1 February 2006, Volume 8, Number 4
BELARUSEU FOREIGN MINISTERS MEET WITH MILINKEVICH. Belarusian opposition leader and presidential contender Alyaksandr Milinkevich held a series of high-level meetings in Brussels on 30 January with EU foreign ministers and other EU officials. The ministers welcomed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's offer to allow OSCE monitors to observe Belarus's presidential elections on 19 March. However, they reiterated their earlier threat of further sanctions should the polls fail to be free and fair, making clear the measures would specifically target officials held responsible.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich's visit to Brussels presented the EU with a dilemma. The bloc is keen to campaign against Lukashenka's autocratic regime, but it also wants to avoid being associated with any individual challengers or parties.
The answer, as it transpired over the course of the day, was to grant Milinkevich almost unprecedented levels of political access -- while keeping it all very quiet.
Milinkevich met with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and European Parliament President Josep Borrell.
Most significantly, Milinkevich spent a half hour with the 25 EU foreign ministers -- a rare honor for any opposition figure. None of the meetings was accompanied by a press opportunity.
Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of the current EU chair Austria, offered a cursory summary of the 30 January deliberations on Belarus that followed the talks with Milinkevich. She said the EU is very concerned about the situation in Belarus and considers the elections an "important yardstick."
"The OSCE has been invited to monitor the elections and we expect that, correspondingly, the observation mission is allowed to carry out its work in an unhindered manner," Plassnik said.
The EU ministers adopted a statement that repeated a threat made first in November to take "restrictive measures" if the 19 March elections are not free and fair.
The statement, however, added an important detail. The EU now explains that the measures will target "the responsible individuals" in any failure to "uphold international standards in the electoral process, in particular those of the OSCE." This means the treatment of the OSCE observers will be particularly crucial.
The EU has taken such measures before. A travel ban is in place against a number of officials considered culpable for the disappearance of opposition leaders, the obstruction of relevant investigations, or the mistreatment of demonstrators.
The EU statement also stressed that Belarusian authorities must allow all eligible candidates to register, campaign freely, and to enjoy equal access to state-controlled media. Domestic and international media must also be able to report freely on the electoral process.
Milinkevich's role was largely to offer the EU ministers a chance to hear a firsthand account of the situation in Belarus.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told RFE/RL that Milinkevich provided a short overview, took questions, and then summed up his expectations. "His message, briefly, was that where he most sees opportunities for the West to help [Belarus] today is by trying to pass on adequate information via radio and TV channels; and also keep the doors open to nonpolitical groups such as the young, sports people, and cultural representatives," Paet said.
The EU last week awarded a German-led media consortium a 2 million-euro ($2.42 million) contract to broadcast independent radio and television news to Belarus, starting in February. The German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has offered Russian-language radio programs since November. However, some Belarusian opposition figures have warned the programs will only reach a small minority of the Belarusian public.
Some EU member states, led by Lithuania and Poland, pressed on 30 January for the easing of EU visa restrictions against Belarusian citizens. The EU statement encourages the "facilitation" of contacts with Belarusian civil society, but easing visa rules is politically too sensitive a measure for most member states.
A few dozen members of the Belarusian diaspora in Belgium gathered on 30 January within a stone's throw of the building that hosted the meeting of the 25 EU ministers. They carried placards likening Lukashenka to Stalin and Hitler and condemning Russia's support of his regime.
Zmitser Pimenau, the leader of the association of Belarusian refugees in Belgium, told RFE/RL that Russia's stance is key for the future of his country. "The biggest threat for Belarus today is losing its independence and being occupied by Russia," Pimenau said. "We know that Lukashenka would not survive even for a day without Putin's support. And Russia channels large sums to support the dictatorship [in Belarus]. Putin has begun to terrorize with gas [supplies] not only Belarus but also all of Europe. This could be seen when he turned off the gas for Ukraine. Tomorrow the gas may be turned off for Poland, the Czech Republic, or Germany."
Pimenau said his organization represents about 1,700 Belarusian refugees in Belgium.
Milinkevich is expected to meet with members of the Belarusian diaspora in Belgium on 1 February. (Ahto Lobjakas)
MILINKEVICH SAYS HE WANTS A COUNTRY WITHOUT FEAR. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition forces' candidate for the 19 March presidential election in Belarus, held an online news conference hosted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service on 23 January. (The full text of the conference in Belarusian is at http://www.svaboda.org/forum/forum.aspx?ForumID=19&y=2006.) Below are translated excerpts.
