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Belarus: Opposition Unites Behind One Candidate To Challenge Lukashenka

The usually fragmented Belarusian opposition has come together to back Uladzimir Hancharyk as its candidate to face off against incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the presidential elections set for September.

Prague, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarus opposition camp was euphoric on 22 July as it put aside differences and united to back one candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in presidential elections scheduled for September.

Four top opposition leaders gave their endorsement to union leader Uladzimir Hancharyk, saying he stands the best chance of beating Lukashenka in the 9 September poll. The four leaders are: former Defense Minister Pavel Kazlouski, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, the former governor of the Hrodna region, Syamyon Domash, and Communist Party head Syarhey Kalyakin. They all withdrew their own bids to run in the election in order to back Hancharyk.

In a statement, the four opposition leaders said that "finally, a single candidate and alternative to Lukashenka has been found. This was a principled step by the other candidates, who put aside their own plans and hopes for the sake of Belarus."

The four party leaders said they hoped Hancharyk's nomination would create a credible opposition and pave the way for economic reform and a return to democratic structures.

Bohdan Andrusyshyn, an analyst on Belarusian affairs with RFE/RL, notes that Hancharyk can draw on an estimated 2 million potential voters in the ranks of his Trade Union Federation of Belarus, the BFTU. That, he says, could pose a real threat to Lukashenka in the election.

"If you add in the most hopeful circumstances, if you get his electoral base behind and add the four others behind him and all the opposition parties which, presumably, would also [back Hancharyk]. That's been the whole strategy the whole time -- to pick one candidate and [gather] around him. His chances, actually? Let me put it this way: Up to this point, the question was always, if not Lukashenka, who? And now there's an answer to that."

Hancharyk is a former member of the Soviet-era nomenklatura, serving as the head of the BFTU. But he has won support for his efforts to move the BFTU away from Lukashenka's control -- but not from Lukashenka, of course. Last October, state authorities closed the BFTU's bank accounts, and union officials said authorities had threatened to arrest Hancharyk. In an unprecedented move, the BFTU filed a complaint with the UN's International Labor Organization, in an effort to put more international pressure on Lukashenka, already roundly condemned in the West for his authoritarian style of rule.

Hancharyk is not likely to win friends in the current Belarus government after recently announcing he has documents suggesting law-enforcement officials had played a role in the murder of several opposition leaders. He made the announcement as two Belarus opposition officials were charging Lukashenka with operating Latin American-style death squads.

Aleh Sluchak and Dzmitry Petrushkevich made their accusations in Washington, after being granted political asylum in the United States. The United States, which has repeatedly criticized Lukashenka's rule, said it found the charges credible. State Department spokesman Charles Hunter explained on 18 July:

"The two investigators have made detailed and credible revelations about a Lukashenka regime death squad that's reportedly responsible for up to 30 murders."

The United States called on Belarus to investigate the charges, to which Lukashenka responded by telling Washington to "mind its own business." He said the allegations of a death squad were a provocation meant to undermine him ahead of the presidential poll.

Opposition leaders say Lukashenka is already at work tilting the field in his favor for the presidential poll. More than a score of opposition leaders earlier this month signed a letter to that effect, which was published in the Belarus daily "Narodnya Volya."

RFE/RL analyst Andrusyshyn says no representatives of political parties or civic organizations sit on any of the regional electoral boards. He says there has been widespread reporting of harassment of people gathering signatures for presidential hopefuls.

Nevertheless, Andrusyshyn says, a Hancharyk candidacy could have Lukashenka worried.

"Well, I think he probably is [worried] because this is going to have to change his whole strategy, too. He always counted on the fact that there really was no alternative, the opposition was always so fractured."

Andrusyshyn also says that, as a former nomenklatura insider, Hancharyk can't be tarred by Lukashenka as an "outside radical" bent on destroying Belarus, a tactic the Belarusian leader has used against other opposition politicians. He also thinks that Hancharyk's stand on the "death squad" controversy has probably raised his standing in the eyes of many Belarusians, who see it as principled. And, Andrusyshyn says, Hancharyk's access to the BFTU infrastructure -- including its headquarters, where he can conduct press conferences and make other pronouncements -- gives him a big boost in Belarus, where the media are strictly controlled by Lukashenka's government.

But, Andrusyshyn adds, Lukashenka may find a way to shut Hancharyk out of the poll. Belarus authorities are checking the books of the BFTU, hoping to find questionable bookkeeping or any other wrongdoing. That could lead to criminal prosecution against Hancharyk and an end to his candidacy.

In the end, a victory for the opposition in September hinges on its maintaining a united front, not assured given its past record of infighting. If cracks again start to appear, it may turn out that the worst enemy of the opposition is the opposition itself.

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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.