20 October 2004, Volume
LUKASHENKA OPENS PATH TO PRESIDENCY-FOR-LIFE.
Belarus held national elections on 17 October to the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives and a referendum on lifting the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency. The voting actually began five days earlier, on 12 October, as has been the established tradition under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's 10-year rule. To win a referendum, Lukashenka needed at least 50 percent of Belarus's eligible voters to say "yes" to his desire to stay in power beyond 2006, when his second term ends. The referendum's turnout was therefore of utmost importance.
Voters were lured to polling stations with vodka, beer, sweets, and sausages that they could purchase there at prices that were cut by one-fourth compared to their everyday price tags. The Central Election Commission reported early on 18 October that 89.73 percent of Belarusian voters took part in the plebiscite and some 86 percent of them, or 77.3 percent of all eligible voters in the country, voted in favor of Lukashenka's proposal allowing him to run for a third term in 2006. Belarus thus became the only country in Europe to provide its head of state with the right to stay in power virtually for life.
"I consider it an elegant victory," Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna commented on the referendum results. "If there had been no referendum, it should have been invented, because it has consolidated the nation as never before and given the young people a lesson in patriotism." "Elegant" is Lukashenka's own word; he used it with respect to his victory in 2001, when OSCE election monitors deemed the process neither fair nor democratic. The 2004 victory was much more "elegant" that in 2001 -- three years ago, Lukashenka was reported to have obtained a mere 75 percent of the vote, which translated into 63 percent of all eligible voters in Belarus.
Hence it is little wonder that Lukashenka professed to be baffled by his level of popular support. "The outcome of the referendum was overwhelming to me," Lukashenka said at an 18 October meeting with a selected group of primarily CIS election monitors who saw nothing wrong with the 17 October polling. "I did not expect such a high turnout and such wide support," Lukashenka added. He was not the only one in Belarus who was surprised by developments.
An exit poll held in Belarus by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys during the early voting from 12-16 October among 19,200 voters and on 17 October among 18,400 voters found that just 48.4 percent of all eligible voters in the country said "yes" in the referendum. Therefore, according to Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys, the referendum did not suffice to amend the Belarusian Constitution or give Lukashenka the right to run for reelection.
Yarmoshyna shrugged off the Gallup findings in the Belarusian polls. "I don't know whether it was the [Gallup] institute or a self-proclaimed group of people," she said on 18 October. "Who invited them here, who gave them accreditation, who checked the reliability of their sources and questionnaires? Whom did they question?" On the other hand, the government employed an obscure pollster to conduct a more favorable exit poll on 17 October -- its results, which approximated the official referendum results, were repeatedly released by state-run Belarusian Television throughout the voting day, something that is forbidden under the Election Code.
Moreover, Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet, who helped organize the Gallup survey in the Belarusian referendum, was severely beaten on 17 October, reportedly by a group of students from a police academy in Minsk, and hospitalized with injuries and a concussion. Police subsequently accused Sheremet of hooliganism; thus, after leaving hospital, he will most likely face a stay in jail.
The opposition claimed the 17 October polling was rigged. A nongovernmental organization called Partnership, which fielded 3,500 monitors for the elections and presidential referendum, has registered more than 1,000 alleged violations of the election law by members of electoral commissions. Partnership head Mikalay Astreyka said the vote count at virtually all polling stations in the country was conducted in the absence of independent monitors.
The conclusion of an OSCE monitoring mission, which had some 270 international observers from 38 countries in Belarus on 17 October, was that the parliamentary elections fell "significantly short" of Belarus's OSCE commitments. (The OSCE refused to monitor the Belarusian referendum, even though it was invited to do so by the Belarusian government.) "We were concerned by police raids in campaign offices, the detention of a candidate, campaign workers and domestic observers, as well as numerous reports of coercion on certain groups, particularly students, to vote," OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Vice President Tone Tinsgaard commented. "Not only was the [election] media coverage biased, opposition parties got barely any coverage, while the president and government enjoyed 90 percent of the coverage of election related issues."
