Opponents of Lukashenko are regularly harassed; they are not allowed to hold rallies; they are investigated by police; they are beaten; and they are arrested. Media is centirely censored, election observers are arrested or deported. The atmosphere provides no choice – except that imposed by the government.
-- On 15 March, Anatoly Lebedko, the head of opposition candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich's election campaign and a prominent activist, was arrested by Belarusian authorities. At press time, no charges had been released.
-- On 2 March, opposition presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin was violently arrested when he tried to attend a congress being held by President Lukashenko. While trying to record his arrest for broadcst, a Reuters television correspondent was beaten. A dozen reporters were arrested later near police station where Kozulin was being held; in the process, Oleg Ulevich, a Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent based in Belarus, was hospitalized with a concussion and a broken nose.
Kozulin and the reporters were released after several hours detention. Kozulin, however, was suffering from a concussion and had noticeable bruising (1)
-- Also on 2 March, Siarhei Liashkevich, head of the Shchuchyn city campaign office of opposition presidential candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich was arrested. Police searched Liashkevich’s apartment, and confiscated all computers and documents. Authorities say he could face up to three years in jail for “preparation of a mass riot.” (2)
-- On 9 March, Vinstuk Vyachorka, the deputy head of Milinkevich’s campaign and the man tasked with outreach to the international community, was sentenced to 15 days in jail for “organizing an illegal rally.” He was arrested following a campaign appearance by Melinkevich, at which 1,000 people reportedly gathered. (3)
In court, Vyachorka was defiant, despite reportedly rough treatment by police (fellow party members who tried to contact him directly after his arrest on his mobile phone said he answered but then they heard nothing but scuffling and yelling by police). He said, “There are no legal possibilities left for us to continue our work in the future. We need to learn to live as dissidents in Cuba -- prepare ourselves for more serious, more basic forms of struggle.” Along with Vyachorka, two other Melinkevich activists were jailed. (4)
-- On 21 February, authorities raided a meeting of the Belarusian election monitoring and civic advocacy organization Partnership. The group had intended to monitor the presidential election for irregularities, as it had previous elections in Belarus and throughout the former Soviet region. Four members of the group, including its leader, were arrested and remain in custody without trial under a charge of holding “an illegal meeting.”
Because the group received training in election observation from US-based NGOs, the Belarusian KGB (yes, it still is proudly called this), also charged that the organization was fomenting revolution on behalf of the United States. In statements at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried called these accusations “fanciful and frankly absurd,” adding, “This is Soviet-style in its absurdity.” (5)
-- On 14 March, authorities deported a group of Danish and Swedish election monitors. (6)
-- On 14 March, authorities arrested a journalist for Ukraine's TV 5 Kanal, who was literally in the midst of a live telephone broadcast as she was physically grabbed by police. During her broadcast, which was carried on all major Ukrainian news stations following her arrest, Hanna Gorozhenko can be heard screaming that the police were attempting to enter the vehicle from which she was broadcasting. Shortly thereafter, a scuffle is heard and the phone cuts off. Gorozhenko remains in custody, and another TV 5 Kanal crew that tried to enter Belarus was turned back at the border. (7)
-- On 13 March, 3 Ukrainian student activists were sentenced to 10 days in Belarusian prison after attending what authorities called an “illegal rally.” (8)
-- On March 1, the Deputy Head of Melinkevich’s Hrodna city campaign, Vadzim Saranchukou, was arrested for “petty hooliganism” He was kept in custody for five days and then released on 6 March. Melinkevich’s representatives suggest he was arrested to undermine a planned meeting of Melinkevich with voters in Hrodna on 4 March. (9)
-- On 7 March, a town court in Mahilyou sentenced Melinkevich’s regional campaign manager Uladzimir Shantsau to 15 days in jail for “holding an unsanctioned rally.” However, Shantsau was forced to hold the rally outdoors, after the hall where he had been sanctioned to hold the event was suddenly unavailable to him. The same court fined Milinkevich ally Anatol Lyabedzka $750 for the same offense. Although Lyabedzka had permission from authorities to hold the rally inside the local university, at the last moment, he was not allowed inside – forcing him outside and in technical violation of the law. (10)
-- As authorities cracked down on current opposition leaders, last week, former parliamentary deputy and opposition activist Sergei Skrebets, who has served approximately one year of a 2.5-year prison sentence, was transferred to the hospital because of the «deterioration of his health.» Skrebets used his position as a deputy to oppose Lukashenko for four years before his arrest. He is but one of over a dozen opposition politicians and journalists who have disappeared, mysteriously died or been imprisoned in the last several years.
