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Belarus: Has The Opposition Scored A Victory Over Fear?

Protesters assembled on October Square after polls closed on 19 March ( Members of the Belarusian opposition rallied for a second consecutive day in downtown Minsk yesterday to protest President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's election victory. The opposition is claiming that the March 19 presidential poll was flawed and are demanding that a repeat election be held in July. But while the demonstrators' chances of forcing a repeat election are virtually nil, the absence of the expected police crackdown could indicate that they could succeed in altering the country's political climate for the better.

PRAGUE, March 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The demonstration that took place shortly after polls closed on March 19 was the largest antigovernment rally in Belarus in nearly 10 years, and united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich was clearly pleased to see a crowd estimated at 20,000 people turn out on Minsk's October Square.

"We have won and it does not matter what they announce, they will announce a ridiculous percentage [for Lukashenka]," Milinkevich said. "We have won because people believe they can stand up for freedom, truth, justice and their own dignity. The authorities were threatening them, saying they were terrorists with plans, but despite this, people have come out. This is a victory over fear."

Repeat Demands

The next day, during a rally on October Square that attracted approximately 7,000 protesters, Milinkevich made explicit demands for repeat elections.

"We demand a repeat of the election in which the legislation of the country will be respected," Milinkevich said. "We demand that representatives of the [presidential] candidates, by all means, are included in the [election] commissions -- something that didn't exist this time. We demand that there are no arrests of people and that those in power abandon the regime of repression during elections."

Several hundred demonstrators signaled their intention of staying on the square for the long-term by erecting tents.

Milinkevich called on the demonstrators to remain on the square all night, a tactic that proved to be successful during Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004.

"We must remain on this square," Milinkevich said. "This square is ours. It is Belarusian land. We were here last night and we started fighting for truth and freedom. For Truth! For Justice!"

Several hundred demonstrators did remain, and signaled their intention of staying there for the long-term by erecting approximately 20 tents.

Police cordoned off the square and controlled the movement of people between the square, preventing them from providing food and warm clothing to the demonstrators, but did not intervene otherwise.

No Crackdown

In the days leading up to the election, Lukashenka had repeatedly promised to crack down on the opposition, but in the end only about 30 activists outside of the downtown protest were arrested in Minsk.

What might have led Lukashenka to not carry out his promise? A huge number of police were reportedly deployed in Minsk for the election period, and they certainly had the opportunity to resort to force when the protesters numbered only in the hundreds overnight on October Square.

There are at least two plausible answers.

During his news conference for domestic and foreign media earlier yesterday, Lukashenka claimed that the Belarusian opposition is "worth nothing," stating: "That's why we gave them the opportunity to show off, even though it [the rally] was illegal."

Perhaps the Belarusian president considered it unfitting to change his mind several hours later, when the opposition organized another illegal rally. The use of force by police would have shown that the opposition was, in fact, "worth something."

Tactical Change?

Another possibility is that Lukashenka has decided to employ a different tactic to quash the opposition protest on October Square.

By confiscating food and clothing supplies intended for the demonstrators, the authorities may be betting on the elements to break the protestors' will.

Whatever the reason for doing so, Lukashenka's decision to not use force plays in his favor. Had a potential police intervention turned violent, it may have served merely to strengthen his opponents by radicalizing opposition sentiments.

Lukashenka claimed that the Belarusian opposition is "worth nothing," stating: "That's why we gave them the opportunity to show off, even though it [the rally] was illegal."

As it turned out, Lukashenka was content enough in his victory to boast during his news conference yesterday that he had managed to contain the "virus of colored revolutions" in Belarus.

"The virus of colored revolutions affects weakened countries in which [those in] power are stuck in corruption and are deaf to people's concerns," Lukashenka said. "Belarus has strong immunity, which is based on effective power, a strong social policy, and a dynamic economy that does not serve individual oligarchs, but [serves] the welfare of all the people."

'Getting Rid Of Fear'

However, the two days of opposition protests seem to defy Lukashenka's self-congratulatory assertions.

While it is highly improbable that the protests could lead to a repeat presidential vote in Belarus, they may significantly contribute to what Milinkevich described during his election campaign as "getting rid of the humiliating fear" in Belarus.

If the opposition does not splinter and remains united around Milinkevich in the post-election period, President Lukashenka may find it very difficult or even impossible to run the country the way he did during his two previous terms.

See The Square

See The Square

The October Square demonstration on the morning of March 21 (RFE/RL)

MAKING A DIFFERENCE? Some 200 demonstrators remain in central Minsk following an overnight vigil on March 20-21 to protest official election results giving President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a third term in office. Opposition supporters braved the threat of police action to stage a second night of protests in the capital's October (Kastrychnitskaya) Square following the March 19 vote. Russia approved the election, but both the European Union and the United States said the ballot was neither free nor fair. The opposition is calling for a new vote. But it is uncertain what impact, if any, the public protest will have....(more)

SEE FOR YOURSELF: View a short video clip taken on October Square on the morning of March 21:
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.

COVERAGE IN BELARUSIAN: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's coverage of the election campaign in Belarusian and to listen to RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

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