“Toward a Future Democratic Victory”
The Mobilization Campaign and Civil Society
April 22, 2003
Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, 1718 M Street, N.W., No.
147, Washington, DC 20036
Tel.: (202) 466-7105 • Web Page: www.idee.org • Email: [email protected]
Table of Contents
Introduction and Summary
Minsk: Civil Society
Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus
Mobilization Campaign (MK)
Belarus Association of Working Women (BAWW
Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ)
Belarus Association of Students
Independent Trade Union of Azot Enterprise
Ratusha/Belarus Association of Resource Centers
Local Party Organizations
Meeting of Civil Society and Party Organizations
Minsk: The Political Opposition
United Civil Party
Belarus Popular Front
Social Democratic Party–Karol
Concluding Meeting: Civil Society Center–Supolnasc
At the request of the Civil Society Center–Supolnasc, Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE) in Washington, D.C., and Miljenko Dereta, executive director of Civic Initiatives in Belgrade, traveled to Belarus from July 1–7, 2002 with the following purposes: (1) to help evaluate the Mobilization Campaign as well as other civic initiatives that were organized during the September 2001 presidential elections; (2) to assess the current situation; and (3) to offer assistance in designing future strategy using the support of IDEE’S Centers for Pluralism Network.
The delegation met with representatives of a wide variety of NGOs, independent media, and opposition political parties in Minsk, Grodno, Barysau, and Zodzina. In all, they had twenty-two meetings, involving more than fifty-five people from around thirty different national and local organizations, independent media, and political parties (see Appendix 1 for a List of Meetings).
The delegation focused its attention mostly on the civic sector, but it also met with representatives from the independent media and democratic political opposition. In addition to meeting with fourteen national organizations in Minsk, the delegation traveled to Horadnia (Grodno), Barysau, and Zodzina to meet with representatives of seventeen regional and local NGOs, party structures, and newspapers. While the one-week program did not provide enough time for a comprehensive trip to all regions, Mr. Dereta and Mr. Chenoweth were satisfied that the trip that was organized provided a thorough overview of the political situation in Belarus, the circumstances surrounding the presidential elections, the performance and capacities of the NGO sector and political opposition, and, finally, the challenges facing the civic and political opposition in the period ahead. The following is a report of the trip and our conclusions.
Belarus, located between Russia’s western border and Poland, is one
of Europe’s last dictatorships. Power is centralized in the hands of a
single ruler, Alexander Lukashenka, who has gained total power over the
executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The state’s
security forces are freely used to repress opposition activities. Information
is controlled, with independent media allowed only on the margins. Internet
use is widely monitored. The economy is equally controlled by Lukashenka
supporters or himself directly. The only serious threat to Lukashenka’s
power is Russia, to which Belarus is tied in a Union State. This entity
was first proposed by Lukashenka in 1996 as a means for expanding his power,
but while Belarus is formally an equal member in the Union, in fact Russia
dominates, especially through its energy conglomerates. Recently, Vladimir
Putin proposed — demanded, in fact —incorporation of Belarus as a virtual
republic of the Russian Federation. Lukashenka opposes this idea since
it destroys any lingering ambitions of becoming head of the Union State.
For now, the two states continue to negotiate further incorporation through
a common currency, the Russian ruble.
Belarus’s opposition to Lukashenka, while generally pro-democratic, is divided. The Belarus Popular Front, led by Vincuk Viacorka, is the strongest opposition party. Begun in 1988, it was the most important force behind achievement of Belarusan independence. Its platform, reaffirmed at a party congress in December 2002, is based on Western liberal values and strongly supports Belarus’s membership in NATO and EU. The United Civic Party, led by a prominent former deputy of Lukashenka, also promotes liberalism, but is strongly oriented toward Russia. Several parties call themselves social democratic. Two, the Social Democratic Party of Alaksiaj Karol, aligned with BPF, and the Women’s Party, led by Valancina Palevikova, merged in July but could not gain registration. The two initiated unity talks with the Social Democratic Party–Hramada led by Stanislav Shushkievic, which is already registered and can serve as an umbrella for the merged organizations. The united party platform identifies strongly with European social democracy. A fourth party, the Belarus Social Democratic Party–National Hramada, is led by Mikalaj Statkievic. This party is based more on the remnants of the old nomenklatura than the merged grouping. Other parties in the so-called “united opposition” include the Belarus Communist Party, the Liberal Democrat Party (based on Zhirinovsky’s party in Russia), and several other Soviet-era and Russian offshoots; none have any real base in Belarusan society.
There are two main axes of division within the opposition, one between new anti-communist parties and the older nomenklatura-led forces and the second between more pro-independence and pro-Western and more pro-Russian (or accomodationist) orientations. Western embassies and the OSCE have generally attempted to create a “united” opposition that includes all parties so as not to engender open opposition from Russia, but such efforts, especially in the lead-up to the September 2001 presidential elections, failed. They appear only to have impeded the creation of a more effective common opposition joining together natural coalition partners.
Belarusan civil society is developing only slowly and in the face of many obstacles. In the last five years, however, there has been a large increase in the number of NGOs. The Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus began with fewer than 100 members in 1998; in the summer of 2000, it had nearly 500; and its 4th Congress in November 2002 raised the number to 650. The core of civil society lies in the independence movement based in Minsk and major western cities like Horadnia, but it has expanded also to become a stronger force in Belarus’s eastern regions.
The presidential elections from September 2 to 9, 2001 were held in
a completely anti-democratic framework. Since a 1996 constitutional referendum
was adopted and Lukashenka supplanted a democratically elected parliament
supplanted, Lukashenka has since directed passage of a whole regime of
authoritarian laws and decrees that prevent any possibility for free and
democratic elections. In October 2000, a large part of the opposition boycotted
parliamentary elections since there was no possibility for fair competition.
In expectation of the 2001 presidential election, however, the opposition
decided to change tactics and to field a single candidate to compete against
Lukashenka. Also, the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus, at its
3rd Congress in December 2001, decided to organize an independent and non-partisan
Mobilization Campaign and Independent Observation Campaign for the elections.
However, the opposition parties did not easily agree on a unified candidate. After a complicated and seemingly contradictory process of selection, which many people perceived as the result — at least in part — of interference of foreign embassies, a former nomenklatura candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, was selected just three weeks before the elections. The selection of a septegenarian chairman of the official trade union confederation dampened the enthusiasm of many democratic activists for both the political and non-partisan civic campaigns. Regardless of the quality, the selection process left little time for an effective campaign.
Of course, the conditions were already stacked against any opposition candidate. The government established a seven-day voting period and, together with its control over all election commissions and limitation on independent monitoring, allowed the regime a free hand for manipulation and fraud. Election officials thus claimed an overwhelming 76 to16 percent victory for Lukashenka. Independent polls and observation of monitors and activists, however, indicates that the single opposition candidate obtained as high as 40 percent of the vote. At the very least, Hancharyk’s actual vote should have forced a second round of elections.
As for the Mobilization and Observation Campaigns, these succeeded in activating civil society, increasing turnout to an estimated 84 percent, and fielding thousands of monitors at a large percentage of voting precincts (despite the regime’s ban on 4,000 monitors registered under the human rights organization Viasna). Indeed, the disappointing political result as well as the disunity of political parties was contrasted by the unity and effectiveness of the civic movement, which, for the first time, carried out a national campaign that reached a large part of society with pro-democratic and anti-authoritarian messages.
The period since the elections, however, has been marked by heightened repression in retaliation for the opposition and civic election campaigns. There has also been an understandable decrease in civic activities compared to the summer 2001 campaign. There has also been disillusionment on the part of NGO activists over the disappointing choice of a former nomenklatura chief as the single candidate and the overall disunity of the opposition leading up to this choice. The MK and Observation Campaigns nevertheless showed a new capacity for civic organization, a capacity that has been reflected in different public initiatives since the presidential elections (the Kurapaty campaign, the defense of the sentenced editors of the Pahonia and Rabochy newspapers, the citizens’ commission on conscience opposing the new repressive law on religion, active participation in 2003's spring municipal elections, and many local initiatives).
Strikingly, most donors and Western representatives have had a different and less positive evaluation of the results of the elections. Their measurement of success seems to have been an unrealistic expectation that the united opposition candidate should win the elections if only because they felt there could not be a break in the last five years’ string of democratic successes against authoritarian leaders (Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia). There were active efforts to try to superimpose important elements of the Serbian success, especially in replicating the youth movement Otpor (Resistance), on the Belarus campaign. Western actors, however lost sight of the specificities that made up each civic and democratic struggle. In fact, conditions in Belarus were totally different — due to geography, history, social and civic development, lack of opposition unity, and, most important, the role of “big brother,” a factor no longer present in most of Eastern Europe. When Lukashenka did not lose in these elections, the Belarusan campaign was seen as a failure. One of the results of this judgement, based only on unrealistic expectations, has been a sharp decrease in Western support for Belarusan civil society, independent media, and democratic development since the elections. Much of remaining funding is being redirected away from important parts of the democratic movement in the belief that a new strategy is needed but without any clear partners.
