10/03/2006 - D-7
Just over seven million Byelorussians will appoint their President on 19th March next. Early voting will start on 14th March. 122 political party representatives have been appointed within the 6,585 electoral commissions, including 41 abroad, created especially for the Presidential election. The Communist Party (KPB) has 109 members, the Agrarian Party (AP) 10, the Republican Workers' and Justice Party (RPPS), the Civic Union (CAB) and the Social Democrat Party (PPA), have one representative each. 489 people belonging to public organisations – most of whom are members of the Republic Youth League –, unions or women's movement have also been appointed to sit on the electoral commissions that in all will total 74,107 members.
On 17th February last four personalities were officially registered as candidates running in the presidential election:
- Alexander Milinkevich, elected as the only democratic opposition candidate on 2nd October last during the Congress of United Democratic Forces, an organisation that rallies several political parties and a dozen opposition NGO's;
- Alexander Kazulin, former rector of the University of Minsk and leader of the Social Democrat party, former opposition party taken over by the authorities after the imprisonment of its former leader, Mikola Statkevich, accused of having organised a demonstration against the ruling power;
- Sergei Gaidukevich, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party (LDPB), a nationalist party;
- Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 20th July 1994.
Zenon Pozniak, a political refugee in the USA since 1996 and Sergueï Skrebets, imprisoned since last May for a corruption scandal were not allowed to stand.
Acts of repression have been on the increase as the election date approaches. On 9th March Alexander Milinkevich's second in command, Vintsuk Viatchorka was sentenced to two weeks in prison for organising an unauthorised electoral meeting in Minsk. "I am guilty of nothing. The electoral code authorises an election candidate to organise meetings with voters," he maintained during his trial. Two days earlier Vladimir Chantsev, another manager of Milinkevich's electoral campaign received the same prison sentence for having organised an unauthorised electoral meeting in Moguilev in the west of the country. Two Pora leaders, the spearhead of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, recently transformed into a political party, were refused entry into Belarus.
On 1st March the head of the National Security Committee (KGB), Stepan Soukhorenko held a press conference in Minsk during which he accused the unregistered organisation, Partnerstvo (Partnership) of fomenting a "coup d'état" on the day of the presidential election. According to him leaders of the organisation had prepared the results of an exit poll ahead of time designed to lead the opposition into accusing the electoral commission of falsifying the election results and to bring the population out into the streets in protest against the anti-democratic nature of the election. In addition to this the KGB chief maintains that according to his information it was planned to set off explosions during the demonstrations. "The flow of blood and victims would have opened the way to the demonstration organisers for the second stage i.e. the assault and taking of official buildings and stations that would have led to the total blockade of the State and simultaneously a forced take over of power," he declared. Alexander Milinkevich immediately challenged the accusations brought by the KGB chief. Leaders of Partnerstvo are liable to three years in prison for participation in the activities of unregistered associations.
On 2nd March the Social Democrat Party leader was arrested in Minsk as he tried to register to take part in a congress of delegates of the people convened by Alexander Lukashenko. The former rector of the University of Minsk, who also destroyed a portrait of Lukashenko in the police station where he was under arrest, is to be prosecuted for hooliganism. During the arrest journalists and militants who were demonstrating outside of the police station were injured by the Special Forces deployed by the Interior Minister. Some hours later nearly 3,000 people paraded through the streets of Minsk brandishing flags made of jeans, which are a symbol of opposition, surrounded by over a thousand anti-riot police. During this gathering that was unauthorised by the government Alexander Milinkevich said to demonstrators that they had "the right to live in Europe and in a free country." "We do not have the right to meet with voters. There is neither freedom, truth nor justice in our country," he maintained recalling his campaign slogan "Freedom, Justice and Truth."
On the same day and during these events Alexander Lukashenko held an electoral meeting which was broadcast on all TV channels, for the 2,500 delegates of the popular congress during which he denounced "the western world which wants to overthrow power in Belarus." "Hundreds of millions of dollars are transferred to Belarus via the Ukraine, the Baltic countries and Poland to overthrow my regime. We know which embassies receive cash to bring it here," he maintained. He justified the recent dismantling of 72 organisations explaining that they "were going to publish false electoral protocols and announce the victory of one of those little runts (the name given to opposition candidates)." "The Russian leadership will not allow destruction of the last bastion before Moscow. If we give up our country without a fight our descendants will never forgive us," he concluded. He compared Belarus "where cleanliness and order reigns" with Europe "that is in chaos. They say: let's democratise Belarus. You should get democratic first!" he said launching a challenge to the Western States.
Russian Duma spokesperson Boris Gryzlov, who came to support Alexander Lukashenko was present at this meeting. He declared: "We have our own way. The idea of copying the European Union's model of integration is far from our minds as it digs its own grave. With 25 Member States it will now result in stagnation. The Russia-Belarus Union however is destined for development and growth."
