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Belarus: Opposition Put On Defensive By Kosovo

Prague, 19 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's bombing campaign appears to be dealing an unintended blow to Belarus's democratic opposition.

Russia's Yegor Gaidar has complained that by dropping bombs on Yugoslavia, NATO is bombing Russian democracy. That statement is even truer with regard to Belarus and its democratic opposition.

Thanks to Belarus official propaganda, NATO air strikes have become a powerful stimulus for promoting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's idea of reintegrating with Russia to form a grand Slavic union.

The bombing has inflamed popular opinion from Soviet times that NATO is an aggressive bloc bent on ruling the world. Lukashenka has capitalized on this concern, arguing his union with Russia will transform today's "unipolar world" into a bipolar one. He says he's the tough type of leader who can make the transformation happen.

Lukashenka's propaganda campaign has three pillars: to expand the military power of the Belarus-Russia Union; to delegate extensive political powers to the union; and to aid Yugoslavia militarily. The Yugoslav parliament has recently applied for membership in the union and its bid was backed by the Russian State Duma.

Lukashenka's views are echoed by official media. In their coverage of the Kosovo conflict, Belarus's newspapers and television stations routinely ignore the plight of the Kosovar Albanian refugees. Consequently, reference is rarely made to the reason for NATO's intervention in the first place.

The official Belarus explanation for NATO's action is that Yugoslavia is being punished simply for wanting to exist "according to its own laws." Lukashenka said recently Yugoslavia is being attacked because it's a "rich region, [where] people mine gold and other precious metals."

The Belarus opposition is portrayed by official media as being Western-sponsored and even favoring NATO intervention in Belarus. When former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, a candidate in the recent opposition presidential election, told journalists the situation in Belarus may worsen to the point where it would be necessary to bring in peacekeepers, Lukashenka's propaganda machine did not miss its chance. Chyhir's statement was interpreted as an open invitation for NATO to bomb Belarus.

Chyhir's remarks were subject to endless variation, including condemnation by Lukashenka. When Chyhir was subsequently jailed on charges of embezzlement, his image in the media had been sufficiently sullied to "officially justify" the arrest.

The use of force in Kosovo has lessened the impact of the opposition's appeals for non-violence in Belarus.

When U.S. ambassador to Belarus Daniel Speckhard said recently during a short trip to Minsk that Belarus authorities should not resort to force in dealing with the opposition, the official response was pointed. State-run television commented that "If the U.S. path to democracy and integration leads through bombing and destroying a civilian population in an independent European state," then Speckhard should first promote his ideas in his own homeland.

Another piece of bad news for the opposition is that the European democracies -- by pressing so hard in Kosovo -- may be easing their pressure on Lukashenka. That, at least, is how the situation is perceived by Belarusian commentators and opposition members, who fear that the prospect of Belarusian democracy -- a relatively minor problem in comparison with Kosovo -- will eventually be sacrificed by the West.

According to these pessimists, the arrest of Chyhir and the OSCE's refusal to send observers to the opposition presidential elections over the weekend are the first signs of such a sacrifice. It's unlikely that a statement issued yesterday (Tuesday) by the OSCE -- which said Sunday's unofficial presidential balloting in Belarus demonstrated the need for political change -- will go a long way toward easing those concerns.

It would doubtless be ironic if by seeking to depose one dictator in the Balkans, Europe helped another one to consolidate his hold over Belarus.