The IDEE delegation traveled to Belarus to meet with a broad range of actors in the civic and political movement to evaluate first-hand the citizen mobilization efforts undertaken in the 2001 presidential elections; to assess the current situation; and to discuss means for assisting the Belarusan civic movement. These are our conclusions:
• Despite the disastrous outcome of the September 2001 presidential election in Belarus — and the ongoing disunity of opposition forces — the country’s civic movement united to successfully activate a significant part of society, inspire new civic initiatives, and convince people to make their voices heard in the elections. The Mobilization Campaign for the presidential elections established a new generation of support for democratic values and reinforced the commitment of the democratic movement to using peaceful, democratic means to end the Lukashenka dictatorship.
• The campaign helped NGOs overcome their insularity and to become more outward looking in their activities in the community — a necessary approach for any future democratic success. Although many activists and voters knew by the time of the election — or sooner — that there was very little chance of success, the Mobilization and Observation Campaigns showed great maturity in continuing the campaign based on its long-range goals of using the elections as a building block for future civic electoral efforts. Most participants in the campaign seemed to understand and accept it as an important investment in human resources for the future.
• Although international support helped to achieve much of these civic gains, the international community has been short-sighted in withdrawing funding of the democratic movement for the post-election period. There was an unrealistic belief that Belarus should follow in the footsteps of Serbia and other democratic successes. An artificially specified time for democratic victory seems to have been more important in measuring success than in achieving an actual victory. The international community’s response reflects a misjudgement as to how democratic change is achieved in authoritarian conditions as well as a mistaken evaluation of the results of the civic campaign, which in our estimate achieved concrete gains in the building of civil society and the increasing of social consciousness in support of democratic values.
• The direct interference of Western embassies and the OSCE in the political and civic campaigns was counterproductive and misguided. There were threats made that there would be a withdrawal of all support to civic and political campaigns if the real opposition went forward with its choice for a single candidate. This open blackmail resulted in the late selection of a weak nomenklatura candidate, Uladzimirz Hancharyk, whose former official union federation had no base of support.
• The international community should continue to provide support for building a social and civil base for a pro-democratic movement. Lessened international support together with heightened repression by the Lukashenka regime threatens the gains made in the Vybiray and Independent Monitoring Campaigns and any momentum for the next round of elections. Continued full support will heighten the possibility of future success, in the same way as the increased international investment in Serbia following the 1996-97 Protest Movement helped to fuel a new civic movement that formed the foundation of Milosevic’s overthrow in 2000.
• Independent media and information distribution is in serious crisis as a result of reduced Western support and increased regime repression. Western funders are abandoning independent print media and Radio Racja has already been forced to close. These decisions, and a new approach to support music stations having no information content, are shortsighted and ignore the lessons of how important independent media is in achieving any democratic success. A concerted independent information campaign is needed for Belarus to overcome the obstacles placed by the regime.
• While there is a strong natural link between the civic movement and some political parties, their closeness can become harmful to both, especially in maintaining organizational integrity and reducing the outreach capability of both sectors. The BPF, it should be noted, was the most important political supporter of civil society and many of its members are leaders and activists of leading civic organizations. There is nothing to be criticized in this and everything to be applauded that a political party understood the importance of building civil society. Nevertheless, it is essential for civil society to be independent and free of even the appearance of political control in order for it to make a maximum contribution toward social mobilization and democratic change. Political parties reduce their own effectiveness if they begin to use civic allies for their own ends (a phenomenon seen often in Serbia and elsewhere). Thus, efforts at maintaining a clear distinction between party and civic structures are encouraged.
• The Lukashenka regime should continue to be politically and diplomatically isolated. Legitimacy should not be a reward for longevity. At the same time, Europe and the U.S. must continue to engage with Belarusan society and offer opportunities for study and exchanges that will benefit Belarus’s democratic transition. The delegation encourages the Centers for Pluralism Network to engage fully with its partner, Civil Society Center–Supolnasc and to support its national efforts at building a civic movement.
• The Belarus movement is now walking forward toward Europe rather than looking backward at Russia. The question is whether the West, as seems to be indicated by many embassies and institutions, has changed its policy and now looks toward Russia as the hope for Belarusan democracy. Such a view is wrongheaded. In the current situation, Belarus democrats should be encouraged in their pro-Western orientation; Belarusan civil society should be engaged not only by Western donors but also by international and Western organizations and by counterpart NGOs and civic organizations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that have struggled successfully or are continuing their struggle for democracy. IDEE and Civic Initiatives are together committing themselves to try to provide just such support to their Belarusan colleagues.
• • • • • •
The first two days of the trip were spent entirely in Minsk, the second two in Horadnia (Grodno), Barysau, and Zodzina. In Minsk, we met with the following organizations and parties: the Civil Society Center–Supolnasc, begun in 1996 and one of Belarus’s most successful NGOs; the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus, which currently has 650 members from throughout Belarus; the Mobilization Campaign (MK) headquarters, the national coordinating office for the civic election campaign initiated by the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs; Djaryjus, an NGO that publishes a periodical on modern history sharing offices with MK; the Belarus Association of Working Women; the Belarus Association of Journalists; Rabochy (Worker) newspaper; the Belarus Students’ Association; and the United Civic Party, one of Belarus’s leading opposition parties. Eric Chenoweth also met separately with the Belarus Popular Front, the Young Front, the Social Democratic Party–Karol, the human rights organization Viasna, and the NGO Edukator upon returning to Minsk for two additional days.
The Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus, the Mobilization Campaign, and Supolnasc were the leading forces behind the independent civic election campaign. The chairman of the Assembly, Ales Bialacki, also headed the Independent Observation campaign, which gathered around 14,000 observers together for the election period; of these, 8,000 to 10,000 were allowed to monitor the work of precinct commissions on a limited basis. In meeting with all three organizations, both members of the delegation had a strong positive impression of the independent civic campaign that had been organized for the presidential elections, the campaign’s high level of competence and professionalism, and also its positive long-term impact in mobilizing civil society and introducing for people the idea that it was possible to do something — to achieve some change — through social and political action. This long-term impact was, in everyone’s eyes, considered a major achievement in the political and social conditions of Belarus, which has hardly known anything but dictatorship and subservience to political power for decades upon decades.
At the same time, one could not escape that the presidential campaign was clearly a significant political defeat for the democratic movement, with Lukashenka able to maintain and even strengthen power. As well, we heard a great deal about the disillusionment of civic activists with Western funders and embassies, which played such a positive role during the campaign in supporting civil society but which now, in significant measure, have cut and run from a more difficult situation than had been anticipated — instead of staying to invest in the democratic movement for the long-term. The investment made in civil society for the campaign remains highly appreciated, as is the ongoing work of some donors who continue their strong involvement in Belarus.
We met with Siarhiej Mackievic, chairman and coordinator of the Mobilization Campaign (MK), also called Vybiray! (or Choose!), Tamara Mackievic, the director of training, Vincuk Viacorka, former Supolnasc chairman and campaigns coordinator for the elections, and, at a later meeting outside Minsk, the regional coordinator. It should be noted that Mr. Viacorka is also chairman of the Belarus Popular Front, the country’s leading opposition party (see below).
In December 2000, the Third Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus adopted a resolution to initiate a civic campaign aimed at the 2001 elections. The campaign had two parts, Mobilization and Independent Monitoring; Siarhiej Mackievic was appointed by the Assembly as coordinator of the Mobilization Campaign (MK) and Ales Bialacki, the chairman of the Assembly, to head the Independent Monitoring effort. The MK also drew upon Supolnasc for its strength in training and coordination (it has twelve regional centers). The basic idea of the campaign, as with the Izlaz (Exit) 2000 campaign in Serbia, was to encourage greater participation of voters, especially first time and alienated voters. The campaign’s name “Vybiray!” (Choose!) also reflected the organizers’ hopes to encourage people to believe that through elections choice existed and change was possible. Simply changing people’s fatalistic perspectives was seen as a significant — and lasting — victory for civil society.
The first step of the campaign, and of the training, was to draw upon experiences of civic activists from other countries, especially Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine, for lessons for their own campaign. There was one three-day seminar in January involving activists from OK’98 and Rock the Vote in Slovakia, Civic Initiatives, Otpor, and others from Serbia, and the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, among others.
