sometimes you can hear Putin criticize Lukashenka; however, it is very arbitrary and not part of a unified policy. However, when the time comes to realistically change something in Belarus, Putin's Russia provides all possible support to Lukashenka. It doesn't matter what kind of violations took place during the elections. The next day, Russia recognized them."

Speaking to Ekho Moskvy on 19 May, political analyst Alyaksandr Feduta suggested that Moscow would stop short of providing military assistance to the Lukashenka regime in the event of a crisis. Feduta told the station that Moscow "has made enough slip-ups and mistakes not to make this one as well."

Watching Washington

In the meantime, Russia's FSB is paying close attention to financial and technical assistance to Belarus from the United States. In contrast to Patrushev's impression, Stuzhinskaya said the opposition is hardly awash with cash. "For the last two or three years, all of the Western donors pulled out of Belarus completely," Stuzhinskaya said. "It has had a very negative effect on civil society and on political parties." The Belarusian public has heard for the last several years from the Lukashenka regime that "the opposition is just swimming in money and being bought from special services in the U.S. and Europe, but it doesn't have the same effect anymore," she said. "The only picture that many people have of the Belarusian opposition is what they get on television; but in the last several years, people are tired of hearing the same thing and don't believe it as much as they used to.... In a complete vacuum of information, people understand that they are being lied to."