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Pro-Democracy Movement Struggles On in Lukashenka's Belarus

(Washington, DC--June 24, 2003) In the aftermath of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's presidential re-election in September 2001, the Belarusian political opposition movement continues to struggle in what Eric Chenoweth calls, "one of the most repressive countries of the former Soviet Union." Despite this environment of increased oppression, isolation and crackdowns, Chenoweth said civil society is developing in Belarus and pro-democracy organizations continue to function with an energetic and hopeful cadre of young activists. Chenoweth, the co-director for the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, traveled to Minsk and surrounding regions in 2002 to consult with opposition groups in the wake of an unsuccessful mobilization campaign that was organized to oppose Lukashenka's election. He reported on his observations at a recent RFE/RL briefing.

The mobilization attempted to unify the divided opposition groups, the Belarus Popular Front and the United Civic Party, behind a single candidate to oppose Lukashenka, Chenoweth explained. Although a "rigged" election was assumed, he said the initiative's goal was to generate civic action and politically empower the population -- "This was a strategy used in very dark times to initiate people into the political process." Although the campaign went badly, he said the "serious steps" taken by the opposition during the presidential election helped build a democratic movement that has successfully taken hold throughout the country. He said the momentum continues and the measures taken "were the successful beginnings of a democratic system."

Chenoweth contested what he said was an international perception that the opposition movement had failed in Belarus. He said claims that money invested in pro-democracy groups was wasted and the subsequent calls for a new strategy and new funding recipients to be established were misguided. Support must continue to flow to pro-democracy forces already strong in the country, Chenoweth argued. "Pouring money into the opposition [during the pre-election period] and then taking it out is counterproductive to democratic change and is going to doom the opposition in Belarus."

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