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Belarus: Can The Opposition Unite To Challenge Lukashenka?

Alyaksandr Milinkevich (file photo) A 1-2 October congress of pro-democratic forces in Minsk selected Alyaksandr Milinkevich as its candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in next year's presidential election. More than 800 delegates cast their votes for three contenders aspiring to represent the unified Belarusian opposition in the 2006 presidential ballot: United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin, and Milinkevich, a representative of Belarus's civil society. Kalyakin dropped out after the first round, and Milinkevich edged out Lyabedzka in the second round, with 399 votes to Lyabedzka's 391.

Milinkevich, 58, holds a doctorate in physics and mathematics, but has been a civil-society activist for most of the past decade, leading the Ratusha nongovernmental organization (1996-2003) and the Belarusian Association of Resource Centers (since 1998). Milinkevich previously worked with the Physics Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences and the University of Hrodna in western Belarus, and served as deputy head of the Hrodna Oblast Executive Committee from 1990-96. In addition to Belarusian and Russian, he speaks English, French, and Polish. (see RFE/RL's interview with Milinkevich.)

A Relative Unknown

To date, Milinkevich has participated little in Belarus's political life and is relatively unknown to the broader public. Paradoxically, this may be an advantage in the presidential campaign next summer. All the other opposition leaders in the country, including Lyabedzka, have been repeatedly vilified by official propaganda and, according to independent polls, are distrusted by the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, who are highly skeptical of party politics in general. Milinkevich has not been targeted by the state media. In addition, his nonpartisanship gives him a certain edge over other opposition politicians in what seems to be the uphill task of maintaining the unity of the cantankerous Belarusian opposition until the 2006 election.

Milinkevich seems to be taking a realistic view of the political situation in Belarus and does not pin much hope on beating Lukashenka. He told RFE/RL on 3 October that Belarus's Central Election Commission will confirm any election result that Lukashenka dictates without actually bothering to count the votes. The real aim of his presidential bid, Milinkevich stressed, is to launch a wide "door-to-door campaign" to mobilize people and take them to the streets to defend "their dignity." Regime change in Belarus, according to Milinkevich, can only occur following a wide popular protest, similar to Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004.

Milinkevich said the 1-2 October congress in Minsk actually gathered all important democratic forces in Belarus, except for the Social Democratic Party, which is led by former Belarus State University rector Alyaksandr Kazulin. Milinkevich does not rule out that Kazulin or other opposition figures might run in the 2006 presidential election, claiming to represent the democratic opposition. Such a development, according to him, would be deplorable, since the opposition's strength is in unity.

Ready For Change?

According to independent surveys, some 45 percent of Belarusian voters think Lukashenka, who has served as the country's president since 1994, should be replaced in 2006. Ten percent of respondents declare that they will back any presidential candidate from the united opposition. Thus, in theory, there is a potential for a "colored revolution" in Belarus. It is up to the opposition in general and Milinkevich in particular to determine how the democratic camp will exploit this potential.

During the 2001 presidential election campaign, the Belarusian opposition -- influenced strongly by Hans Georg Wieck, then the head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk -- made a disastrous choice, selecting Soviet-era trade-union functionary Uladzimir Hancharyk to challenge Lukashenka. The result of that choice was that some opposition forces refused to campaign for Hancharyk, and Hancharyk disappointingly failed to mobilize Belarusians for an anticipated post-election anti-Lukashenka protest.

Milinkevich, if he wants to be successful in his "door-to-door campaign," should now be prudent and flexible and steer clear of any conflicts in the tentative coalition formed at the opposition congress in Minsk. As of today, he appears to have a good chance of managing this.

See also:

"Belarus: Planning The Next Revolution?"

"Belarus: Spy Agencies Open Presidential Election Season"

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