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Belarus: Will Elections Reflect Yugoslav Example?

Many members of the opposition in Belarus, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sunday, are exuberant about the popular overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. They think the Yugoslav example could spread to Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's authoritarian rule has left the country politically isolated and economically bereft.

Prague, 11 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For years there's been little reason for hope for the opposition in Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has kept the country locked in the repressive Soviet pass. The official state media are out of bounds for the opposition. Its members are closely monitored, harassed and routinely arrested by the police. In some cases, they have simply disappeared, such as opposition leader Viktar Hanchar and former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka.

But then came the peaceful ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, and suddenly there's a new sense of hope among Belarus opposition members. How much the Yugoslav example will influence Sunday's parliamentary elections, however, remains an open question.

After Milosevic's overthrown, elated Belarus opposition leaders sent a note of congratulations to his opponent -- and successor -- Vojislav Kostunica. Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the United Civic Party, told the independent Belarus news agency Belapan last week (Oct 6) that the Yugoslav scenario would serve as a blueprint to oust Lukashenka, now considered the last old-style autocratic ruler in Europe. "The Yugoslav democrats' victory is our victory," Lebedko declared.

But Lukashenka, though an ardent supporter of Milosevic, sees no parallels between his country and Yugoslavia. Over the weekend Lukashenka said: "Many point their finger at Yugoslavia, they want it to be like Yugoslavia here. In Belarus, it won't be like Yugoslavia. We have a different people, political stability, and no ethnic conflicts," Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent political institute based in Minsk, tells RFE/RL the collapse of the Yugoslav regime left officials in Minsk in shock.

"The fall of the Milosevic regime was met by shock in Belarus power circles. That's because Belarus had disseminated as official propaganda to the public a myth -- the myth that there was this fraternal nation Yugoslavia, which was bravely fighting against enemies from the West . [According to this line,] all the other Slavic nations had long since sold out to the West, and only Yugoslavia and Belarus were defiantly continuing to battle for the interests of the Slavs."

Karbalevich, says Lukashenka now finds himself virtually without any allies in Europe -- apart from tepid support from Russia, which has a vague union treaty with Belarus.

But Lukashenka still holds on firmly to the reins of power. The 46-year-old former manager of a state collective farm has created apparent political stability by sacrificing his country's political freedom. He has a parliament filled with hand-picked members. The legitimate, democratically elected legislature was jettisoned in 1996 following a controversial referendum which gave additional power to Lukashenka and extended his term in office.

Lukashenka is not running in Sunday's parliamentary elections. But he has said he will run in the presidential election next year if asked to do so "by the people."

The elections have presented a dilemma to members of the opposition. If they participate, that lends legitimacy to Lukashenka's regime. But by taking part, they could win some seats, and thereby a voice -- albeit a small one -- in government. So while most opposition leaders are boycotting the vote -- and have staged repeated demonstrations urging people not to go to the polls -- others are taking part. Those who favor voting are called the "renegades" by their boycotting colleagues.

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir is one of the renegades. He calls boycotting the poll "an unprecedented blunder" by the opposition. But Karbalevich of the Strategic Center says the opposition had little choice.

"The majority of those opposition representatives who tried to take part in the elections were simply not registered [as candidates]. And they were thrown out of the election campaign. So the government didn't leave any other choice but a boycott. The government is knowingly excluding the opposition from the political system."

Those shut out of the parliamentary poll, say they'll now focus on building public opposition to Lukashenka. They hope to stage vast protest rallies such as those that rocked Yugoslavia. Lebedko says: "We have every reason to use Yugoslavia's experience in forming a democratic coalition and staging mass protests so that the [Yugoslav] events can be repeated in Belarus in a year's time."

To make any kind of inroad, the opposition must cut into Lukashenka's bedrock support in the countryside. Accordingly, opposition-organized rallies last weekend did not take place in Minsk as usual, but in outlying towns and cities. In the largest rally, at Hrodno, some 2,000 people turned out, many carrying placards reading, "Today Milosevic, Tomorrow Lukashenka." But even opposition estimates said that only 10,000 turned out overall, hardly the kind of mass outpouring needed to worry Lukashenka.

Karbalevich also says that, as the Yugoslav experience showed, mass protests alone will not suffice to bring down the type of authoritarian regimes that rulers like Milosevic and Lukashenka built. "Mass demonstrations alone will not bring down a totalitarian regime. Legitimacy is needed. Legitimacy is gained only through elections. Therefore, a democratic victory in elections plus street action is the formula for the triumph of a democratic opposition in the conditions of an authoritarian regime."

Karbalevich notes that public support for Lukashenka is slipping, even in the countryside, where widespread shortages and hardship are cutting into the image of the Belarus leader. Karbalevich says Belarus has the "potential" for massive change. Whether the opposition and the people will seize it, as in Yugoslavia, is still to be seen.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.