Belarus: Are There Cracks In The Fortress Of Authority?
By Valentinas Mite
Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich believes that the week of street protests that followed the country's March 19 presidential vote made "cracks in the fortress" of the ruling regime. However, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- who won a third term in office following his landslide victory -- appears unmoved. The opposition has the West's backing as it continues to press for a repeat election, but success largely depends on the real impact the vote and ensuing protests had toward effecting change in Belarus.
PRAGUE, March 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The opposition's hopes for a revolution in Belarus were not realized, and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains at the helm of the state.
Regardless, main opposition candidate Milinkevich on March 28 found room for optimism. He says Belarus is on the right path and that the opposition movement will continue to facilitate change.
"We were also discussing what to do next," Milinkevich said. "This is very important. And we discussed also how to avoid pessimism. I think we have made the first and very serious step toward victory."
Many agree that the election and ensuing protests, while failing to unseat President Lukashenka, did succeed in leaving a positive mark on the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on March 28 praised the Belarusian opposition. Although she describes it as "nascent" and "incipient," Rice notes that the opposition's strength has increased over the past year and believes that its presence is an achievement.
Stuart Hensel of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit says the achievements should not be overestimated. The demonstrations in Minsk were not large enough to force the regime to change course -- and thus cannot be compared to the success of Ukraine's Orange Revolution. However, Hensel believes things may be looking up for the Belarusian opposition.
"It could be that the opposition has managed at this point to carve out a bit more room for itself within the Belarusian domestic political scene and this could be interesting to watch going forward," Hensel said. "I think Mr. Lukashenka is now faced with an opposition leader in Mr. Milinkevich, who is quite different than anything he has faced in the past."
Hensel says that Milinkevich, who was little known just a year ago, found more success in reaching out to voters than observers expected before the vote. The opposition leader is already creating a new political movement and cannot be waved aside easily.
However, Hensel says it does not mean that the opposition will be able to push Lukashenka from power in the future.
"It doesn't look like the opposition has sufficient strength in order to seriously challenge Lukashenka -- certainly in the next couple of months and potentially throughout the course of this [third] term, but what we've seen potentially is what we've saw in Ukraine four or five years ago -- is the growing size of the opposition's ability to mobilize and make it's voice heard despite extremely constrained political surroundings," Hensel said.
It would be an oversimplification to blame only Lukashenka for the state of affairs in Belarus. Hensel says the biggest problem is overcoming the lack of unity among the politicians in the Belarusian opposition. During the March election the opposition again failed to find common ground and wound up offering two candidates -- Alyaksandr Kozulin and Milinkevich.
Aleksei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Center think tank in Moscow, says achieving political unity is only a part of the problem the opposition faces. He says the provincialism of Belarusian society and it's isolation from the changes taking place in neighboring countries is the core of the issue.
"Belarusian society is provincial in character and in its political culture," Malashenko said. "One gets the impression that it [the society] is lagging behind [the neighboring countries] by some 10 or 15 years. It is not a fault but it is a disaster. It might look funny but it still lives in this Soviet-era inertia."
Malashenko says the majority of Belarusian citizens seem to be satisfied with the stability Lukashenka offers and are afraid of the uncertainty that follows change.
"As you see, we observe complete self-satisfaction," Malashenko said. "One gets the impression that for many [Belarusians] the main value is stability. People point to Ukraine, Russia -- some kind of demonstration taking place there, some kind of meeting; prices are going up, defaults happen. But here [in Belarus] everything is quiet and good. It is completely a trait of Soviet psychology [to be happy with what one has.]"
Meanwhile, Milinkevich is calling for an end to what he calls Belarusians' "slavery" to this kind of thinking, and says the protests mark the beginning of "a revolution of the spirit."
Milinkevich says this shift away from a Soviet mindset marks the greatest achievement of the recent protests.
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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