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BELARUS: Despite Crackdown, Opposition is Defiant

Robert Stefanicki

WARSAW, Jun 6 2011 (IPS) - President Alexander Lukashenko has locked most of his rivals in jail, but the Belarus opposition continues to work diligently to isolate the dictator.

The December 2010 elections left Lukashenko – president of Belarus since 1994 – at helm for one more term. But subsequent events have revealed how unpopular at home and isolated internationally Lukashenko really is.

On the surface, the president is on top. Courts have sentenced not only opposition leaders, but also scores of other participants in the demonstrations that followed announcements that Lukashenko had won the election with 80 percent of the vote. An estimated 20,000 disgruntled people assembled in the main square of the capital, Minsk, Dec. 19 – violence during these demonstrations is widely believed to have been provoked by Lukashenko lackeys in order to pave the way for a crackdown against his opponents.

By the end of May Lukashenko had settled scores with all his rivals. Eight men stood against him in the elections. One – Victar Tiareshchenka – was a stooge, standing solely to generate the illusion of a competitive election. Two others – Yaroslav Romantchuk and Ryhor Kastusiou – blamed the opposition for the unrest in Minsk, toeing the official line and saving their necks.

The rest of the candidates have been convicted. Mikola Statkievich and Dmitry Us respectively received six and five years in labour camps for “driving massive riots, that led to arson, property damage, acts of violence and resistance”. Andrei Sannikau is to spend five and a half years in prison. Uazhimir Niklayeu and Vital Rymashevsky received suspended sentences of two years.

Franak Viachorka, a young activist and son of veteran opposition figure Vincuk Viachorka, told IPS that in response to his “anti-state” activity he was expelled from university and sentenced to jail. Despite serious heart disease he was drafted to the army, where again he challenged the authorities – fighting for commands to be given in the Belarusian language rather than in Russian.

IPS also spoke with Ales Zarembiuk, a regional representative of the For Freedom Movement, a party set up by Alexander Milinkievich, one of the most outspoken opposition leaders. A victim of political repression, last year Zarembiuk received refugee status in Poland.

Viachorka and Zarembiuk point to three possible motives behind the recent crackdown. First is Lukashenko’s personal vendetta against people who dared to challenge him.

Second, they say this is an attempt to extract credits from Europe in return for the release of prisoners. This is a tactic Lukashenko used several years ago, with success.

Third, the activists say that the dictator is scared.

“Lukashenko is weak as never before,” Viachorka said. “After mass protests in December, he lost confidence. His confidants abandon him, though this process is not massive yet. Now he is losing more ground due to the economic crisis. He is like Muammar Gaddafi, but without oil.”

According to Zarembiuk, real support for the president does not exceed 35 percent. His followers usually come from villages and small towns. The young and educated are against him, but factory workers are divided, with most pensioners and people living in Soviet-style cooperatives backing him. “Those people have Soviet mentality, they trust in what state propaganda says, so they believe that the crisis is temporary,” Zarembiuk says.

The problem is a lack of clear alternatives. The opposition seems increasingly divided and terrorised.

Mutual trust is hard to come by, with accusations flying about which leaders are secret service moles. But, Viachorka insists this view is a convenient “myth” spread by those in the West who are seeking ways to engage with Lukashenko. “True, there are many [secret service] agents in the opposition ranks, but the current crackdown clearly shows who is who – the true leaders get harsh sentences.”

Now, Viachorka explained, Lukashenko’s opponents are looking for new leaders among businessmen and workers. “Our strategy is to weaken the regime by all possible means. Unions of the Electronics Industry and the MAZ car factory declared readiness for a general strike. The situation is slowly maturing to a peaceful revolution, which should start in September or October,” Viachorka predicted.

To help this happen, the opposition is urging the international community to increase pressure on Lukashenko. Mikola Statkievich during his trial appealed to European leaders: “Do not negotiate with the dictator.”

Europe is not sure how to react. So far 188 Belarusian dignitaries responsible for persecution of political opponents and for election fraud have been banned from entry to the EU and their assets have been frozen. There are ongoing discussions about imposing economic sanctions, but so far member states lack unanimity.

“In the last 17 years since Lukashenko came to power the EU tried different attitudes, from engagement to confrontation – none of them effective,” Zarembiuk said. “I think the West should not only slap further sanctions on, but also indict the dictator for his crimes. On the other hand, I am afraid that this move would prompt Lukashenko to sell Belarus to Russia.”

On Jun. 4, the Eurasian Economic Community, controlled by Moscow, promised the debt-ridden government of Belarus a grant of 3 billion dollars over the next three years.

“Alexander Lukashenko has been driven to the wall,” Stanislav Bogdankievich, former president of the Belarus Central Bank, said to the news agency. “Now he must fulfil Russian demands and privatise state companies.”

Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin declared that “in the next three years Belarus must privatise assets worth 7.5 billion dollars”. Russians want to purchase key Belarusian power suppliers, chemical companies and carmakers.

Opposition activists are afraid that the Kremlin plans to reintroduce the Russian ruble in Belarus, sealing the smaller neighbour’s vassal status.

“For Belarus, Russia is the number one danger,” Viachorka said. “This danger will remain in place even after Lukashenko is gone.”

The president is reluctant to give away his most valuable assets, knowing this would significantly weaken his position. He also knows that the Russian government is far from guaranteeing his stay in power. He has little room to manoeuvre.

The economy is in a pitiful state. A recent 60-percent devaluation of the Belarusian ruble has not helped much.

From January till the end of May, inflation increased 20 percent. Staples like flour and buckwheat grains have gone up in price two or three times. And due to lack of foreign currency, many companies have stopped production.

Not certain of a continued credit line from Europe, and distrustful of Moscow, Lukashenko is desperately looking for new sources of capital. It has been reported that he has turned to China for help and that they have promised him loans worth 15 billion dollars.

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