Minsk, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Citizens across Belarus were called to participate in opposition-held presidential elections Sunday (May 16) in defiance of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Our correspondent in Minsk reported a most unusual atmosphere in that all of the traditional signs of a nationwide election campaign are missing, as are the two main candidates, one of whom has been jailed by government authorities.
A further twist on the Belarussian political scene came less than 48 hours before the final and main day of voting, when the other candidate, Zyanon Pozniak, announced from exile that he was dropping out of the race. Pozniak alleged fraud on the part of the oppositions central election commission, which has said it is organizing the event as an expression of the Belarussian peoples desire for political change.
Meanwhile, the waning remnants of the independent press were summoned before the Supreme Economic Court late in the week in a case raising alarm among independent media watchdog organizations and the opposition press.
The opposition is holding the elections because, as they see it, Lukashenkas presidential term would have ended in July if he had not extended it until 2001 after a controversial referendum. Lukashenka used the 1996 referendum to usher in a new constitution and tighten his grip on power. Many western governments do not recognize the 1996 referendum, but few, if any, have given any public comment as to how they will respond on July 20th, the date Lukashenkas term is due to expire under the 1994 constitution.
RFE/RL spoke to a variety of opposition leaders during last weeks preliminary voting, many of whom expressed widely similar views on issues such as the questionable legitimacy of Lukashenkas rule after July 20th, or on the controversy surrounding the Belarus-Russian union treaty. At the same time, our correspondent reports the opposition remains deeply divided with political infighting, and weakened as a result.
One of the most active and visible of the opposition political groups in Belarus is the Belarussian Popular Front, the most far-right of the parties. Deputy chair Sergei Popkov told RFE/RL that one of the biggest internal problems is that the situation in Belarus is an issue currently discussed in Moscow, rather than in Minsk, and that Lukashenkas regime is nothing more than a mouthpiece for Moscow. At the same time, he said the presidential administration should not be underestimated.
"The current regime will not give away its positions by means of elections, so in this respect, we would like to call on the European community and the global community for support for our fight for independence and sovereignty for Belarus as a country. We would also like to warn on the European community and the global community about the danger of Belarus becoming a part of Russia."
Popkov said that in his view, Russia is trying to occupy Belarus, and in so doing, break the chain between Belarus and the Baltics, and Belarus and Ukraine. He said Europe would suffer if Belarus were to disappear from the map of Europe as an independent country.
Stanislav Bogdan Kevich, chairman of the United Civil Party, disagreed with Popkov that Russia is the real ruler of Belarus. He told our correspondent it would be much more productive for the opposition to focus on the economic situation in the country, which has experienced a virtual collapse of its currency, and staggering inflation. Bogdan Kevich, the former National Bank chairman, said that without a market economy, there can be no democracy. He also expressed concern about what he said was the growing use of pressure tactics by the current administration.
"I should also add that against me and my fellow party members, there has recently been a campaign started by the Belarussian authorities. They are trying to force us to leave the country. They are threatening that they are going to put us in prison, and informally prompt us that the best way for us would be for us to leave the country. But we decided we will stay in Belarus. Although of course it is not nice to sit in prison, and I do not want to go there, but what else is there to do?"
Bogdan Kevich said the West could greatly influence the outcome of events in Belarus by pressuring Russia, which needs Western aid. He said the West could demand the restoration of rule of law and democracy in Belarus as a condition of this aid.
Representing the far left of the opposition is Sergei Kaliakin, who serves as Secretary-General of the opposition Communist Party in Belarus. He described the ongoing elections as a tool of pressure on the regime. At the same time, Kaliakin told RFE/RL, the recent NATO bombing against Yugoslavia had strengthened Lukashenkas position within Belarus, and given him a powerful tool against the opposition.
"The president administration has developed an ideological concept, and that concept is as follows: The opposition is going to conduct presidential elections on May 16, and elect a president. The West is then going to acknowledge that this is the real, legitimate president in Belarus, and in order to protect this president, NATO will start bombing in Belarus, and the people will suffer. And by that, they are trying to separate people in Belarus from the opposition, and introduce some unhealthy relations."
Kaliakin suggested that it would be far better to follow the recommendations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which urged the opposition parties and the government to engage in constructive political dialogue.
Ivan Paskevich, speaking for the government in his role as deputy head of President Lukashenkas administration, told RFE/RL that as a politician, he really couldnt imagine a better opposition. He said they were so divided among themselves that there was no point in engaging them in dialogue. He also reiterated the administrations view that the 1996 constitution, which extended Lukashenkas regime, was the legitimate constitution of the country, and he said the opposition was engaged in unlawful activity aimed at destabilizing the government.
"I would state that the situation in Belarus is stable. I have the right to say that, based on the fact we have a large number of political parties, and over 200 public associations operating freely and without a problem. During the time of Lukashenkas time in power, there is no single case when a public association or political party was closed down in Belarus. And to complete the whole picture in this respect, I should also note that all these political parties and public associations carry out their functions without any interference from the state."
On relations with Russia, Paskevich said it was true frequent changes in political players in Moscow was a challenge for the administration, but, he said, Lukashenka has good relations with Russias key politicians, and as such there was no worry on the part of the administration as to negative effects on the union treaty.
Our correspondent reports that if there is one unifying idea to be found among all these diverging parties, it is that the future of Belarus may depend more on presidential elections in Russia in 2000 than any elections in Belarus, this weekend or beyond.