The second aim was coordination, but not direction, of activities. This meant bringing together as many organizations together as possible in the campaign, including more non-political NGOs, and encouraging adoption of similar themes for electoral participation and a common campaign logo for use within the many individual campaigns of different organizations that were being organized. In addition to campaign themes, slogans, and logos, Vybiray also offered a coordination center, technical advice, and financial support (where possible) for local NGOs to conduct local campaigns, for producing materials for national distribution, and for training opportunities. Overall, Vybiray supported more than 100 local campaigns involving around 200 NGOs. At the same time, there were a lot of decentralized local activities fully carried out by local organizations, but under the common logo and slogans.
Supolnasc’s Tamara Mackievic coordinated the training program. Supolnasc
organized 97 one-day trainings at 59 sites to educate activists on election
law, how to conduct campaigns, how to design a message and produce materials,
how to recruit volunteers, and other local topics. A total of 103 organizations
and nearly 2,000 individuals took part in the trainings.
Local Supolnasc centers, regional offices of the Assembly, and NGO centers were distribution points for nationally distributed election materials as well as production centers for their own local materials. The campaigns really got underway in June–July and continued through August. Certainly, Belarus had never seen anything like this explosion of civic activity. There was a series of more than 20 theme posters put up around the country, flyer and leaflet distribution campaigns explaining the importance of voting, and balloon, sock, t-shirt, bag, and button distributions with the main symbol of the campaign, an orange sun, and additionally, a black and orange hedgehog with the slogan “Defend Your Rights” (the hedgehog has national symbolic significance in Belarus). In addition, there were public events, rock concerts, local festivals with puppet shows, caravans with theater productions, youth walks, bicycle races, and numerous other events (see also “Election Bulletin of the Mobilization Campaign” in English, which describes the scope of the campaign in detail; for a copy of the booklet, contact [email protected].).
The overall perspective of the efforts of the Mobilization Campaign and Supolnasc is a highly positive one — even though the result did not bring about political change. While it appears that Alexander Lukashenka’s power and control over the state is undiminished, the campaign’s leaders believe that a new factor in Belarus society was created — thousands of active citizens. In the words of Vincuk Viacorka, "This is an invaluable human resource that cannot easily be destroyed by the regime."
What is the basis for this positive assessment? Certainly, these experienced activists do not ignore the political reality of the elections and their outcome, and especially the increased repression of independent media and civil society that has occurred in their aftermath.
One of the main measures of success was the turnout, which increased to 84 percent in an election largely seen as non-competitive. Surveys of first-time voters note a high percentage voting for the single opposition candidate — i.e. for change — thus indicating that the campaign’s message reached a large number of young people. From a long-term perspective, these civic leaders believe that the nationwide civic campaign mobilized for the first time a broad coalition of NGOs around common non-partisan, pro-democratic themes, successfully activating several thousands of people, mostly young, in open and public civic activity and fostering an activism previously not seen since the 1989–91 period. These leaders believe that the campaign established Belarus’s civil society as a clear pro-democracy force and also began to build the foundation for a solid bloc of pro-democratic voters, setting the stage for other pro-democracy initiatives and, it is hoped, victories.
Supolnasc’s leaders noted that the end of the campaign — and the results of the elections — were a distinct letdown for everyone active in Vybiray and the Independent Observation effort (see also below, for meetings with NGO Assembly and MK headquarters). While this is the case in any election campaign, there are special factors in the Belarus case.
In fact, there had been a difficult dilemma for everyone leading the campaign, since division within the opposition had made the prospect of political change highly improbable. In most of our meetings, participants made clear that many civic activists were in fact drawn into the political battle over the single candidate. Up until April 2001, it was hoped that the main political parties in the opposition — BPF, United Civil Party, Social Democratic Party–Karol, and two other social democratic parties — would agree on a single candidate. The leading candidate was the former mayor of Horadnia (Grodno), Siamion Domash, who had the backing of the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, which included the BPF, the SDP-Karol, the independent trade unions, and the NGO Assembly, among others, but not the UCP, another Social Democratic Party led by Mykolaj Statkievich, or others considered in the “opposition.”
At this time, external pressure forced the opposition to expand to include the former nomenklatura — the Communist Party, the former communist trade unions, and other more extreme parties — in the belief that only by including these ex-Soviet structures could Lukashenka be defeated. This “expansion,” however, complicated the selection of a single candidate. In June, a new process was agreed upon by which petition campaigns would be organized for different candidates to determine the level of support. Many activists from NGOs took part in this petition campaign on behalf of Domash, believing that he was not only the best candidate but the only one likely to challenge Lukashenka — if he could be challenged at all. However, the process suddenly changed to include three additional candidates, who would be chosen by “five leaders.” Despite the success of his petition campaign, Siamion Domash withdrew from consideration, convinced he would not be selected by the five party leaders. Finally, only three weeks prior to the election, Uladzimir Hancharyk, the head of the communist-era trade unions, was selected as the single candidate. By the time Hancharyk was selected, most activists knew that the message of their campaign — “choice” — was distinctly weakened by the late selection of this former nomenklatura figure. As a result, civic activists and leaders believe the gains of the campaign should only be seen in the context of a realistic, long-term strategy for change. It is for this reason that the overwhelming youth vote for change is seen so positively.
Supolnasc, thus, did not underestimate the difficulties faced in the post-election environment. Still, the election results, followed by a sustained wave of repression, have been disheartening for civic and political activists. The new pressure of Russia for making Belarus a virtual satrapy has further depressed pro-independence democratic leaders. Another post-election let down has been the significant withdrawal of support for civil society by Western donors, which has sent the message that victory in elections — not real democratic development — was what motivated their support. Because of the drop-off in support, many new activists recruited to the non-partisan (or even partisan) election campaign are at least temporarily dropping out, having no possibility for training or assistance in building longer term initiatives.
In this situation, what Supolnasc has done since the elections is to promote low-budget or even no-budget campaigns in response to social problems, education, the environment, and so on, that is, to continue to help people believe that it is possible to organize for change and that it is possible to organize on a national level for common goals without compromising the sovereignty of individual organizations.
Mr. Dereta saw several similarities in Belarus. His decade-long efforts in Serbia had a similar long-term strategy of fostering the development of a pro-democratic civil society as a key force in the campaign against Slobodan Milosevic and in bringing democracy to Serbia. Serbia also had a divided opposition with mixed democratic characteristics and a Western community that saw the need to intervene in the internal politics of the opposition and civil society. Mr. Dereta reminded participants in the meetings of the depressing failure of the Protest Movement in 1996–97, when for 100 days of winter hundreds of thousands of people came to the streets each day to protest the stealing of municipal elections. While ultimately these remarkable protests succeeded in forcing Milosevic to accept the election results, they fell short of achieving more fundamental change that opposition political leaders failed to put forward. This experience led many activists to recommit themselves to a civic strategy and to begin new initiatives and efforts that took advantage of the small gains made at the municipal level. Many young people especially became more active as a result of the protest experience.
At the same time, Mr. Dereta noted several differences in the situations of Serbia and Belarus. For one, after the failure of the three-month Protest Movement to unseat Slobodan Milosevic, the international community recommitted itself to promoting democratic change in Serbia, while in Belarus, notwithstanding some politicians’ strong statements, the West is failing to provide any clear re-commitment to pro-democratic forces following the “failure” of the presidential elections. Indeed, many countries and institutions have initiated efforts to end Lukashenka’s isolation and to re-engage the regime. Secondly, Belarus continues to have “Big Brother” on its border, a factor that is absent from most of Eastern Europe. This has contributed to the opposition division between pro-Russian and pro-independence forces and what appears to be a continuing Western strategy of favoring “pro-Russian forces” so as to appease Russian interests. For Mr. Dereta, an important difference was the lack of any possibility for a political foothold, such as the opposition-controlled Serbian municipalities starting in 1997, around which to promote independent civic and political activity. Indeed, despite the basic similarity in both countries whereby the regime allows a basic level of opposition or independent activity, the Belarus civic and political movements were operating in a much more pervasive atmosphere of repression, without any real islands of freedom (such as B92/ANEM or the variety of national independent newspapers and news magazines, limited freedom of assembly, local centers controlled by the opposition). This repressive atmosphere is increasing in direct relation to the Western community’s inattention.
Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus
We met with Ales Bialacki, the chairman of the Working Group (and also the chairman of the human rights organization Viasna), Iryna Vidanava, the international director, and Alena Valyniec, the executive director.
The Assembly has 500 members, which include both state-registered groups and initiative groups in the process of registration. Its offices are not prominent. The building is accessed through a back alley and one must travel up two long rectangles of stairs. There is no advertisement even on the door. Some Westerners have mistaken this for Eastern incompetence. The fact is that staff of the Assembly is under constant threat; keeping an anonymous profile is a necessary part of the job. Inside the offices, one sees a vital office of eight to ten people working on a variety of projects.