Question: Don't you think that the majority of Belarusians are all but satisfied with the current state of affairs, that they are afraid of possible changes, that they see no alternative to the system that takes care of them, guarantees jobs and bread for them, and provides them with the possibility to settle accounts with [local] officials?
Alyaksandr Milinkevich: I see the opposite, and during my many trips to Belarusian regions I have become more and more convinced [of it]. A significant part of the people -- and their number is steadily increasing -- has become fed up with leading a life of indignity and of the uncertainty of the future. People have become fed up with the contract [employment] system that has made slaves out of them, that has made them dependent on the arbitrariness of brainless supervisors. [They have become] sick of the endless lies on television about the subsequent successes of the Belarusian [economic] "miracle," boorishness, and the everyday humiliation of an honest and decent people. [They have become] tired of being kept by the authorities on a short leash. They want to live, not to struggle to survive, they want justice and the rule of law. True, not everyone today can speak openly about this, but a breakthrough is under way.
Question: If the united opposition suffers a failure -- and nobody doubts that this will be so -- and if street protests fail, what next? Will the opposition remain united, with you as the leader, and will it continue fighting?
Milinkevich: You need to realize the significance and seriousness of what has happened. It is the first time during Belarus's independence that all healthy democratic forces, despite their [different] political views, have united to change the situation in Belarus for the better, to build a state that will respect its citizens and will be respected in the world. Everybody understands that squabbles between [democratic] parties and organizations play today only into the hands of the ruling regime. Our coalition is a significant achievement of Belarus's democratic forces. We understand perfectly well that the day of 19 March will perhaps not conclude anything. We have agreed to go forward together and, thank God, everybody understands this necessity.
Question: Don't you want to join the "popular vote" campaign organized by supporters of Zyanon Paznyak? [Editor's note: Presidential contender Zyanon Paznyak, exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party, has called on opponents of the incumbent president to cast fake ballots on election day and take away the originals, which will be counted later by an independent commission. The goal of this "popular vote" is to find out how many people actually voted against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in order to substantiate possible claims of vote rigging.]
Milinkevich: It is important for us today not to lose people, to bolster their faith in victory. The "popular vote" aims not to activate the democratic-minded electorate but rather to discourage people. Just like a boycott. If we could be sure that we are able to explain the sense of the "popular-vote" idea to the overwhelming majority of Belarusians and tell them where they can take alternative ballots, we could count on some success. But we have no such possibilities today. It is much easier -- and we are calling on everybody to do this -- to rally around the campaign of a single contender who has the support of the united democratic forces.
Question: How is it possible to raise the political awareness of the population? What are you planning to do to inform [people about your presidential bid], apart from meetings with voters and articles in the independent press?
Milinkevich: We rely on the remaining independent newspapers, radio [programs] made by Belarusians, samizdat, and the initiatives of active and indifferent people in the regions.
Question: Are you planning to address the Belarusian people with the help of the Russian media?
Milinkevich: There are some projects.
Question: Could you identify the plusses in what has been done by the current authorities?
Milinkevich: As regards the plusses, the country has not been sold out. Second, the country has no extensive unemployment, even if there is some hidden unemployment. I do not consider the timely payment of pensions as the authorities' [plus] -- it is the authorities' duty [to pay pensions timely]. Cleanliness in the cities is a good thing but they are often Potemkin villages.
Question: What will happen if everything goes according to the 2001 [presidential-election] scenario: Alyaksandr Lukashenka gets 75 percent of the vote, Milinkevich -- no more than 15 percent? There may be no more than 10,000 people on October Square [in Minsk]. They will stay there for several days and go home. And you will be arrested for organizing "mass unrest."
Milinkevich: If the authorities stage a dishonest election, there will be more people [on the square]. I am sure that there will be no 2001 scenario. Belarus is different already today. And after 19 March it will be a totally different country.
Question: What will happen after the announcement of the election results from a screen on October Square: Lukashenka 82 percent, Milinkevich 4 percent? Will the crowd roar and tear up the square in front of the presidential office? Or will [U.S. President] George W. Bush lose his temper and launch a missile?
