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Belarus: Beleaguered Opposition Seeks New Vote

  • Jeffrey Donovan

With its future up in the air, the beleaguered Belarusian opposition is insisting that new elections be staged following 9 September's controversial re-election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But as the international community appears unlikely to back the idea of yet another presidential poll, some members of the opposition and their Western supporters are admitting that it may be time to learn from their mistakes and move on.

Minsk, 13 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka stormed to a landslide win on 9 September in the country's second presidential ballot since independence in 1991. But the election failed to meet democratic standards, according to observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, or OSCE.

But the OSCE, while noting the campaign had been grossly unfair, is also urging the West not to isolate Minsk but instead to engage the Belarusian government.

That position looks set to be a sore point with the Belarusian opposition, led by trade union chief Uladzimir Hancharyk, who has filed a protest against what he calls massive election fraud. He is urging that new elections be held.

The state Central Election Commission says it will announce the official result of the elections on 14 September after having examined protests filed by the opposition, as well as by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

The coordinating council of the united opposition, following meetings yesterday, called on the international community not to recognize the poll, which gave Lukashenka 75 percent of the vote and Hancharyk 15 percent, with 2.5 percent going to ultra-nationalist Liberal Democrat Syarhey Gaidukevich.

In a statement, Hancharyk's office said, "We urge the international community to back our plea for a new election."

The OSCE was not immediately available for comment. But Gerard Stoudman, the head of its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said on 10 September that the opposition should refrain from extreme positions.

"They should not give any pretext for repression. Second, I believe that we are just at the beginning of a very long process and the issue, let's face it, is that there is still a lot of support in the countryside for the president, Lukashenka."

Stoudman also said the OSCE is keen to step up its work in Belarus, including more fruitful contacts with the government.

The opposition has also announced it will seek to document all the violations that authorities allegedly committed in the run-up to and during the voting. The OSCE has said violations occurred during the campaign, such as lack of opposition access to state media, biased bodies, and a "campaign of intimidation" against domestic and international observers and the independent media.

The OSCE has said it has no evidence of violations on voting day, while the opposition claims it can document 700 such violations in the Gomel region alone.

Regardless of these efforts, however, some in the opposition say it's also time that they start looking to the future and take stock of what they called the "hard lessons" they learned in these elections.

Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party, says the opposition must continue to strengthen the broad, often bickering, coalition of parties that united for the first time since Lukashenka took over in 1994. For the first time, he said, the United Civil Party was able to hold meetings in many towns and cities across Belarus. He said the party was able to strengthen its regional structures and that this campaign experience will pay off in the future. The opposition, he emphasized, should waste no time getting ready for next spring's local elections.

Lebedko also told RFE/RL that the United Civil Party is paying special attention to the young people of Belarus:

"I am satisfied with my trips around the country. I visited 22 towns. I paid special attention to the mass attendance of the youth. We should bet on this part of the society. We cannot count on people rising in the near future."

One question on the horizon in Belarus's political landscape is the future role of Hancharyk. His office said yesterday that it will become the center of the future united opposition, but it is unclear whether the traditional opposition parties will accept this role.

As Lebedko told RFE/RL: "Hancharyk, let's remember, was chosen just for the period of the presidential elections."

Yet among Westerners working in Belarus to support opposition non-governmental organizations (NGOs), there appears to be growing skepticism as to the opposition's longer-term prospects. One representative of a major Western foundation that backs opposition NGOs in Minsk said she is sick and tired of the same old errors being committed by the opposition.

Principally, she said, these errors include a failure to build support in the regions, which she attributes to condescension toward rural people -- Lukashenka's main constituency.

"Rarely have I seen such bullheadedness and unwillingness to take responsibility," she said, asking not to be identified.

Another problem, she added, is that some opposition groups seem more interested in winning Western grants than winning elections. She added that of the groups that have received financial support from her foundation, only a fraction will continue to be funded.

She said she hopes the opposition will learn from its mistakes. But realistically, she said, she expects they will just blame each other and their donors, and it will be -- in her words -- "business as usual."

(RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)