The Assembly has eight fields of activity, among them a youth campaign, an environment project, cultural and historical initiative, educational programs, NGO defense, and others. The meeting’s discussion focused on the post-election repression of NGOs and the consequences of the presidential elections, as well as the role of the Assembly in the election campaign itself. Mr. Bialacki noted that the Third Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus in December 2000 decided to establish the non-partisan Mobilization Campaign (MK) and Independent Monitoring campaigns. Mr. Bialacki, was chosen to head the Monitoring campaign and Siarhiej Mackievich to run the Mobilization Campaign. (The MK campaign is described above and below.)
The Monitoring Campaign was a complex initiative dealing with a set of legal obstacles for registering monitors and monitoring the balloting. Nevertheless, the Independent Monitoring campaign succeeded in registering an estimated 14,000 observers. The effort certainly counts as the largest single civic action in Belarusan history.
On the eve of the election, the courts struck down the validity of 3,000 monitors registered with the human rights organization Viasna. In this election, each monitor was listed through a valid registered NGO, since NGOs had the right to monitor elections. Viasna was targeted as the organization with the largest number of monitors and its registration was withdrawn. The remaining 10,000 monitors faced other insurmountable challenges in the monitoring effort. For one, the presidential elections were held over a seven-day period, September 2–9, making them virtually impossible to observe the whole time. In addition, throughout the election period, most monitors were denied access to the polling sites and could not observe the voting process, the counting of votes, sealing of the voting box, or determining whether the voting box was secure between voting periods. What monitors did observe, nevertheless, appeared to indicate widespread fraud and electoral abuse, including ballot stuffing for Lukashenka, false vote tabulations, and improper influencing of votes.
Mr. Bialacki is undeterred both by the regime and by negative foreign assessments of the Independent Monitoring Campaign. About the latter, he believes the fact that so many people were mobilized and trained and that they asserted their rights to monitor the elections was a significant triumph and a foundation for future campaigns. He plans to mobilize a smaller effort around the municipal elections now scheduled for March 2003 with the aim of instituting a permanent democratic monitoring of elections. He hoped to overcome the tactical problem encountered with Viasna’s monitors being deregistered through more diverse use of NGOs.
Mr. Bialacki considered the political campaign, on the other hand, to be a major disappointment and he felt the elections themselves were unwinnable in the end. He pointed to Lukashenka’s near-doubling of state salaries one month prior to the elections (they are not being paid, he said), the regime’s ability to control the election process, and the political campaign’s weakness. He contrasted this with the civic campaign’s success at mobilizing society — 14,000 monitors; 200 active NGOs; 300,000 newspapers distributed, etc.
As it prepared for its 4th Congress in the fall of 2002, the NGO Assembly was focused especially on increased repression of civic activists and independent media that has been wielded since the presidential elections. Among the cases it cited were:
• two editors of the Horadnia (Grodno)-based
Pahonia newspaper and the editor-in-chief of Rabochy being sentenced to
a period of involuntary labor for two years because of their reporting
during the presidential election campaign;
• deregistration of three large NGOs — the Belarus Students Association, the Youth International Center, and Vieza, in Brest — all due to small technical violations of spelling or inconsistency in its papers
• the denial of registration to many initiative groups after the elections;
• the dismissal from work of tens of people for MK or independent monitoring activities.
The Assembly’s NGO defense project has brought together a legal working group of lawyers active in defense of NGOs. (For example, it was supporting the Belarus Student Association’s attempts to re-register with a slightly different name.) The Assembly also communicates all information abroad to foreign organizations and donors. Assembly representatives are also attending court proceedings involving NGOs or NGO activists and assisting initiative groups in obtaining state registration.
A nationwide youth campaign of the Assembly involves 50 youth organizations to promote NGO activities and inform young people about what are NGOs. The campaign is taking place in 22 towns and cities. The Assembly also assists the Homiel “Let’s Clean the River” campaign and similar environmental initiatives. There is also a newsletter and email distribution list for ongoing information on the Assembly and its members.
One of the Assembly’s biggest initiatives is the Committee in Defense
of Freedom of Religion. An initiative of the Assembly’s 45-member Working
Group, representatives of all religious affiliations are taking part in
an information and advocacy campaign against the proposed Law on Religions
being put forward by the Lukashenka regime. The law would promote (Russian)
Orthodoxy at the expense of other religions that will be unable to fulfill
the law’s registration requirements for conducting religious activity (including
proof of specific numbers of adherents in all dioceses dating back to before
1991). The campaign successfully pressured the regime to postpone the law’s
consideration by the parliament from the summer to the fall session, a
major achievement (but not enough to prevent the law’s adoption in October).
This was considered a positive example of the impact of the nationwide
A major issue for Belarus today is its lack of membership in the Council of Europe (one of the last post-communist states not to be admitted). Mr. Dereta noted that the NGO community could take advantage of recent hints by Lukashenka of a referendum on CoE requirements for membership in order to promote those requirements’ full consideration (including abolition of the death penalty, establishment of an ombudsman for human rights, and so on). Mr. Bialacki was not confident that the CoE would be responsive.
Overall, the delegation was impressed by the overall competence and energy of the Assembly, its leaders, and activists. Mr. Dereta noted that the Assembly newspaper appeared too academic (in contrast to the English-language publication of Viasna) and perhaps should become more directed to a general audience. Mostly, what impressed the delegation was the undeterred spirit of the Assembly team and its determination to use all opportunities to promote democratic ideas and values, including through the municipal elections, which offered very little hope of electoral success but did offer an opportunity for again organizing people at the local level around very specific goals (registering candidates, campaigning, and mobilizing a monitoring and mobilization team). In their view, just this exercise of democratic challenge against the regime was worthwhile and showed a sophisticated understanding of the challenges lying ahead.
The monitoring effort was clearly a monumental achievement in Belarus’s conditions, despite some tactical errors. Clearly, future efforts should build on the strength of existing organizations in Belarus as opposed to establishing a separate, central monitoring mission.
Mobilization Campaign (MK)
We met with the campaign director, media director, director of the creative experts group that developed MK material, the training director, and coordinators for youth and women’s programs. We aimed most of our questions at the new participants in the meeting.
Vaclau Areska, director of the creative artists group and also editor of the Belarusan historical-cultural journal Dyjaryus, explained that the MK, or Vybiraj (Choose), campaign had to deal with certain basic premises: (1) the media was generally closed and television was an enemy, and thus alternative means of reaching people had to be found, and (2) in defining target groups, it should choose those groups that might be receptive to the campaign and design an approach that would be most effective. In doing both polls and focus groups, Vybiraj chose these targets: youth (who are the most open to change), women (who comprise 60 percent of the registered voting population), and the middle class (who are economically fearful). Women were a particularly important group because of their overall influence within the household.
For all three groups, it was determined that a positive message empowering people to think they could achieve change would be the most effective. The Vybiraj design group felt that a direct anti-Lukashenka campaign would be received negatively among most of these target voters. There were three aims of the campaign:
(1) to inform voters of elections and to encourage
them not to vote early but instead on the last day, thus reducing the opportunity
for fraudulent use of their votes;
(2) to encourage people to overcome fear; and
(3) to create a positive feeling toward the elections and the possibility of choice.
While many local groups were designing different campaigns, it was clear that they could not produce their own materials for broad use throughout the campaign. Vybiraj designed a series of logos, themes, and materials for use over the course of the campaign, including posters, stickers, postcards, t-shirts, flags, buttons, and informational handouts. Different materials had different targets: stickers on mass transportation, t-shirts, flags, and buttons at outdoor events or markets, and so on. Teachers were targeted for informational material.
The Belarus Association of Working Women, with 35 branches, joined the Mobilization Campaign with the aim of trying to make sure that women’s votes counted. Its primary goal was convincing women to vote on September 9, the last day of the election, so that their votes would not be stolen. Unfortunately, the BAWW did not succeed in establishing a broader coalition of women’s organizations. A poll indicated that 86 percent of registered women intended to vote and that economic concerns were the most important. But, while there were a large number of roundtables on the economy with representatives from different parties, no one could explain what they would do to fix it. (Miljenko Dereta described a successful election initiative in Serbia where the question “What would you do if you were president?” was posed to candidates, forcing them to make some answers.)
As a result of their activity in the Vybiray campaign, nine women, mostly branch leaders from the BAWW were fired. The BAWW is still fighting these illegal dismissals with the assistance of the Assembly of Belarusan Democratic NGOs. Overall, people are afraid of losing their job. “Fear rules,” said Iryna Zychar, vice chairwoman of BWWW. Now after the elections, there are only 29 active branches of BAWW and membership has dropped from 6,000 to 3,000. Still, BAWW carries out legal education for women, resolution of social problems in the region, creation of an information network for women. When asked if BAWW had appealed to any international labor or women’s organizations, the answer was no, since this type of action generally doesn’t generate any response internationally — or internally. (The lack of effective international solidarity was a theme repeated in other meetings.)
