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Belarus: Growing Number Of Hunger Strikers Demanding Election Reforms

Two of the hunger strikers, Syarhey Skrabets (left) and Valery Fralou Three Belarusian parliamentarians and several opposition activists are continuing a hunger strike in protest of the policies of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. While the case is attracting the attention of Western institutions and politicians, it is not known how much popular support the protesters enjoy in the country -- or if ordinary Belarusians are even aware of the vigil.

Prague, 8 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Three Belarusian parliamentarians and an increasing number of opposition activists are participating in a hunger strike aimed at achieving changes to the country's election law. The hunger strike is also in protest of the policies of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The politicians who originally began the hunger strike -- Valery Fralou, Uladzimier Parfianovich, and Sergei Skrebets -- are all members of Respublika, the only opposition faction in the Belarusian parliament.

The parliamentarians have been joined by an increasing number of opposition activists. They include the deputy chairman of the Popular Front, Victor Ivashkevich, as well as Marina Bagdanovich and Uladzimier Chirvonenko, members of the United Civil Party. Five more supporters reportedly joined the protest today, bringing the total number of hunger strikers to eight.

In an interview with RFE/RL today, Skrebets spoke of the goals of the hunger strike.

"The first demand is to change the election law. The second one is one to free Mikhail Marinich."

Skrebets says the protesters are demanding new laws that would provide more independent election observers and broader rights for those observers to oversee polls in Belarus.

He says they are also demanding that Mikhail Marynich, an opposition politician detained in April, be released. Marynich had announced that he would run for the presidency in the 2006 election. Recent opinion polls by the Minsk-based Institute for Socio-Economic Studies indicate that Marynich is one of the most popular opposition figures in Belarus.

Skrebets says the other purpose of the hunger strike is to stop Lukashenka from seeking a third term through a referendum. Though there has been no formal announcement, Lukashenka has suggested he will seek a third term, a move not allowed under the country's constitution.

Last week, Fralou said he was confident that Lukashenka will not succeed because attitudes have changed in the country.

"Mr. President and people surrounding you, we are well aware of your plans to organize another constitutional coup d'etat. But this is not [the constitutional referendum of] 1996, and you won't get away with a referendum," Fralou said.

The three parliamentarians first began their protest on 3 June at the parliament building in Minsk. Skrebets says they decided to move to Fralou's house on 5 June after police detained two people who had pitched tents near parliament in an effort to join the hunger strikers.

Skrebets says the authorities are continuing to keep a close eye on the protesters.

"We hung a huge banner on the balcony [of Fralou's house] saying, 'No third term,' 'Free Marynich' and 'We Want Free Elections.' Yesterday, at night, some people came with a fire truck and took down the banner. There have been no other reactions so far," Skrebets said.

Parfianovich says the protesters are ready to negotiate and will do everything they can to end the isolation of the country.

"We are always ready to negotiate. This is what makes us different from Lukashenka. We are ready to take the necessary steps to ensure that Belarus is not isolated from the international community," Parfianovich said.

The European Union has frozen its ties with Belarus. Although Belarus is part of the EU's European Neighborhood Policy, it cannot benefit until it adheres to EU standards in democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Yesterday, ambassadors from eight EU countries -- Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia -- as well as the mission chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met with the protesters in Minsk.

Last night, RFE/RL's Belarus Service spoke with Christos Pourgourides, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.
"The first demand is to change the election law. The second one is one to free Mikhail Marinich."

"Everybody in the Council of Europe is supporting their noble demand for changes in the [election] law. I think they are [demanding] what everybody else should have been demanding in Belarus. What they are demanding is absolutely vital for democracy in Belarus," Pourgourides said.

Oleg Manayev is director of the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies. He says the protesters have managed to attract international attention and win the sympathy of other activists in Belarus. However, he says ordinary people in Belarus know little about the protest since the country's state-owned media outlets are providing little coverage, and what coverage they are providing is often inaccurate.

"Looking empirically, the protest does not seem to be having an impact or a big impression on the majority of Belarusians. Firstly, the majority [of voters] knows nothing about it. And secondly, the protest is reported in a discrediting, sarcastic way in the Belarusian media," Manayev said.

So far, the reaction of the authorities to the hunger strike has been peaceful, in contrast to 1995, when Lukashenka brutally evicted hunger strikers from the parliament building.

"At that time, the regime -- and Lukashenka personally -- were on the rise. People supported the regime. It had legitimacy because Lukashenka had won free elections and so on. Now, everything is completely different. As you know, and our polls indicate, the majority of people now are not happy with [Lukashenka] and do not support him," Manayev said.

Manayev says Lukashenka enjoys little support from the Kremlin and is completely isolated from the West.

Skrebets says the parliamentarians intend to continue their protest "until the end," but would not elaborate.

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