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Belarus: Uladzimir Hancharyk, President Lukashenka's Main Challenger

The Belarusian opposition has united behind Uladzimir Hancharyk as its candidate to challenge incumbent leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka for the country's presidency. But who is Hancharyk and what does his background and program indicate about his likely policies, should he become president?

Prague, 6 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Initially, more than 20 candidates declared their intention to challenge Alyaksandr Lukashenka for the Belarusian presidency in elections set for Sunday (9 September), but most failed to garner the 100,000 signatures required for registration on the ballot.

Of the potential contenders who cleared this initial barrier, Uladzimir Hancharyk is neither the most charismatic nor the most innovative. But he is the man behind whom the opposition has rallied. The reason for this is purely pragmatic. Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent Minsk-based political think tank, explains:

"Sociologists were able to familiarize opposition leaders with the popular mood in Belarus. And they found that in the popular mindset, opposition parties and their leaders had very low ratings. On the other hand, the population at large was quite accepting of people with management experience in state structures."

For the past seven years, opposition dissidents have been blackballed in the state media. With little opportunity to present themselves to voters, negative stereotypes have stuck. The result is that even voters seeking change are barely familiar with Lukashenka's most strident opponents and remain suspicious of their motives.

Knowing that a radical dissident would stand no chance of being elected, opposition representatives narrowed their search. Karbalevich:

"And so, when someone had to be found among nomenclature representatives, the best compromise on which both right-wing opposition parties like the Belarus National Front and the left-wing opposition could agree was Hancharyk."

For most of his career, Hancharyk exemplified the ideal communist bureaucrat.

"Hancharyk worked his whole life in leading positions in the state sector. He had a typical party-man career, as a district party secretary, a regional party secretary, and for the past 15 years he was named as leader of the trade unions."

The government-sanctioned trade unions, until recently, remained a pliant tool of the government, staffed with both workers and managers, with little inclination toward independence. But that began to change as Belarus's economic situation, under Lukashenka's leadership, went from bad to worse. Again, Karbalevich:

"As the economic crisis deepened, the unions started to put forward bigger and bigger demands to the state and enterprise bosses. They demanded salary increases, improved working conditions, and a conflict began."

In 1996, Lukashenka gathered together 5,000 loyalists for a national congress, whose function was to approve a referendum extending his presidential powers, as well as his term of office. It was to be a watershed moment, when Hancharyk took his first public step away from subservience to the government.

"At the All-Belarus National Convention, as it was called -- it was a convention of Lukashenka supporters, basically -- Hancharyk was in the presidium, due to his position. They didn't allow him to make a speech, but when it came to voting for the resolution supporting Lukashenka, Hancharyk raised his hand in opposition. In a normal, democratic country, raising your hand in opposition is a perfectly ordinary situation. But when the entire hall is voting 'for' and you are the only one raising your hand 'against,' it was a pretty brave move."

Despite that vote, Hancharyk's role as leader of the country's trade unions would be tolerated for another three years or so. But the conflict reached its culmination in 2000 when Lukashenka ordered Hancharyk and other union leaders to be replaced. The unions resisted, and Hancharyk became one of the lightning rods for the opposition.

But given his comparatively recent conversion, to what extent would a Hancharyk win usher in change for Belarus? Hancharyk himself, in an interview this week with RFE/RL, outlined bold plans:

"First, we need to draft a new constitution that addresses the following questions: the division of power, the balance of power, the independence of the judiciary."

Hancharyk further called for parliament to be restored to its former status, as an independent and powerful branch of government and staffed by politicians of all stripes:

"I am convinced that after changing the constitution, this needs to be done. It needs to be done so parliament can gain legitimacy. A new electoral system has to be introduced so political parties can truly feel the electorate's support and carry out their duties. I'm talking about making politicians, which we practically don't have at the moment because parties work under conditions which significantly hamper their ability to work. I want the opposition to be part of parliament and not the street."

The words sound right. But it will not be an easy task to achieve, especially since the coalition of opposition representatives backing Hancharyk spans a broad political spectrum and may have trouble remaining united, once in power.

Hancharyk calls himself a centrist and has been at pains to lean toward both Russia and the West. But his controversial call for support from Russian President Vladimir Putin last week did not go down well with some of his coalition partners. Zyanon Paznyak, leader of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian National Front, called the appeal "a very sad fact" and proof that Hancharyk had not given up his old nomenclature ties.

Asked how he would manage the ideological differences among his supporters if elected, Hancharyk vowed to remain apolitical:

"The government is going to be non-partisan in its functions because it will have to take care of purely economic and management issues for which it is tasked. Politics will have to stay out of the cabinet."

Past experience in Belarus and other countries raises the question of whether a non-political government can ever be more than just a pipe dream. But observers agree that if Hancharyk makes it to the presidency, important changes are bound to follow. Karbalevich:

"Changes are unavoidable. The situation is ripe for change. So I think a Hancharyk win would mean changes. He himself advocates this, and the political forces which support him advocate serious, deep change. In addition, the current authoritarian regime in Belarus is a regime based on personal power -- a regime molded under one man. Lukashenka's replacement by any other figure will mean that the regime will have to undergo a transformation."

But Karbalevich tempers this statement with a dose of realism:

"In Belarus, we have a situation where most people know only one politician: Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Until the presidential elections, there were simply no other politicians. They weren't shown on television on the only national network. Other media didn't talk about them and so it's understandable that, at the start of the election campaign, Hancharyk wasn't well-known."

Despite his growing recognition factor, Hancharyk remains very much the outsider. The authorities have only allowed the electoral campaign to run for three weeks -- too short a period of time to bridge the information deficit even if the vote is run fairly. Western observers have repeatedly expressed concerns that the election will not be fair or democratic. In the end, questions about Hancharyk's policies and leadership ability may be academic.

At age 61, if he does not make it this time, analysts say Hancharyk will almost certainly have to pass the opposition leadership mantle to someone else.

(Mikhail Sokolov from RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)