A great deal of the discussion centered on the lack of media coverage and that even independent, supposedly “democratic” newspapers demanded money for coverage, something that the campaign considered abhorrent and highly hypocritical for groups receiving foreign aid supposedly to support principles of the free press. A number of independent newspapers, however, covered the campaign and welcomed paid supplements. The campaign also tried to train people in how to obtain regional newspaper coverage, since these newspapers were not always as tightly controlled. Even independent newspapers, however, remained generally ignorant of the role of the civic sector and followed mostly the internal divisions within the opposition, not the more positive aspects of the civic campaign. This media’s coverage reflects the views of most opposition politicians who believe that NGOs are not important or necessary for democracy.
All of the civic campaign representatives considered the campaign a qualified success. Everyone knew that Lukashenka’s “victory” had placed the opposition in an even worse position than before, without an upcoming event around which to organize effectively. At the same time, these leaders believed that for the first time society had been successfully mobilized in an integrated, nationwide civic campaign and that this would serve as a foundation for the future. It was estimated that overall several tens of thousands of people participated at least once in civic election-related events. While distribution and door-to-door campaigns were a problem, they were overcome through creative public outreach.
Ms. Zychar considered the campaign a success from the standpoint of both the MK and her organization. She noted especially that activists learned how to organize civic initiatives on a single issue and were now capable of doing so on a nationwide level. She pointed to the Kurapaty Campaign, when Young Front and other youth groups, with support of many NGOs, acted to defend the territory where a mass grave of Stalin’s victims had been found from being used by Lukashenka for a new highway extension, as well as the more recent campaign against the proposed law restricting religious freedom.
During the campaign, Ms. Zychar described her constituency as being very hopeful until Uladzimir Hancharyk was selected as the single candidate. Going to different cities, each day she heard people saying that they were looking for the best candidate, not just a candidate to use in a no vote against Lukashenka. At the same time, everyone believed that Hancharyk — despite being the wrong candidate, despite his being selected late, and despite his (universally considered) poor campaign — did much better than Lukashenka’s claims and that instead of a 76 to 16 percent vote difference, the vote was more likely a range of 45 to 55 for Lukashenka against 35 to 45 percent for Hancharyk. These views are based on the opposition’s own polls and an election poll done by the International Republican Institute (showing the highest figures for Hancharyk). Still, in every meeting we had, there was no doubt that a more serious campaign and movement would have been built around a different choice who was not so tied to the old Soviet nomenklatura structures.
A final point: it should be noted that Supolnasc, the Assembly, and the MK all considered the other major civic initiative, that of the youth organization Zubr (Bison), while having some positive elements, was generally counterproductive to the Vybiray campaign and had no long-term perspective. Zubr was created with the idea of repeating the success of Otpor ("Resistance"), the youth organization in Serbia that had played such an important role in the fall of the Milosevic regime. The organization was born after meetings of some youth groups associated with the civic organization Charter 97 and Otpor. Zubr’s initial campaigns at the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001 were supported by a number of NGOs and were aimed at freeing imprisoned democratic activists and finding out the truth about abducted individuals who were believed to be killed by or in the control of the secret services. Zubr’s election campaign, however, was distinctly separate from the MK, its activists choosing the more confrontational and negative style used successfully by Otpor in Serbia. Its heavily negative anti-regime campaign was in stark contrast to the positive pro-choice approach of MK. In the end, Zubr’s negative messages had no real target at all and were used verbatim by the regime itself in order to discredit the MK and opposition campaigns. The main criticism of Zubr, however, was that it was artificially created organization built by Western donors around a romantic appeal and relying on paid activists to distribute materials. In the end, though, it was unsupportable because it lacked a true base. Unfortunately, many young people recruited to it, especially in the regions, have been left without any clear organizational structure or focus and there appears to be no long-term benefit to this large investment. These observations of the civic leaders were generally born out in other meetings during the trip.
Belarus Association of Working Women (BAWW)
The BAWW, with 29 active branches and a total of 35 branches in as many cities, is the most active independent women’s organization in Belarus. The election campaign had a major impact on the organization, with nine activists dismissed, six branches made inactive, and membership reduced from 6,000 to 3,000. One could not tell these losses by the leadership or its small, cramped office, which was full of activity and volunteers, phone calls, and ideas. In fact, the acting chairman said, there is no real reduction in membership or branches, only a drop in signed members.
BAWW’s main activities are:
• Legal Education for women on their civil rights, workplace rights, and family rights. There is a great deal of discrimination in the workplace and the taking advantage of women in the legal system generally. Legal education includes strategic planning on how to expedite appeals and workplace grievance issues (dismissals, underpayment, and so on).
• Resolution of social problems in the regions: this includes programs on alcoholism, crime, and other social maladies.
• Information Network for women’s organizations, established in cooperation with the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus, with the assistance of Supolnasc’s Siarhiej Mackievic.
The concrete success of the BAWW is limited. In nearly one -third of
families, women are the sole providers, yet their average wage is $3.00/day
— a form of “slavery” in the words of one activist. In no instance has
the BAWW been able to successfully defend women in the workplace.
Their urgent need is to organize a solidarity fund and to distribute worker rights brochures arming women with needed information at the workplace. BAWW also intends to organize a conference to promote women’s development of small businesses. The BAWW has a number of grants from outside funders, mainly to hold seminars and organize a legal information network. It also has computer centers for women, a women’s shelter in one region, and crisis centers. Its bulletin is circulated to a wide number of people. Its aims include a genuine civic newspaper for women and a civic education center for women focusing on youth.
The main thrust of BAWW was to encourage the general support of the civic movement, including in areas of NGO training, human rights, and exchanges. She noted that BAWW did not have contacts with U.S. organizations and was only in touch with one Dutch women’s organization. This was a common theme in many meetings: for all the supposed effort of international solidarity with Belarus, there is no concrete measurement of it in many areas.
Mr. Dereta, highly impressed by the energy, skills, and courage of this women's organization, has suggested a visit of Belarusan women to Serbia to help broaden their contacts, experience, and skills and is currently raising funds for that purpose.
Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ)
The BAJ was formed after Alexander Lukashenka was elected president in 1994 as an alternative to the officially sponsored Union of Journalists. It began with 16 members; today, there are more than 900 members organized in 25 regional affiliates and representing around 200 media organizations (including 25 or 26 that are state sponsored). We met with Zana Licvina, the chairman, as well as the director of the legal center, and a leading journalist of Radio Racja.
The BAJ has five priorities:
• Legal defense of journalists, which is carried
out by the BAJ’s law center;
• Creating educational opportunity for journalists (there is only one Soviet-dominated institution of higher education for journalism; many journalists have no formal training);
• Distributing information (through the monthly journal Abazur)
• Gathering information on the prosecution of media by the regime for so-called media violations during the election campaign (such as Pahonia and Rabochy). In these cases, BAJ is also assisting in the appeals.
• Advocates for media freedom in legislation and practice.
Recently, for example, BAJ opposed the proposed Law on Information Security, which was read and returned because it was even outrageous for the Lukashenka-controlled legislature (it included provisions promoting an information warfare against Western influences). At the same time, the Media Law was also never tabled, in part due to the BAJ campaign.
BAJ believes changes in Belarus are unlikely absent changes in the situation of the media, which is terrible and worsening. Currently, there are 40 independent newspapers and more than 1,200 registered periodicals. Combined, these do not have the circulation of Sovetskaya Belorussia, the main state-sponsored publication (its election issue print-run was three to four million copies, delivered free to every household (its theme: “[Western] Secret Services Against Belarus”). Proposed laws plan to wipe out even this level of independent media.
The BAJ presented four media conditions to the Council of Europe in January 2002:
• Conform Belarus’ media laws to European standards;
• Cease economic discrimination against independent media and establish equal economic chances;
• Privatize state broadcasting (according to a plan developed for a public service system);
• Cease government control over media organizations.
Disturbingly, we continued to hear that the independent media has remained substantially without funding since the presidential elections. BAJ said that there had never been such a dire financial and material situation for the media sector. Yet, foreign donors have become distinctly less generous. Right now, the independent press has no possibility to survive. Few even have internet access. In this situation, there are only Russian attempts to move in on the tabloid market. There has been no independent radio since the shutting down of 102.1 FM in 1996. When this station was reopened on short waves in Poland as Radio Racyja, this provided at least some independent broadcasting to complement RFE/RL (500,000 listeners out of a population of 10 million). It was closed after the elections when different international donors ceased funding.
The legal center has assisted in the Pahonia and Rabochy cases, as well others in which journalists are being charged with violations of the press law. These cases are extremely dangerous since they were based first on civil libel suits, whose decisions were upheld by the Supreme Court. Naviny (the continuation of Svaboda, first published in 1989) had to close due to a favorable ruling in favor of a plaintiff in a civil slander suit (see also below).
