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Belarus: As Vote Nears, Regime Thins Out Opposition Ranks

By Jan Maksymiuk

Courts in Minsk on March 9 handed down 15-day prison sentences to Belarusian opposition leader Vintsuk Vyachorka, the deputy campaign head for opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich -- the main political rival to incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the March 19 presidential vote. Nine other Milinkevich supporters were also given the same sentence. All were found guilty of organizing unsanctioned campaign stops in Minsk the previous day. Two days earlier, a Milinkevich supporter was heavily fined, and another jailed, on similar offenses. It appears that Lukashenka's regime is doing what it can to prevent the public from meeting with members of the political opposition in the run-up to the vote.

PRAGUE, March 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Vyachorka and three other opposition activists were detained by police immediately after a March 8 campaign appearance by Milinkevich at a cinema on the outskirts of Minsk, where some 1,000 people had gathered.
Later the same evening, at a second campaign stop in the city center, six more Milinkevich supporters were arrested.
Breaking The Law?
Belarusian authorities, citing the country's law on public gatherings, say the opposition can hold campaign meetings only after receiving official permission.
Neither of the Milinkevich meetings on March 9 were formally authorized, they say, and presidential candidates and their representatives should not enjoy immunity from prosecution should they break the law.
Arguing his case before the court, Vyachorka said the country's constitution and electoral code allows all candidates seeking public office to campaign freely.
"[This] is a direct violation of the right to electioneering, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, the electoral legislation, and the criminal legislation," Vyachorka said. "I think that a relevant criminal case will be opened against those preventing us from exercising our constitutional rights."
Would it have helped to obtain official permission to hold such meetings? Some would say no. Authorities have already exercised somewhat shrewder techniques apparently aimed at thwarting Milinkevich's election campaign.
Earlier this week, a court in Mahilyou imposed a fine of $750 on opposition leader and Milinkevich ally Anatol Lyabedzka, finding him guilty of organizing an unsanctioned campaign rally in that city. Lyabedzka was promised the use of a hall at a local university. But the authorities refused to grant him the venue at the last minute, and he was forced to hold a meeting outdoors, thus violating the law on public gatherings.
The same court in Mahilyou on March 7 jailed for 15 days Uladzimir Shantsau, a regional campaign manager for Milinkevich, for a similar offense. It appears authorities are eager to prevent the opposition from speaking to potential voters.
Opposition Gaining Ground?
Why have Belarusian authorities seemingly resorted to such open methods of impeding the opposition's campaign? Lyabedzka, for one, says it may be because Milinkevich and others have succeeded in changing public perception of the autocratic Lukashenka, who is seeking an unprecedented third term.
"In the beginning they [authorities] had a more or less favorable attitude regarding meetings [with voters]. This was how I saw it, based on meeting I participated in. The initial meetings took place without incident," Lyabedzka said.
"But later, the authorities resorted to provocations and attempts to foil these [gatherings]. The authorities began to be afraid that the campaign had been gathering pace and that the very development of the campaign had not worked in their favor."
Milinkevich, the candidate supported by most opposition parties and groups in Belarus, is of the same opinion. He told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the Lukashenka regime is afraid that it might lose control over the course of the election campaign:
"[The authorities are] afraid of everything. They are so intimidated -- they have intimidated society, but they have also been living in fear themselves," Milinkevich said. "I think that this process of jailing our people will continue. The main goal is to strip our campaign of its leadership."
Milinkevich has called on his supporters to gather at a central square in Minsk after the closure of polling stations on March 19. Milinkevich emphasizes that he is calling for peaceful protests, not a revolution. But he simultaneously stresses that people should be ready "to defend their choice."  
In practical terms, the 15-day sentence on Vyachorka and the other campaigners means that 11 Milinkevich supporters will remain in jail during the remainder of the election campaign and even a few days after the vote.
Not Even 'Illusion' Of Honesty
Jailing prominent opposition leaders and campaign activists both in Minsk and the provinces ahead of March 19 is not the only measure the Lukashenka regime appears to be using to minimize the risk of a popular protest after the presidential vote.
On March 2, plainclothes policemen beat and detained for a day the election's second opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin. A number of his supporters and journalists on the scene were also reportedly beaten.
A day later, Belarusian police seized a print run of 250,000 copies of the Minsk-based opposition-minded "Narodnaya volya" daily, which had been printed in Russia. 
The issue contained information about Kazulin's beating, as well as an account of a meeting between opposition candidate Milinkevich and voters, and the text of Kazulin's televised address to voters.
On March 6, Belarusian Television censors removed passages from Milinkevich's and Kazulin's addresses to voters that were considered damaging to the incumbent president.
Milinkevich commented to RFE/RL's Belarus Service on March 9 that the Belarusian authorities "are not even trying to create an illusion of honest elections."
Does the Belarusian opposition have a realistic chance of rallying its supporters on March 19 to protest against what already seems to be a dishonest and deeply flawed electoral process?
Such a protest cannot be ruled out. However, observers within Belarus are highly skeptical regarding any potential regime change after March 19. Belarusian political analyst Uladzimir Matskevich believes that the opposition needs to be prepared for much bleaker and even more challenging times.
"There are no legal possibilities left for us to continue our work in the future," said Matskevich. "Therefore, we need to learn to live as dissidents in Cuba do, and to prepare ourselves for more serious, so to say, more basic forms of struggle."  
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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