Given the attacks on Belarusian opposition candidates, campaigners, journalists and observers, it is clear that the election cannot be deemed either free or fair. This is underscored by violations already reported during the “early voting” period, which began on 15 March. While this period is said to allow voters who cannot do so on election day to cast their ballots, it also provides the opportunity for voters to cast their ballot repeatedly over many days.
So, what will the US or the EU do about it? Following Vyachorka’s arrest, Senator Sam Brownback, Chairman of the US Congressional Helsinki Commission, which is one of the most outspoken and consistent critics of Lukashenko, said, “Authorities that engage in attempts at intimidation, electoral abuse or violence will face repercussions from the international community.” (11) Additionally, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department David Kramer recently suggested that Belarus “should not underestimate the reaction of the US government” to election rigging and violence against protesters. (12)
However, Belarus already is intensely isolated, with various sanctions against it and travel bans on most of its leaders. It appears unlikely that further negative remarks, threats or sanctions from Western governments will sway Lukashenko, especially since he receives considerable support from his partner, Russia. For every criticism levied at Belarus and Lukashenko, Russia responds with support. Just a week ago, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov arrived in Belarus to meet with Lukashenko. His visit, like the earlier visit of Vladimir Putin, must have given the Belarusian president comfort as he faces Western condemnation.
Belarus also avoids the negative economic effects of its isolation thanks to massive Russian subsidies of oil, gas and food products, among other categories.
Most important, last year, the Bratislava-based Pontis Foundation completed an examination of Belarus’ energy market in relation to its economy, and found that Belarusian authorities and government-owned businesses make considerable profits by importing Russian oil into Belarus at bargain prices and then exporting it to the EU at market – or just below market – prices. These contracts with the EU are reportedly worth up to 3.3 billion euros each year and allow Lukashenko to maintain his country at a minimum subsistence level. Russia's agreement to maintain Belarusian gas and oil prices at between 40 to 50 dollars per cubic meter (as opposed to, for example, the $230 the country charges Ukraine), is the main reason that Lukashenko can maintain power and avoid the economic reforms that would bring his country closer to Western standards.
Therefore, significant and consistant pressure on Russia to end its support for Lukashenko could drastically improve the lives of Belarusians and end the reign of terror of the Belarusian president.
The Pontis Foundation also suggested that in order to impact Lukashenko’s actions, oil exports from Belarus to the EU should be frozen. This, the Pontis Foundation said, “could strike a direct blow against the Minsk government by blocking oil exports from Belarus.” (13)
A freezing of oil exports, or at least a pegging of the price to that paid by Belarus to Russia, likely would be welcomed by Poland, as well as Lithuania, which has worked steadfastly to support independent media in Belarus. Additionally, Ukraine has signaled its willingness to support such an initiative by joining all recent EU statements criticizing Belarus.
Without this or similar action, threats against Lukashenko show little chance of having an effect. The “last dictator in Europe” has shown little fear of the West, and been comfortably protected by Russia in the East. Only a strike at the funds that allow him to maintain his hold on the country – and the lifestyle he enjoys – seems likely to have any possibility of success.
(1) Charter97.org, 17:31 CET, 8 Mar 06.
(2) Charter97.org, 11:13 CET, 6 Mar 06.
(3) BBC News, 9 Ma 06; via www.bbc.com.
(4) RFE/RL, 10 Mar 06; via www.rfefl.org.
(5) National Democratic Institute Press Release, 6 Mar 06 (www.ndi.org), follow-up interview by author, and transcript of Fried testimony before the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
9 Mar 06; via www.csis.org.
(6) Agence France Presse, 17:52 EST, 15 Mar 06, via Yahoo! News.
(7) TV 5 Kanal news broadcasts; some information available via www.5tv.com.ua.
(8) TV 5 Kanal, via www.5tv.com.ua.
(9) Charter97.org, 6 Mar 06.
(10) RFE/RL, 10 Mar 06; via www.rferl.org.
(11) Helsinki Commission press release, “Commission warns Belarus of repercussions for crackdown on opposition,” 14 Mar 06; available at www.csce.org.
(12) Charter97.org, 21:49 CET, 24 Feb 2006.
(13) EUObserver.com, 30 September 2005; via Lexis-Nexis.
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