We met next with the editor-in-chief of Rabochy (Worker), Viktar Ivashkievic, who was facing a sentence of two years’ “deprivation of liberty” and “involuntary labor” following a court decision against him for “slandering the president.” He was appealing to the Supreme Court but did not expect to overturn the decision.
To add insult to injury, Rabochy has been forced to suspend publication due to a drop-off in Western contributions. Previously, it was funded with foreign grants and distributed by the free trade unions as its adopted publication. Unfortunately, the worker base is much too poor to consider a subscription campaign and the unions themselves have been cut off from Western support since the presidential elections, most notably by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center.
Rabochy had a normal distribution of 10,000–20,000 copies, with 5,000 sold and the rest distributed free to members of the free trade unions. It also co-manages a web site called www.praca.by in cooperation with the ILO. The original idea of Rabochy was that it would be funded out of dues, but this did not become effective. With a drop-off in support, Rabochy will be reorganized and more broadly distributed for sale. Ivaskievic will focus less attention to strictly internal union issues and more to general economic and political issues. Still, he hopes to have union investors (some unions may be able to fund it through dues) and to continue offering an information policy for the free trade unions.
Ivaskievic is a long-time activist in the dissident and independence movements and is also vice chairman of the Belarus Popular Front. After several unsuccessful attempts to protest the verdict, he began serving his sentence in December in Baranavicy city, Brest voblasc, where he is confined in an overnight detention facility. His involuntary labor sponsor it turns out is the editor of the local (independent) newspaper. According to RFE-RL, Ivaskievic was recently elected to head the “open-type corrective labor facility’s soviet.” While noting that the local self-government council’s powers were limited in relation to the administration, he noted that in his new capacity, he could give the prisoners “regular political briefings.”
Belarus Association of Students
We met with Volha Kuzmic, the new chairman of the Belarus Students Association.
The BSA was a participant in the Vybiray campaign and helped to coordinate the overall youth coalition within it. BSA’s main slogan was “What to Do? Make Your Choice!” used in a series of youthfully humorous settings that all led up to going to vote at the ballot box. BSA organized concerts and a series of events around the theme “State Exam 101 on 9/9" to emphasize the importance of voting on the last day of the election (another slogan: “if you come [to the exam] early, it doesn’t count”). For students, this was particularly difficult since the authorities required voting in the precinct of one’s residence registration, or “prapiska” (“propiska” in Russian). BSA set out to register students at their dorms so they could vote there, but the authorities then announced that the dorms would be closed on 9/9 and deans and rectors all publicly encouraged students to go home to vote early.
The BSA, one of Belarus’s oldest NGOs, is a non-partisan movement committed to principles of independence and democracy. Students, however, frequently asked BSA for guidance on how to vote. They did not wish to vote for Lukashenka but they considered Hancharyk (in his 70s) too old to represent them. BSA stayed neutral in answering the question but its frequency indicated that students were not happy with their choice. Although difficult to measure, BSA believes its efforts helped enhance the student vote and encourage voting on 9/9. But there were a number of students who were actually kicked out of the dormitories, had their scholarships withdrawn, or were summoned for “talks” with the KGB and otherwise blacklisted for voting on 9/9.
The BSA has been officially deregistered by the court after receiving five warnings (among others, for its protest of obligatory military service and for registering the wrong color background on its logo). The most recent case before the administrative court of highest instance was related to the elections (“causing unsanitary conditions with the spreading of stickers”). In response to being deregistered, it has already started the process of registering under a slightly different name that will still include BSA. It is being assisted by the NGO Assembly.
Its next steps include a Students Rights information campaign and assisting in crafting a Declaration of Students Rights; sharing experiences with other student organizations, especially through the ESIB (European Union of Student Organizations); preparing law students to protect students rights; reestablishing a student newspaper during elections and show the authorities that students are not afraid; and establishing a monthly newsletter. In addition to the student newspaper, its biggest need, however, is training for leaders and civic activists, especially given the mandatory change in BSA leadership every two years. Through ESIB, the Norwegian Students Union and the Students Union of Serbia are providing a series of trainings for BSA.
The BSA’s position appears somewhat precarious, its office hidden from view, and its new leadership struggling to deal with its legal crisis. Others expressed concern that the BSA might not survive in as active a form as before. This would be unfortunate in our view. External efforts to support BSA, such as the solidarity visits and training of NSU and SUS, should be encouraged, and other NGOs, including Young Front, the Assembly, and others, should support a campaign to revive the student association.
Edukator is an historical, political organization that emerged from the Belarus Language Association. It works to educate young leaders on organizational structure, on EU policy, leadership, local community action, among other topics.
A recent project supported by IDEE was to create four local libraries in private flats in local communities, which was organized with the support of young leaders whom Edukator had worked with earlier. The libraries were provided mainly political, economic, civic, cultural, and religious books. Discussion clubs and seminars will be organized around the books. His aim is to initiate four more local libraries in the next year.
Edukator was striking for the long-range approach of its director, Alex Stralcou. Based on his view of the current moods of society, he believed that political change would not come even in five or ten years. The opposition remains unclear and hesitant (he recently left BPF), media is totally controlled, and no alternative voices are heard. He believes Belarus needs a new idea to include more people or some means to be found to communicate to people on a broad level. While no situation is fixed and can change, there is a certain determination of events by historical, cultural, religious, and other factors. The economic crisis could change the situation. But it is hard to imagine the situation getting much worse.
Eric Chenoweth met with Valancin Stefanovic, Viasna’s vice chairman, at its offices. Viasna, begun in 1996, has grown to become Belarus’s largest and most respected human rights organization. Registered at both the local and national levels, Viasna has 17 branches throughout the country. Initially, it was dedicated to helping the unjustly imprisoned and their families, including organizing protests, but its work has expanded to broader human rights monitoring and analysis; legal assistance in cases other than incarceration (such as the deregistration of BSA); disseminating information about human rights abuses both in Belarus and abroad (through a monthly Belarusan, Russian, and English-language bulletin called The Right to Freedom, a bi-monthly Chronicle of Human Rights that is also published in Polish, an information human rights bulletin, and a three-language web site); education of young people on human rights; and practical human rights training.
As an organization with a national reach, Viasna was also the most active organization in recruiting and training independent election monitors, 3,000 out of an estimated total of 14,000 monitors. Unfortunately, the courts deregistered Viasna — and its monitors — for the elections, weakening somewhat the overall monitoring effort.
The Minsk office has two full-time lawyers, who assist in criminal, administrative, and civil cases. Viasna reported that many people who come to its offices are harassed, such as BSA members. Its publicity of this harassment — a tactic taught by Marek Nowicki of Poland — has helped in limiting the harassment. The worst human rights situation remains the cases of the disappeared. Regular demonstrations are organized in the center of Minsk and families are asking for an independent public commission to determine the fate of the disappeared. Viasna’s own investigations point to official involvement.
• • • • • •
In Horadnia, Belarus’s fourth largest city and the largest in the western region of the country, we met with the chairman and vice chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Azot Enterprise, one of the country’s largest enterprise unions; the leader of the Mobilization Campaign for the region; the Ratusha resource center; the Pahonia newspaper; and representatives from the regional coalition of parties (including the BPF and the three Social Democratic parties).
Independent Trade Union of Azot Enterprise
The chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Azot Enterprise, Siarhiej Antusievic, noted that the union had strongly backed the Vybiray Campaign, but his members could not accept why they should be expected to vote for Hancharyk, the leader of the official unions. He was a man who should go to pension, not run for president. At Azot, Hancharyk’s own leaders and members did not actively support him; the trade union chairman was absent all summer. Nevertheless, he considered the Vybiray campaign a success; at Azot, there was 90 percent participation.
Lukashenka pulled out all the stops to win, paying back wages and salaries, increasing wages and pensions, and so on. This worked for the most part. Workers knew they were being cheated but they still voted for what they knew. Free trade union members supported Domash and collected signatures for his petition campaign, but Domash withdrew after the appearance of new candidates and the decision to leave the choice to the “five nomenklatura candidates.”
Since (and during) the elections, Lukashenka has gone after the independent trade unions with renewed force, but also now has targeted the “official” unions as well, taking away their automatic dues collection. The Azot independent trade union maintains a membership of 1,000 out of 7,000 workers; it is one of the few independent unions with on-site recognition. All told the independent unions have around 17,000 members in four structures, the Belarus Independent Trade Unions (10,500), the Free Trade Union of Belarus (3–5,000), the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (2,000), and the Democratic Trade Union of Transport Workers (2,000). But these numbers do not include many supporters of the free unions who are frightened of joining.
