Election in Belarus is test of appetite for democracy

Nation suppressed reform, but many still hope for change

March 13, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MINSK, Belarus -- Anatoly Lebedko keeps a bouquet of miniature flags next to his office desk, including one that commemorates the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine. For him, an opposition politician in Belarus, a country seemingly trapped in Soviet-style politics, the flag is a reminder that the impossible sometimes is possible.

In Ukraine, thousands of orange-clad demonstrators peacefully brought to power in 2004 a president who promised democratic rule. Lebedko was in the crowds there, and he couldn't help but imagine revolution also shaking Belarus.

The main uncertainty here, however, as Belarus prepares for elections Sunday is not whether President Alexander Lukashenko will win a third term but by how large a margin. Officially, he won 76 percent of the vote in 2001 and then 88 percent in the referendum that changed the constitution to allow him to run again, votes that European observers said were neither free nor fair.

The election is a test of the appetite for democratic change in the European country that has done the most in the post-Soviet era to prevent it. The vote tests the government's powers of intimidation against would-be reformers' ability to make their message heard. They are working in a society where apathy has been the antidote to fear.

"In the center of Europe, this cannot carry on for very long, what we witness in Belarus today," says Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party, one of the largest opposition blocs.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, is known here as "batka," or father, a nickname many use less as a sign of respect than of derision. During nearly 12 years in office, he has consolidated power in the presidency. Through a series of flawed elections, he helped remove all opposition voices from parliament. He has muffled the press - the government has closed dozens of independent newspapers for alleged irregularities - and made the courts a servant of the presidency.

In its most recent report on human rights in Belarus, released last week, the U.S. State Department pointed to "serious abuses" by Lukashenko's government, including politically motivated arrests, torture of people detained by police and the use of force against peaceful protesters. During a visit last year to neighboring Lithuania, President Bush called Belarus the "last dictatorship in Europe."

With help from "ideology" departments at every university and a near monopoly on television, Lukashenko has convinced a substantial part of the population that Belarus is a stable, prosperous country under threat from the West. In December, parliament made it a crime to organize protests or otherwise "discredit" Belarus, a measure intended to prevent the mass gatherings that sparked the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

"All these color revolutions are not really revolutions," Lukashenko said last year, calling them "open banditry under the cover of democracy."

But there is evidence that a growing number of people do not share his view.

In a survey conducted last month, about a fourth of the Belarusians who were questioned described their quality of life as "bad" to "very bad." Nearly a third said their lives could not significantly improve as long as Lukashenko remained in power.

That such data even exist is something of a feat.

Oleg Manaev is the sociology professor at Belarusian State University who conducted the poll. Lest he be jailed, he implores anyone wanting to refer to his findings to make this clear: He gathered the data as a private citizen. Last year, the country's supreme court closed his research organization, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, and prohibited it from working in Belarus. The institute is now registered in Lithuania.

The government doesn't hide its tactics. On March 2, security police roughed up one of Lukashenko's election challengers, Alexander Kozulin, as he tried to enter a pro-government conference. The same day, police and security forces prevented people from gathering at Minsk's Freedom Square to hear a speech by Alexander Milinkevich, the leading opposition candidate. When Milinkevich's supporters tried to meet elsewhere, many were cut off by a line of riot police wielding shields and carrying tear gas.

The president's critics hope the government's heavy-handed tactics will help their cause. If the government is seen preventing candidates from speaking or blatantly falsifying election results, that may be the opposition's best chance to inspire people to protest.

"This is what persuades people to overcome their apathy, overcome their fears and to fight for their rights," Lebedko says. "In conditions of total fear, the fact that people will rise from their knees and go out into the streets, that would definitely be success."

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