Minsk, 10 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of the opposition's central election commission in Belarus says he is pleased with the course of nationwide presidential polling now taking place in defiance of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Viktar Hanchar told RFE/RL's correspondent in Minsk over the weekend (May 8) that nearly 450,000 people voted in the first two days of polling. With the final and most important day of voting set to take place in less than a week (May 16), Hanchar said the results so far show the opposition campaign is well on course.
Two candidates are running in the elections that Hanchar said will be valid if turnout exceeds 50 per cent of the electorate, or roughly 3.5 million voters. One of the candidates, Mikhail Chigir, has been jailed. The other candidate, Zyanon Paznyak, is an exile in Warsaw.
Another opposition leader, Yuri Zakharenko, has not been seen by his family since Friday (May 7). Police in Minsk say they are not holding Zakharenko, a former interior minister who has been responsible for security for the opposition. But Chigir's wife has alerted the Minsk office of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to Zakharenko's disappearance.
Since late last month, Lukashenka's government has repeatedly dismissed the opposition-sponsored elections as illegal. And analysts say that whether or not the opposition succeeds in turning out half the electorate by Sunday, the result is n-o-t likely --at least in the short term-- to change the political balance in Belarus, where Lukashenka holds most of the power.
Hanchar said he was not surprised by the current government crackdown on the opposition in the wake of the its unsanctioned election campaign. He said: "Harassment and detention have been part of our daily lives." But he also said he was surprised by reports from his electoral officials that government authorities have allegedly confiscated 85,000 ballots. According to Hanchar, 42,000 ballots were taken from the Mogilyov area and another 40,000 are missing in Gomel. Hanchar said that, despite the difficulties in running what he called a true campaign, the opposition would persevere in its three main goals:
"The first goal is to stress the 1994 constitution. The second aim is to display the growing resistance of the Belarus population to Lukashenka's regime. And the third one is to once again raise the issue that Lukashenka's legitimacy expires after July 20. [the end of his elected term in office]."
Two and a half years ago, Lukashenka called a controversial referendum on a new constitution setting up a new two-chamber parliament and dismissed the old elected parliament. The new constitution gave him sweeping powers and extended his term to 2001. Many Western countries criticized the 1996 referendum and its results as illegitimate and an unconstitutional power play. Lukashenka has ruled out an election this year and has accused the opposition of destabilizing the situation in the country.
The OSCE has called on both the opposition and the government to engage in civilized dialogue between now and July 20, in the hope that a new constitution could be adopted. Asked about the OSCE appeal, Hanchar told RFE/RL it was rather like asking a bandit to talk to his victim. Still, Hanchar did not completely rule out negotiations:
"We are ready for any dialogue. Yet I need to stress right here than Lukashenka right now will try to do everything possible to escape responsibility here and that's why he will be pushing even harder for the [recently announced] Belarus-Russian union. In this respect, I'm just thinking about what is more important: whether to return back to the legal field with the rule of law, with clear rules of the game, or to resist and to prevent this already ongoing incorporation of Belarus into Russia. I cannot pick up any similarity in any country where the leader of the country would make everything possible to liquidate his own country without any external threat."
Hanchar said the opposition's long-range aim is to make Belarus an integral part of Europe --as was the aim, he noted, of the country's neighbors, Poland and the Baltic states.