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Interview: Deputies Hopeful Hunger Strike Will Force Change

Three deputies of Belarus's 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, Uladzimir Parfyanovich, Syarhey Skrabets, and Valery Fralou, went on a hunger strike in the parliamentary building in Minsk on 3 June to protest the blockade by the parliamentary leadership of their initiative to put on the agenda a draft bill providing for changes to the Election Code. Their move followed the parliamentary session earlier the same day where parliamentary speaker Vadzim Papou switched off the microphone in the session hall when Fralou was trying to persuade other deputies to put the issue on the agenda.

The three deputies believe -- and this belief is shared by European election watchdogs and much of the Belarusian opposition -- that the country's current Election Code is undemocratic, particularly in its provisions limiting the rights of political parties and nongovernmental organizations to be chosen for election commissions as well as the rights of election observers in monitoring the election process. The Election Code also provides for early voting five days ahead of the election day, which is widely regarded to be a convenient opportunity for the authorities to manipulate and/or rig elections.

In the statement Parfyanovich, Skrabets, and Fralou publicized shortly before launching their protest, they also warn against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's possible attempt to stage a "constitutional coup d'etat" in order to remain in power beyond 2006, when his second and last presidential term ends. "Mr. President and people surrounding you, we are well aware of your plans to organize another constitutional coup d'etat," the statement said. "But this is not 1996 and you won't get away with a referendum. Alyaksandr Lukashenka is the president only as long as he carries out his functions in accordance with the current constitution. If he attempts to break it once again, if he only thinks about it, even through a referendum, he will instantly lose his legitimacy and become a common citizen of our country who can face criminal proceedings."
"When we'll get tired, when it'll become really difficult for us, we will lay down. But as long as we keep our strength, we will be working."

RFE/RL's Belarusian Service conducted telephone interviews with Valery Fralou and Syarhey Skrabets late in the evening of 3 June. Below are translated excerpts:

RFE/RL: Where are you right now?

Syarhey Skrabets: I am in the parliamentary building, along with my colleague, General Fralou.

RFE/RL: Are you going to stay overnight there, all three of you?

Skrabets: Yes, sure. We are going to stay here for the night.

RFE/RL: Do you expect the authorities to meet you halfway as regards your demands?

Skrabets: I think we can expect some steps. We even can expect that our bill proposing changes to the election legislation will be put on the agenda of the Chamber of Representatives.

RFE/RL: Do you think that your bill will be passed?

Skrabets: We cannot count on this now, but in my view the deputies will be split equally over the bill -- one half will vote for it, the other will not take part in the voting.

RFE/RL: Have there been any attempts by parliamentary guards to remove you? Or have you made some deal with them?

Skrabets: We have not made any deal with them. Right now we are in the parliament. The guards have not requested or demanded that we do something. But the parliament was cordoned off all day long by the presidential protection service. They did not let anybody in. We left the parliament three times to talk with different correspondents and those people who came to support us.

RFE/RL: How have your friends and families reacted to this radical step of yours?

Skrabets: Not everybody approves of this step, but we need to do something. Our political allies think that we are unprepared for this struggle. And when will we be prepared for it, I ask? When we were in the session hall and Fralou was prevented from speaking in the microphone, and the speaker decided to halt the session, we were forced to take this measure.

RFE/RL: Was the protest an improvisation, not a planned step?

Skrabets: Yes, it was. And later we disseminated our statement. We have been trying to put our bill on the parliamentary agenda for more than a year, but were always blocked.

RFE/RL: What was the reaction of other deputies to your protest?

Valery Fralou: It seems to me that they have not yet understood what happened. When they read newspapers tomorrow, I think many of them will look at this situation differently. Particularly since there were many people in front of the parliament today [when we were reading our statement]. Unfortunately, many deputies have not realized who they were during these 3 1/2 years [after they were elected to the legislature]. They have not realized that they are people's deputies.

RFE/RL: Radio Liberty has been informed that you may move your protest to a private apartment. Do you think that by doing so you will be able to remain in the public spotlight?

Fralou: What does a hunger strike mean? It is when a man ceases to eat. Now we need to continue doing our work, which does not boil down to a hunger strike. We have a lot of work to do. We will be making trips instead of sitting here covered with some quilts. When we'll get tired, when it'll become really difficult for us, we will lay down. But as long as we keep our strength, we will be working.

(By Jan Maksymiuk and Alex Znatkevich)

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