World Watch: In Belarus, goodbye Lukashenko?
With the toppling of authoritarian leaders in neighboring Georgia, Ukraine, and Kirgizstan, it seemed reasonable to anticipate that Belarus, too, would embrace the spirit of democracy with street protests and opposition candidates spouting pro-western jargon on state-run TV.
But Belarus has had something of a tough time launching a revolution. After President Alexander Lukashenkotagged by the Bush administration as "the last dictator in Europe"arrested or otherwise removed anyone that posed a serious threat to his monopoly on power, all that was left was a weak and divided bunch of oppositionist stragglers: failed Parliamentarians, pro-democracy Communists, and an anti-Lukashenko reformer whose biggest political credit was getting roughed up by the KGB.
But street politics may yet play a hand in Belarussian politics. This month, some 800 representatives of opposition groups agreed to unite behind a single candidate, U.S.-educated physicist Alexander Milinkevich, as the most promising politico to challenge Lukashenko in next year's election.
This is big news in neighboring Poland, a country that is among the opposition movement's biggest supporters. And while inside Belarus the choosing of a candidate by the broken opposition seems like a feat in itself, the real challenge will be to get the word out and build the critical mass necessary to upend Lukashenko's regime.
Lukashenko has enjoyed almost absolute power for 11 years, after winning popular elections on a campaign that recast the erstwhile collective farm chairman as an anticorruption populist. The conventional wisdom is that half the Belarus population loves Lukashenko, and the other half is muted by an unrelenting stream of state-run propaganda. Western observers, some of whom covertly work with anti-Lukashenko politicians to build civic institutions and teach candidates how to campaign, say that if the opposition can get its message out, then the opposition stands a chance of defeating Lukashenko.
Milinkevich, who calls for nonviolent protests to bring about political change, is a 58-year-old academic who studied at the University of California and also attended the German-U.S. George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. He disputes claims that Lukashenko enjoys considerable public support. "In general, the information that Lukashenko has huge support is outdated," Milinkevich said during a radio call-in show with Voice of America's Russian Service. "His support varies within the 30 to 40 percent range. Approximately the same percentage is willing to support an opposition candidate. And of course there are about 30 percent who are undecided. At the same time, the protest vote in Belarus is on the rise. Some estimates put it as high as 60 percent. These are the people who don't want to continue living the way they have been. For them, living in fear is humiliating."
Milinkevich said that he expects the Lukashenko regime to rig the election outcome but that an opposition movement can still prevail.
"Dictatorial regimes never go away voluntarily," he said on VOA. "It might require street action. The only thing is, I would not want to call it a revolution. Revolution means blood being spilled and rewriting the Constitution. Revolution always implies violence. We plan to have peaceful public protests and just defend our right to be human."