Tinsgaard also said that in some 60 percent of the polling stations that were visited by OSCE monitors, the vote count was not transparent and practically uncontrollable. "Numbers were not being announced aloud as they were being established and observers were given only a limited view of the process, and the procedure for the compilation of protocol was not followed," she noted.
The legislative elections were overshadowed by the referendum. On the other hand, few seemed to expect successes for the opposition in that voting. Before the elections, Lukashenka ordered the government to work toward eliminating the opposition from the legislature, filling all 110 seats in the first round, and electing roughly one-third of women to the Chamber of Representatives. His instructions were fulfilled almost to the letter. The Central Election Commission announced that 108 deputies were elected to the lower house, and none are from the opposition. Thirty-one women were elected to the Chamber of Representatives, representing nearly 29 percent of the lower house's current composition.
The Belarusian opposition meanwhile held an unsanctioned rally in Minsk on the evening of 18 October to protest the official results of the referendum. Several thousand people turned up for the protest -- perhaps surprising for an opposition that has been unable to gather more than several hundred people for anti-Lukashenka actions in recent years. Police made few arrests this time, perhaps wary of using brutal force against protesters in the presence of foreign journalists and election monitors in the Belarusian capital.
"People voted for one thing, while the results turned out to be completely different," opposition United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told journalists on 18 October. "I think the authorities won the vote count but lost several hundred thousand, or even several million, people.... There is a chance of making these people active participants in the political process." Which is, of course, the only way to stop Lukashenka from scoring another "elegant" victory in 2006.
Lukashenka turned 50 this year. An avid hockey player and rollerskater, he is physically fit and looks set for many more "elegant" victories in the future -- regardless of how much their scale might baffle even him. (Jan Maksymiuk)
ARE AUTHORITIES AFRAID OF 'GEORGIAN SCENARIO' IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION?
Earlier this month, the coalition of parties and organizations backing the presidential bid of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych issued a statement suggesting the opposition is planning a "chestnut revolution" in the event that its candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, is defeated at the ballot box on 31 October. The statement accuses oppositionists of planning to gather half a million Yushchenko supporters near the Central Election Commission headquarters on election night to prepare for such an eventuality.
"We address the Ukrainian president with a request to take all possible measures to prevent the implementation of 'chestnut-revolution scenarios' and to ensure law and order during the election process," the statement reads, in an apparent reference to Georgia's so-called Rose Revolution, which peacefully deposed President Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003 following a disputed parliamentary ballot.
One of the movements with a keen interest in a Yushchenko victory and a subsequent power swap in Ukraine is the youth "civic campaign" Pora (It's Time), which was reportedly modeled on Serbia's Otpor and Georgia's Khmara, the youth organizations that were instrumental in toppling Slobodan Milosevic's regime in October 2000 and the Shevardnadze regime in November 2003 in their respective countries. On 15 October, police searched the Pora offices in Kyiv and, according to the Prosecutor-General's Office, found a homemade explosive device, 2.4 kilograms of TNT, electric detonators, and a grenade. Prosecutors have opened a criminal case under articles pertaining to terrorism and the formation of illegal armed groups and arrested Yaroslav Hodunok, a founder of Pora.
According to accounts by Pora activists and lawmakers from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc who were present during the search, the discovery of explosive devices at Pora was quite simply a police provocation. Pora activist Yevhen Zolotarev told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) on 18 October that during the first search, which was videotaped by Pora, police found nothing. But half an hour later police officers conducted another search, with no one else present, and found the "terrorist implements and devices."
The police officers also found a stock of purportedly propagandistic materials and an issue of the organization's satirical newspaper, "Pro Ya. y tse." (Its title is a pun best translated as either "About Ya. and this" or "About an Egg," -- presumably a reference to the much-publicized egg attack last month on Prime Minister Yanukovych [see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 1 October 2004
]). Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko, who was also present at the search of the Pora headquarters, commented that Pora's informational materials are "even more terrible than the explosives found there."
