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Belarus: Oppositionist Seeks EU Support For 'Revolution Of Hope'

Milinkevich at an RFE/RL online conference on 23 January (RFE/RL) Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the presidential candidate who is backed by most democratic opposition parties in Belarus, today urged European Union (EU) officials to be present in the country for the presidential election on 19 March.Speaking before the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Milinkevich predicted a "revolution of hope" will follow the poll, which he said is skewed in favor of incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Milinkevich said that if the government clamped down on any protests, a massive EU presence could "soften the blow."

BRUSSELS, 31 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Alyaksandr Milinkevich today predicted that, much like in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years, people in Belarus are ready to take their desire for democracy to the streets.

And he has little faiththat the March presidential election will be conducted in a free and fair manner. So much so, Milinkevich told the foreign affairs committee that he wants all European countries to clearly state ahead of 19 March that the elections do not meet international standards.

Milinkevich indicated that the Belarusian opposition is "in principle" against a revolution. However, he warned, if Lukashenka's government denies the country free and fair elections, people will take to the streets.

"If the government does not [respect] our demands, then in that case, certainly, there are many people in our country who will come to the streets to defend their dignity," he said. "That is the most important thing for the people who live there. It is not a battle for material things, and there are many people like that. And if we [are to] call it a revolution, then according to us, it will be a revolution of hope."

EU Threatens Sanctions

Milinkevich's high-profile visit to Brussels was marked by EU foreign ministers on 30 January with a statement threatening sanctions against Lukashenka's regime if international standards are not respected.

Today, Milinkevich praised recent EU decisions to fund independent radio and television broadcasts to Belarus, but said their reach is limited. He said abolishing current crippling visa fees levied by EU countries was far more important than access to relayed information.

Milinkevich also called for more tangible support from the union. Above all, he asked EU deputies and other representatives to come to Belarus to follow the election and its aftermath.

He said a massive EU presence would show support for the opposition and counter one of the mainstays of Lukashenka's propaganda -- that "no-one in Europe is interested in Belarus."

Opposition-candidate supporters gathering signatures in Minsk earlier this month (epa)

"Honorable deputies, it would be good if you could set aside some time towards the end of March and travel to Belarus as international observers," Milinkevich said. "To us, that would be extremely important. You will be obstructed, prevented from carrying out observation work, but [nevertheless] your arrival in our country for the elections will have a great significance for democratically oriented Belarusians, especially in the countryside. They must see that Europe is not turning away from us."

But even more importantly, Milinkevich said, the presence of EU politicians and officials would act as a shield for the protesters he expects will take to the streets a day after the poll.

"I would ask for the help of all those who want to help us, to arrive [whether as observers or not] before [the elections] and stay on for a few days after 19 March. It could soften the blow that Lukashenka has already promised," Milinkevich said.

EU Support For Opposition

There was no direct response to Milinkevich's appeal today. The chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Elmar Brok, said the parliament has so far not received an invitation from Minsk to send observers. Lukashenka's government has, however, asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to send monitors.

However, Brok said he was hopeful that the parliament will help the Belarusian opposition to attain a crucial longer-term objective -- funding independent of the approval of the Lukashenka government.

"[The European Parliament's foreign affairs] committee is negotiating with the [European] Commission [at] the moment [about] setting up a [financial] instrument on human rights which can be used even if there's no cooperation of the government concerned," Brok said. "I think that's the main point. Presently the [New] Neighborhood Policy instruments and action plans have to be in cooperation with the government concerned. But we believe the work for the rule of law and human rights should be also possible by support of the European Union in countries where such cooperation is not [forthcoming]."

And what would Milinkevich do if he won the presidential election?

He said, under his leadership, Belarus would make "no sudden turns" and try to act as a bridge between Europe and Russia. He ruled out a union with Russia saying Belarus values its independence above all.

Whether he has much of a chance is another matter. The Belarusian opposition leader said he is confident he would win a fair poll. He said his support in the capital Minsk is more than 40 percent, higher, he said, than Lukashenka's.

Outside Minsk, though, Milinkevich will probably fare less well. Recent independent polls indicate that country-wide Lukashenka has more than 50 percent support, whereas Milinkevich has more than 20 percent.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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