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Belarus: Opposition Looks To Future After Large Rally

The opposition in Belarus brought thousands of people out onto the capital's streets Wednesday for what it said was the biggest demonstration in four years. RFERL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines what the opposition plans next.

Prague, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian opposition, fighting for democratic rights against autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has not had much to celebrate recently.

Earlier this month, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe failed in their joint attempt to persuade Lukashenka to begin a dialogue with the opposition. Since then, opposition access to the media has been further reduced. And the whereabouts of several prominent opposition leaders, believed to be in the hands of Lukashenka's secret police, are still not known.

So the demonstration Wednesday in Minsk, which drew around 20,000 people braving the snow and rain, was a badly needed morale booster.

Alyaksandr Dabravolski is the vice chairman of the opposition United Civil Party. Dabrovolski says people's discontent with Lukashenka is becoming greater than their fear of what he might do to dissenters. He says support for the opposition is growing.

"I think that the president and [organs of] power are now afraid of the opposition. The president and [organs of] power should understand, and I believe they already understand, that the opposition has big civil support in our society. So we not only protested against totalitarian power, but we have already more support from society, not only for democratic ideas but for democratic organizations."

Wednesday's demonstrators waved the red-and-white nationalist flag as they marched through Minsk on the sixth anniversary of Belarus's post-Soviet constitution.

Some carried placards comparing Lukashenka to Hitler and Stalin, and others carried banners reading "Freedom" and "To Europe without Lukashenko."

They were protesting against the 1996 constitutional changes, which packed parliament with Lukashenka supporters and extended his term of office and have been called illegal by opposition leaders and outside observers. They demanded fairness for the next parliamentary elections, due in October. Opposition sympathizers also staged demonstrations yesterday in Sweden, Poland, Latvia, and Ukraine.

At a similar demonstration last fall, protestors were beaten by police. The day before Wednesday's march, Lukashenka warned that anyone who stepped out of line would "get the stuffing knocked out of them." But representatives from the OSCE, the U.S. State Department, human rights group Amnesty International, and the parliaments of Sweden, Poland, and Latvia, who observed the demonstration, urged Belarusian authorities to show restraint, and the demonstration went off peacefully.

Opposition member Dabravolski says his followers are undeterred.

"I think people are no longer afraid of being arrested. People know that the organizers of this demonstration didn't want to make any provocations or battle with the militia and so on."

Dabravolski says that demonstrations alone will not force the government to allow the opposition access to the media. Nor will protests change the election rules, which the opposition calls unfair.

"It [demonstrating] can help us to have more possibilities in the elections, but we are not sure that we will take part."

He said the opposition is organizing meetings and seminars around the country to spread its point of view. It will decide in a few months whether to compete.

European bodies have said that the next parliament will not be recognized internationally unless the electoral campaign is fair.

Dabravolski said the opposition knows that Lukashenka could revert to repressive methods if he feels his opponents are becoming too strong.

"Yes, we are concerned. But we should do our work."

The opposition wants to build on Wednesday's success to step up pressure on Lukashenka. One of the opposition organizers (Viktor Ivashkevich) said that Wednesday's demonstration was the first in a series dubbed "Spring of Protest." Another three are planned at the end of March, April, and July.