Yushchenko commented that the action against Pora testifies to "the growing hysteria among the authorities" over the prospect of him defeating Yanukovych in the presidential balloting. In a statement published on 19 October on the website of Yushchenko political ally Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko slam the unnamed leaders of law enforcement bodies for "serving the criminal authorities" as well as intimidating and staging provocations against democratic forces and supporters of Yushchenko's presidential bid. "We will fight for human rights and will not give up," Yushchenko and Tymoshenko say on behalf of their campaign coalition, People's Power. "Also, we reserve the right to a civic protest, within the framework of the legislation in force and the Ukrainian Constitution."
The reaction of the authorities to the statement was immediate. "The Interior Ministry pledges to forestall a change of political power in the country through civil disobedience actions after the presidential election on 31 October," ITAR-TASS quoted Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Korniyenko as saying. "There will be no Georgian scenario in Ukraine."
There were also more threatening, and simultaneously enigmatic, warnings from the Interior Ministry. "There won't be any revolutions here," the 19 October issue of the "Financial Times" quoted Kyiv police chief Oleksandr Milenin as saying. "We are ready for the unexpected. We even have our ninjas -- a recently formed subdivision -- trained in special measures. We have also new means, which for now I won't speak about. I'll only say that their use has been approved by the Health Ministry. I assure you, the health of citizens won't suffer."
Meanwhile, the police have embarked on a campaign of arrests targeting Ukrainian student activists who support Yushchenko's presidential ambitions. On 16 October, some 40,000 students from all over Ukraine turned up for a pro-Yushchenko rally in Kyiv, during which they passed a mock "no-confidence vote" in Yanukovych's cabinet. On 18 October, police arrested 15 students in Chernihiv; all of those arrested had participated in the Kyiv rally the previous day. On 19 October, a pro-Yushchenko student activist was arrested in Poltava.
The atmosphere of the presidential campaign in Ukraine has become increasingly tense in the wake of the 19 October disappearance of the press secretary for Yushchenko's regional campaign headquarters in Mykolayiv. The press secretary claimed via mobile phone to have been kidnapped -- apparently by plainclothes police -- after which the contact with him was lost. (Jan Maksymiuk)
"We have steered to avoid running into debts, because our children should not pay for our current happy life." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with Russian regional journalists on 13 October; quoted by Belarusian Television.
"I am sure that not a single businessman will make it into the parliament now. Not a single one. Because I have publicly addressed this issue several times, demanding and requesting that power should not be confused with a bag of money. I have seen how businessmen behave in the parliament. We have a few of them there. They resolve their egoistical problems. Instead, we will have from 30-33 percent women [in the new legislature]." -- Lukashenka, ibid.
"For 10 years I have been working, and for 10 years you [Western journalists] have been expressing concern about something in Belarus. I think it is time for you to relax and to stop reproaching us about some sort of [election] falsifications or violations." -- Lukashenka, while casting his vote in the 17 October elections and referendum in Belarus; quoted by Reuters.
"We saw yesterday [17 October] a clear illustration of how totalitarian or authoritarian regimes loathe civic society. I am talking about Belarus -- the election and the referendum in Belarus and the situation [in that country] in general.... I am speaking about Belarus because it is situated relatively close, in Europe, and it is probably the last European dictatorship." -- Former Czech President Vaclav Havel speaking on 18 October at the opening of the Forum 2000 international conference in Prague; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.
"The political systems and rules of the game in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are rapidly converging. We see the emergence of a new Slavic International of a Latin American model." -- Gazeta.ru. on 19 October, in a commentary titled "All-Slavic Lukashenization."
"Unlike the West, Russia is run by tsars, not corporations. Such authority -- as Lukashenka and Putin have -- is a gift from God." -- Pavel Borodin, state secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, proposing that Russian President Vladimir Putin organize a referendum on the possibility of being elected for a third term; quoted by lenta.ru on 19 October.