Mr. Dereta’s impression from the meeting was that the unions, while appearing small, did not take advantage of their existing numbers to build greater strength out of fear of losing what they already had, an understandable phenomenon he saw also with the larger independent union in Serbia. The delegation agreed that the withdrawal of support from the ITU structures in Belarus can only harm their possibilities for survival and growth in the current conditions in Belarus.
Ratusha and Belarus Association of Resource Centers
We met with Alaksandar Milinkievic, chairman of the Ratusha NGO resource center as well as of the Belarus Association of Resource Centers. He also headed the Siamion Domash campaign office and led his petition campaign.
Mr. Milinkievic was decidedly less upbeat about the successes of the campaign and bitter at the externally driven process that forced his candidate, Siamon Domash, out of consideration. He noted that if success was measured on the issue of strength of opposition, the presidential campaign was a clear failure, since it left the opposition without any clear leader. Hancharyk, while staying in Minsk, has taken the position of vice-chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions for the CIS, while Domash has essentially dropped out of politics and probably could not return even if he wanted. Overall, political parties are weak and there is no normal political life.
In Milinkievic’s view, the elections were an opportunity to unite the opposition, an opportunity taken in the regions but not in Minsk. The single candidate should have been selected by the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, the main opposition coalition that included many of the parties, the civic organizations, and trade unions. In this council, where there were 15 votes, Domash received eleven to Hancharyk’s four, but the process was restructured around the “five candidates of the nomenklatura.” Despite Domash obtaining the largest number of signatures on his petition campaign, 160,000, this was ignored. The “five” went with who might have support from Moscow. The decision to back Hancharyk was depressing to all of the democratic groups that had gathered signatures for Domash. Hancharyk’s own campaign was terribly weak.
What were the lessons, in Milinkievic’s view? For one, the “opposition” overestimated the impact of Moscow. Also, the process reinforced the real opposition’s lack of confidence in its own forces. For its part, the U.S. became too focused on the single candidate and lost sight of the right candidate for defeating Lukashenka. But a two-candidate strategy, points out Milinkievic, would not even be considered. In reality, there was no way to have changed the outcome. But, as it was done, the opposition lost face and the trust of people, who have now turned pessimistic. A two-candidate strategy would at least have left one leader standing with some hope. Still, Milinkievic believed now that it was necessary to go to the local elections as “an opportunity to prepare a younger generation” and an opportunity “to present an alternative to the people.”
The Belarus Association of Resource Centers (BARC) has six ongoing Resource Centers in Belarus with the aim of promoting or creating civic initiatives in the regions. Ratusha itself is an information center offering internet access (including wireless access), computer use, and information resources on the Third Sector, including opportunities available among donors. It has a list of 2,500 non-registered organizations. In Milinkievic’s estimation there is now a “civic initiative” in every locality; still, the third sector is in a “ghetto” due to the limitations placed on it by the regime. There is a mixed attitude among donors about the efficacy of the resource centers, however some continue to provide support. Despite understandable bitterness over the course of the elections, Milinkievic, like other civic leaders, showed a coherent and cogent long- term strategy for bringing democratic change to Belarus.
Pahonia is the independent regional newspaper of Horadnia. As a result of the paper’s critical coverage of Alaksandar Lukashenka during the election campaign, its editor-in-chief and a leading journalist, Mikalaj Markevic and Pavel Mazejka, were accused of insulting the president and sentenced to 2½ years of “limitation of freedom and non-voluntary labor.” The charges were based on three published pieces: an article explicitly criticizing Lukashenka in relation to the series of disappearances of opposition leaders over the past two years; an anonymous poem in which Lukashenka is satirized; and a letter to the editor criticizing the president.
Pahonia’s editors and journalists considered the action against two of their own to be an affirmation of Pahonia’s importance as an independent voice and even of its strength. Pahonia has existed now for ten years and, according to Markevic, it can continue even without its chief editor and one of its leading journalists. The esprit de corps was real and the editor’s confidence in their colleagues’ ability was clear. So, too, was the commitment of their colleagues.
Throughout the country, people viewed the Pahonia and Rabochy processes as a serious threat to independent media in Belarus and a sign of a serious limitation of media freedom. The BAJ, the Assembly, BSA, Young Front, the BPF, and numerous local organizations all considered defense of the Pahonia and Rabochy journalists as a priority activity.
The cases have received international attention and many international organizations and individuals have sent protests to the regime. Markevic believed the sentences for him and Mazejka would have been worse without such protests. All three journalists began to serve their sentences at the end of 2002; Mazejka and Markievic were amnestied in the beginning of 2003.
Local Party Organizations (BPF, SDP–Karol, SDP–Hramada)
We met with around ten representatives of the regional/local party organizations of the Belarus Popular Front, its youth branch, and two social democratic parties, the SDP–Hramada of Stanislav Shushkievic and the Belarus Social Democratic Party–Karol (see also below a description of the major opposition parties). We were told that the Horadnia branch of the United Civil Party never attended any joint meetings and had not seriously participated in last year’s single-candidate coalition. In these activists’ views, UCP favored separate and often conflicting single party activities. However, the three parties represented at the meeting and the UCP had all supported Siamion Domash in the period of the petition campaign.
Horadnia is clearly the city most affected by the Domash campaign and where his support was strongest. According to the activists, including one of Domash’s secretaries, he collected 11,000 signatures in Horadnia City alone (among 220,000 voters). While he was not their ideal choice, all of the party representatives present looked to Domash as the candidate to bring change. From their point of view, the problem was not the single candidate but that the candidate changed and then that the Western countries insisted on a single candidate without considering the quality of the candidate. In the end, some of the democratic forces did not support Hancharyk. Those that did received no national campaign materials to use for the campaign, including for the final two weeks. The party representatives were split as to whether the loss in 2001 would have a permanent negative effect. The older representatives said yes, the younger ones displayed more optimism. One positive point that was emphasized by everyone, however, was that the parties worked together during the petition campaign.
The local representatives noted that no party has a national idea, nothing common to unite citizens. In this situation, the Lukashenka regime’s control over the information space means he controls the national debate. Only satellite dishes challenge his prevalence over ideas.
This city of 150,000 is located in the Minsk region, a little more than one hour outside the capital. Celebrating its 900th year, the city is festooned with celebratory signs and slogans indicating the city’s pride. But the city’s history is overshadowed by the Soviet period’s destructive industrial build-up. It is dominated by major construction and tractor factories; the downtown has few signs of Barysau’s history; shops and services are few and it was difficult to find even a restaurant of any type. Unemployment is high.
We met with ten representatives of the civic sector, media, and local parties, including the coordinators of the political and civic campaigns for the area. The political coordinator came from the Belarus Workers’ Party (BWP), a small postcommunist party that supported Hancharyk. What was significant was the willingness of all the participants to work together, including the Zubr representative. Indeed, Barysau created a single coalition called “Democratic Bloc”; the Zubr representative thought it should be replicated at the national level. At the same time the BWP representative said that the 1999 alternative elections — in which the opposition held alternative presidential elections on their proper constitutionally mandated date — had seen more overall (meaning national) unity among the democratic forces.
Barysau was an unusual community where a wide range of civic, political, and media actions was organized. Still, the representative of the women’s organization, a member of BAWW, had noted the continuing lack of human resources for the civic campaign, especially for the monitoring of the elections. The mobilization campaign (MK) coordinator emphasized the importance of the civic campaign to activate people in a positive way that could target groups for future activity. There were many civic education activities, especially targeted at youth. The political campaign distributed 50,000 pieces of literature and held a series of rallies, one for 4,000 people. It was considered the best campaign nationwide by the national MK.
The group split on whether they had achieved any success. The loss itself was sufficient for several to declare the campaign’s failure. Others noted the mistakes of the national political campaign in its drive for a single candidate, as well as the lack of a clear program. They repeated a refrain from our first meeting: that a coalition should first be built around a common platform and not around a common candidate. In the end, the group agreed that the campaign could not have succeeded since Moscow did not support the single candidate. The Zubr representative proposed as an approach organizing around clear social issues of common concern. He showed that in some areas, the organization had tapped into a group of active youth and that it was possible for this group to work together in a broader coalition. However, he admitted that at the national level, there was not the same willingness.
In Zodzina, a city of 60,000 located between Barysau and Minsk, we met with the group called Licviny (the name of an old Belarusan tribe). Housed in one room of a privately occupied two-room apartment, Licviny publishes a local information and political journal of the same name. It also organizes and supports a web site, a Knight’s (history) Club, a Video Club, an information bulletin for general distribution, as well as a youth bulletin and the educational paper “Filamaty.” There is no other independent press or source of information in Zodzina. Licviny also functions as the youth organization of the Belarusan Language Association (BLS).
Licviny’s plans included starting a series of computer classes and beginning a branch of the human rights organization Viasna. One of the organizers of Licviny worked as a bank clerk but was forced to leave because of her activities. (She came from Homiel, in the Chernobyl region, and left with her husband and son when the son showed signs of developmental problems.)
