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Belarus: Opposition Figure's Protest Finds Some Success

(RFE/RL) Opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin, who is serving a 5 1/2 year prison term for his role in challenging the results of Belarus's last presidential election, ended his 53-day hunger strike on December 11. Kazulin's main demand -- that the UN Security Council discuss the situation in Belarus -- has not been fulfilled. However, the international and domestic reactions that Kazulin's protest generated indicate the effort was not made in vain.

PRAGUE, December 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Alyaksandr Kazulin was arrested on March 25 and sentenced to 5 1/1 years in a correctional facility for his role in leading street protests in Minsk following the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus on March 19.

Together with Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Kazulin unsuccessfully ran against incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in that election. Lukashenka officially won 83 percent of the vote, while Milinkevich garnered 6 percent, and Kazulin 2 percent.

Starving For Attention

Kazulin went on hunger strike on October 20, pledging not to end it until the UN Security Council placed Belarus's human-rights situation on its agenda and until he was convinced that "the international community will devote its attention to Belarus."

Kazulin also called on Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski "to take over" the country, asserting that Lukashenka cannot be considered a legitimate president, seeing that his second term expired in September.

As with previous hunger strikes by oppositionists, nobody expected the Belarusian authorities to pay any particular attention to Kazulin's protest, let alone heed his demand that Lukashenka should resign. True to form, the government-controlled media remained silent on Kazulin during his entire 53-day fast.

Milinkevich, concerned about Kazulin's deteriorating health, last week called on him to stop his protest. "One of [Kazulin's] demands -- that the UN Security Council view the Belarus issue -- cannot be fulfilled. The council will not consider such an issue -- even the Cuba issue has not been raised there, because there are those who can block it," Milinkevich reasoned.

However, Milinkevich made a point to mention Kazulin's courage when accepting the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in Strasbourg on December 12.

Milinkevich acknowledged in his acceptance speech that the prize was not his alone, as it was also earned by other politicians and ordinary Belarusians who defy Lukashenka's rule.

He singled out Kazulin by name: "[Kazulin] has been on hunger strike for two months in jail now. His condition is very grave. His life is under serious threat. This award also belongs to him."

International Support

Previously, both Milinkevich and the Political Council of United Pro-Democratic Forces, the Belarusian opposition's coordinating body, sent appeals to the leaders of G8 countries to put the human rights situation in Belarus on the UN Security Council agenda.

On December 8 -- the same day some 500 people in Belarus went on a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with the fasting Kazulin -- the UN human rights rapporteur on Belarus, Adrian Severin, expressed his "deepest concern" over the opposition leader's health condition.

A day later a statement issued by the German Embassy in Belarus on behalf of the European Union called on the Belarusian government to "promptly release" Kazulin.

These efforts both at home and abroad may have contributed to Kazulin's decision to halt his protest, even though his basic demands have not been fulfilled. But his aim that the world "devote its attention to Belarus" may have been partially met.

The most sensational development regarding Kazulin's protest came late on December 12 in New York, when U.S. envoy to the UN William Brencick raised the issue during a closed-door UN Security Council session.

The U.S. move reportedly angered Russian Ambassador to UN Vitaly Churkin to such an extent that he called off the UN Security Council's planned discussion on Iran's nuclear program.

Mission Accomplished?

According to Yury Khadyka, deputy chairman of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, the diplomatic row in New York was a big moral victory for Kazulin.

"[Kazulin] survived an unbelievably tough hunger strike and achieved an unbelievable goal: the problem of human rights in Belarus has been put [on the international agenda]," Khadyka said. "[This week] we had the U.S. decision [to raise the Kazulin issue in the UN Security Council] and the presentation of the Sakharov Prize to Milinkevich. These events testify that the world, even if with difficulty, is beginning to pay attention to the situation of lawlessness in Belarus."

Subsequently, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning Washington's proposal to view the Kazulin case in the UN Security Council as an attempt "to turn the Security Council into a platform for discussing issues dictated by U.S. home-policy interests."

True or not, there was at least one aspect of the U.S. step regarding Kazulin that was not mentioned in Moscow's note. Belarusian human rights defender Ales Byalyatski told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that in making its proposal in the Security Council, the U.S. government in effect also expressed its concern over whether Kazulin will die in prison or not.

"The fact that [Washington] took such a step shows that the human rights situation in Belarus is very grave," Byalyatski said. "But [this step] also manifests normal concern for the health of a human being on the part of those people in the U.S. government who took this decision. This decision is in stark contrast to how the Belarusian authorities behave themselves."

Hunger strikes by political opponents of undemocratic regimes are often seen as an act of utter desperation and a protest of last resort. While Kazulin's fast did little to alter this general perception, it nevertheless confirmed that such protests can still arouse emotions of solidarity and moral support -- at least in some parts of the world.

Belarus Votes 2006

Belarus Votes 2006

Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.

MEET THE CANDIDATES: Read brief biographies of the four candidates in the March 19 election.

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