Milinkevich: We are not working [just] to hear from the mouth of [Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya] Yarmoshyna that we have lost. All of us are realists. We have our feet on the ground. Our goal is to change the social mood, to prove that the current authorities cannot win a democratic election. (Translated by Jan Maksymiuk)
'NARODNAYA VOLYA' FINDS NEW MEANS TO OVERCOME STATE INTERFERENCE. With the Belarusian authorities increasing pressure on independent media in recent months, some newspapers are being published and printed abroad. One of those, the independent daily "Narodnaya volya," is being published in the Russian city of Smolensk and then transported to Minsk. The authorities have made life difficult for the paper -- a recent print run was kept for days at the border -- but a network of activists is trying to turn the government interference to its advantage.
Anatol Lyabedzka, the head of the opposition Belarusian United Civic Party, on 12 January helped journalists from "Narodnaya volya" get back thousands of copies of the newspaper, which were detained by police at the Russian-Belarusian border.
"I have a feeling of solidarity and understand how important the press is for us," Lyabedzka says. "Together with the editor in chief of 'Narodnaya volya' I went to a little Belarusian town at the border with Russia and we negotiated with police officials for eight hours in order to rescue 30,000 issues of 'Narodnaya volya.'"
Lyabedzka says the police officers demanded an array of documents, asked hundreds of questions, and called Minsk for instructions every half an hour. The demands, he says, were ridiculous and annoying -- ironic, he says, as formally the border between Belarus and Russia is open and no documents for goods are needed.
Such state interference is nothing new. For years, domestic and foreign rights activists have accused the authorities of attempting to gag independent media in Belarus.
In September 2005, the state-run monopoly that runs a nationwide network of kiosks and newsstands stopped distributing "Narodnaya volya" after a court froze the newspaper's assets, demanding payment for damages in a pending libel case.
And then in November 2005, Belarus's state postal service excluded three periodicals from its 2006 subscription catalogue. One of those publications was "Narodnaya volya."
"Narodnaya volya" has been published in Smolensk since October. "Belaruskaya delovaya gazeta," considered by many to be the most influential independent daily in the country, is also published in Smolensk.
Now, Lyabedzka says, independent newspapers have to rely on others if they want their publications to be read: "Activists from political parties and active citizens are doing this job. When the newspaper gets to Minsk it is distributed to the regions, where there are people who subscribe to 'Narodnaya volya' or buy it directly from the newspaper office. [The activists] bring the paper to the places where people live."
And Lyabedzka says there is another way to distribute the newspaper -- selling it directly to people on the street. This tactic works, he says, and is a good opportunity for activists to speak with people during the campaign for the 19 March presidential election. Lyabedzka says he himself distributes the newspaper on the street and enjoys it.
Svyatlana Kalinkina, the editor in chief of "Narodnaya volya," says life is more difficult for the newspaper now. But she agrees with Lyabedzka that pressure from the authorities has in some ways benefited the paper.
"I can say with certainty that the newspaper has found new readers. Such people who earlier knew nothing or even were not interested [in reading the newspaper,]" Kalinkina says. The newspaper is now being read by different groups of people. Now we have seen that not only the [Belarusian] national-orientated part of society reads it, but that the readership has become much broader."
The independent media plays an important role in Belarus's upcoming presidential election, which incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is widely expected to win. There is little or no mention of the election in Belarus's state-run media.
The united opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, tells RFE/RL that every independent newspaper "is precious" and their survival is crucial.
"There is a huge hunger for information. Even if a newspaper reaches readers a week after it is published, under the current conditions people read it regardless," Milinkevich says. "We, with the help of our initiative group, are helping to create an alternative distribution network for 'Narodnaya volya' and also for other newspapers."
So could this be the rebirth of samizdat in Belarus? Lyabedzka seems to think so. "Currently, there is more and more underground media [in the country.] It includes leaflets, and everything that is published illegally," he says. "I think the authorities have begun to understand that, if they continue fighting with 'Narodnaya volya' considering it to be the main opponent, something else will be born. And to fight with that will be even more difficult."
But for now, perhaps there won't even be the need for samizdat. Editor Kalinkina says that since the incident earlier this month, there have been no more problems at the border. The biggest problem, she says, is the atmosphere of uncertainty it creates with the paper's journalists not knowing if their stories will even be read. (Valentinas Mite)