On 6th March Alexander Milinkevich spoke about the arrest of Alexander Kazulin during a twenty minute radio interview and qualified the popular congress organised by Alexander Lukashenko as a "show". "Our congress will take part on 19th March next. It will be truly Belarus and truly popular," announced the only candidate of the democratic forces. He thanked his supporters for having vanquished their fear to demonstrate in the streets of Minsk on 2nd March last. "I am grateful to all of those who have given me their support and courage. Once you have surmounted your fear you will never be able to kneel down again. A free man cannot become a slave again," he declared. On the same day Alexander Kazulin maintained during a press conference that "Belarus would rise up against its dictator. Today the most important thing is not who is going to become President of the Republic, Alexander Kazulin or Alexander Milinkevich. Today the important thing is that Alexander Lukashenko should not become President again," declared the leader of the Social Democrat Party.
On 4th March Alexander Milinkevich travelled to Lida and on 4th March to his native town of Hrodna as well as Vaukavysk and Slonim. Many people attended his meetings. On 5th March in Baranovitch he called on voters to defend their vote "in the streets if necessary." On 8th March Alexander Milinkevich mobilised supporters in Minsk: "Lukashenko has not been received in one single European country in the last ten years because these countries do not receive dictators."
On 22nd February in accordance with the electoral law Alexander Milinkevich spoke for 20 minutes on State TV. If he is elected he promised to change the country's style of government radically and to free society of fear: "In most meetings we have held in the regions over the last few years people complain of the lack of freedom of expression and religion. Many say they want to be rid of fear and hope for freedom." In response to "the stability in stagnation" that governs Lukashenko's policy he spoke of his desire to achieve "stability in development." "We think the time has come for the country to be governed differently. We should promote co-operation not confrontation. We should encourage people not punish them," declared Alexander Milinkevich who promised to do his best to "bring the country out of the isolation it was suffering." He said that "the democratic coalition was against revolution. We ask just one thing: that the elections take place according to the law and that they are not rigged," he maintained
Alexander Kazulin and Alexander Milinkevich were also interviewed on TV for 30 minutes and criticised the policy undertaken by the present authorities. Both candidates complained of having had their speeches censored. "Out of a total of 30 minutes recording the censor cut seven minutes notably the declarations made by Alexander Kazulin who criticised the appointment of Lukashenko's eldest son, Viktor as presidential advisor in all matters related to security," declared Nina Chidlovskaïa, Alexander Kazulin's spokesperson. References made by the candidate to an interview given by Lukashenko in 1995 to a German newspaper Handelsblatt during which he said "In its time Germany emerged from the ruins thanks to an extremely strong power. Not everything was bad in the Germany under the famous Adolf Hitler" were also cut. Alexander Milinkevich also complained that "an illegal cut" was made in his television appearance "when he made fun of Lukashenko's lack of culture" maintained his spokesperson Pavel Majeïka.
It should be noted that Lukashenko who speaks in the media when he wants to chose not to use the thirty minutes granted to him on TV in the electoral campaign.
Since 26th February Belarusians can listen to radio and watch TV programmes financed by the European Union. A daily information programme "A Window on Europe" is broadcast every morning in Belarusian and Russian by the European radio for Belarus (www.belradio.fm) and by Radio Baltic Wave. Four programmes on the presidential election will be produced during which candidates, NGO representatives and electoral observers will appear. As for the TV the Russian channel RTVi broadcasts a thirty minute programme also entitled "A Window on Europe" every morning in Belarusian and Russian. Four weekly re-runs of this programme are planned. Two live programmes on the presidential election will be broadcast.
The USA are pessimistic and "find it hard to imagine" that the presidential election on 19th March will be democratic. The American authorities have called on the Belarusian authorities to "stop persecuting those who speak in favour of democratic elections." On 8th March in an annual report on Human Rights published by the American State Department Belarus was qualified as a "dictatorial regime" for having repressed the opposition and for having imposed new restrictions on civil society. "Lukashenko continues to accord himself and his dictatorial regime all the powers. Those fighting for democracy including opposition members, union leaders, students and newspaper editors have been arrested, fined and imprisoned for having criticised Lukashenko and his regime," the report reads.
Hans Winkler, Austrian Foreign Minister whose country is ensuring the Presidency of the European Union until July believes that "Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime is isolating itself more and more," and maintained that "the European Union would not close its eyes to the violations of Human Rights in this country." On 23rd February the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, René van der Linden, called for the isolation of the Belarusian people to cease and suggested the establishment of a Council of Europe office in Minsk. "Now is the time to think critically about strategies that we have adopted until now to encourage the development of democracy in Belarus with regard to relations with the Belarus authorities and the support of civil society and democratic forces. We should look into the way we can improve international co-ordination in our policies with regard to Belarus," he stressed.
"In Belarus the presidential election is organised to show there is no credible alternative to Lukashenko," writes Alexandra Goujon, lecturer at the University of Bourgogne and the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. Indeed just one week before the election Lukashenko seems to have sealed the system. This procedure has no links with a true democratic election and does not augur well for the country's future.