The organizer was active in the monitoring campaign at both the Zodzina and national level. As with other activists, she said it was possible Lukashenka had gotten slightly more than 50 percent, but certainly not 80 percent. There were posters hung at every workplace and residence instructing people to vote before 9/9. Guards prevented students from entering dormitories until they showed that they had voted. When asked if the campaign was successful, there were a number of responses: that the parliamentary election boycott campaign of the previous year was more successful (since elections were not held); that two weeks is not enough for a campaign especially when the candidate has no name recognition in the regions; that people do not trust the official unions. Licviny activists said there was hope with Domash, but not with Hancharyk.
The surroundings of Zodzina and Barysau make one recognize the enormous hurdles that confront the opposition — and Belarus. The atmosphere of unchangeability and stagnation is palpable; the old Soviet buildings and infrastructure are omnipresent, making organization even more difficult. And there is no sign of even the faintest independent economic activity in such places. The organizer listed additional but related problems of the area: a high rate of crime; a high rate of unemployment because of downsizing at the three main factories (a textile plant, a metal factory, and a truck assembly plant); no free trade unions to counter the management’s actions; a population mainly of transplanted villagers, without any elite; among others.
In this context, the energy and dynamism of Licviny’s activists — a half-dozen were present for our meeting — are remarkably impressive. For each, their activity in Licviny was what was natural, not the otherwise clear passivity of the area. They rely on their own resources, work in their own apartments, and make the most of any support they receive. In conditions of poverty, they somehow always appeared rich in human energy and riches. Mr. Dereta saw a similarity between Licviny and many groups that Civic Initiatives worked with throughout Serbia, groups that in his view were, while generally unrecognized by most Western institutions or media, were the real base of the October 5 revolution.
The Political Opposition
Mr. Chenoweth met separately with three leading parties in the political opposition, the United Civil Party, the Belarus Popular Front, and the Social Democratic Party–Karol (now united with two other social democratic factions into one main United Social Democratic Party–Hramada).
The political opposition under Lukashenka’s regime is both highly diverse and divided. Lukashenka’s rejection of most aspects of Belarusan independence has made defending Belarusan independence a main part of the opposition. Lukashenka’s highly personalized style of rule — based on a “kolkhoz mafia” dating from his days as a state collective farm manager in the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet era — has alienated all institutional sources of power except the state security, the army, and the main levers of the economy.
Within this situation, the opposition has two main poles, one being along an anti-communist- former regime axis and the other being along a pro-Western, independent stance and a pro-Russian semi-independence orientation. The former regime, pro-Russian axis includes the Communist Party, the Labor Party, and other offshoots of the Soviet-era system, including the former official trade unions. These forces were considered crucial by Western embassies and institutions to the 2001 strategy of using the presidential elections to unseat Lukashenka, but, in the observation of BPF leader Vincuk Viacorka, the election campaign showed these institutions to be “completely sterile.” This view was universally shared among everyone we met—including by the Barysau campaign director who came from the leftist Belarus Labor Party. There is no sign, in fact, to lead one to think otherwise.
The non-regime, anti-communist, pro-independence opposition axis includes the pro-Western Belarus Popular Front, the now United Social Democratic Party–Hramada (including the Palevikova Women’s Party, the SDP–Karol faction, and Shushkievich’s SDP–Hramada), and the Green Party, among a few other small parties. It also includes the 650-member Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus and independent trade unions. The non-regime, pro-Russian opposition grid is filled mostly by the United Civil Party, but this party in fact crosses different poles, sometimes joining the more pro-independent Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces (KRDS) but sometimes also leading a so-called broader coalition under the Advisory Council of Opposition Parties, which includes the former regime, pro-Russian parties but generally not those in the KRDS. Other parties that cross the former regime, pro-independence, and pro-Russian grids could include the SDP–Narodnaja Hramada, led by Mikalaj Statkievic.
Bringing the different opposition parties together in a joint coalition uniting all four axes has been highly problematic. The stronger core opposition parties (BPF, UCP, the social democratic parties), and some other parties and civic groups — 15 in all — have worked together in the framework of the KRDS, which was formed in 1996. During the presidential elections, a “larger” coalition including the former regime parties was formed to select a single united candidate, but dissension caused this coalition to revert to a smaller group based on the “parties” of the 5 main presidential candidates (this included the former Soviet trade unions of Uladzimir Hancharyk). This group of 5 finally chose the single candidate. Since the election, the KRDS has reemerged as the main expression of pro-democratic voices, but there is also still an effort to rebuild the broader coalition, centered on the Advisory Council of Opposition Parties, which was formed with support of the OSCE advisory monitoring group in 1999.
Eric Chenoweth met with the UCP, BPF, and SDP–Karol (soon-to-be SDP-United) parties.
United Civil Party (Anatoly Liabedzka)
Nearly all of Belarus’s political parties are associated with individuals. Anatoly Liabedzka, an original ally and associate of Alexander Lukashenka, broke with Lukashenka — or was broken with — a year or so after Lukashenka became president. The United Civil Party which he joined in 1996 was successful in the 1996 parliamentary elections, the last semi-free elections (gaining 21 seats on the basis of 12 percent of the vote, or “1 million voters”). From this election success, it claims to be the most important opposition party. Traveling outside of Minsk, it is hard to see evidence of this (from our observation, the Belarus Popular Front must be considered the more active and well organized, even if the most harassed, of the democratic parties).
Liabedzka is an experienced politician with a strong presence. He claims the mantle of liberalism for the United Civil Party and speaks some of its language. In the belief that the opposition should be constructive and disprove the authorities’ claim that it is destructive, the UCP has written numerous opposition platforms on the economy, budget, pensions, and so on, using its strong collection of economic experts. (The BPF agreed that UCP had the strongest collection of economic experts among opposition parties, while Liabedzka said that BPF had the stronger social, cultural, and administrative program.) The authorities “lost” all of its platforms submitted to the government and parliament for consideration.
Liabedzka said that the next step was to show people there is an alternative platform, to write something in understandable language and purchase supplements in the major papers for distribution in 500,000 copies (this appeared highly unlikely given the state’s dominance over the media). The second priority was to create a coalition for the local elections in March 2003. He said this was being discussed through the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces (KRDS), but he also indicated he would also form a new broader “opposition roundtable” of six parties, meaning the Advisory Council of Opposition Parties.
Altogether, Liabedzka laid out a complicated string of scenarios, which appeared to be leading him to run a separate UCP campaign in the local elections but it depended on where UCP was strongly organized or not. Where it is strongly organized, UCP will go alone or act as leader of a coalition. Where it is weak, it will go as an equal in coalition (i.e. with KRDS). It will likely push regional coalitions. This type of scenario was foreseen in the opposition roundtable statement, but it was something that other parties looked negatively at, simply as a means for UCP to try to gain an upper hand instead of working in a coalition.
Liabedzka noted that NDI (National Democratic Institute) and IRI (International Republican Institute) are carrying out strong training in support of coalitions. But clearly, it had not taken hold yet with the UCP, since Liabedzka was continuing to play his double role, one as leader of the “liberal Belarusan opposition,” which he presents to Western Europe and the U.S. (UCP is an observer in the European Democratic Union), and the other as leader of the “pro-Russian opposition,” which he presents to Russia. Even from his days as a Lukashenka ally, Liabedzka was known for his pro-Russian leanings and his liberalism has always been related to Russia’s liberal groups and oligarchs. Currently, he is most closely tied to Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov but he is also frequently travelling to Moscow to meet with high Unity Party and Putin Administration officials in high visibility events. Liabedzka does not hide his preferences and makes clear his view that any democratic Belarus will depend on Russia. He argues that he is “creating a pro-Belarusan lobby in Russia” and using Russia “as a positive force.”
Liabedzka’s pro-Russian viewpoint is not widely accepted among democratic opposition parties, indeed not at all. Other core opposition parties view Russia more suspiciously as a former occupying power that is attempting to dominate Belarus again through geography, energy, and overall bullying. Only former nomenklatura parties would coalesce in a pro-Russia platform (and not all of them). In truth, UCP has rarely worked together in the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces (KRDS). Recently, however, it appeared that Liabedzka’s efforts at creating a “pro-Belarusan lobby” in the past year has had some effect in Russia when the transcript of a conversation between Liabedzka and Boris Nemtsov was released by the Belarusan authorities. In the transcript, Nemtsov indicated that Russia would rely more on the “pro-Russian opposition” than on Lukashenka. The transcript, which has not been denied, made it appear that Liabedzka was angling to succeed Lukashenka with Russian backing under a new Russian policy of dominance, since it was released around the time of Lukashenka’s strong resistance to Putin’s “takeover” proposal to make Belarus another region of the Russian Federation.
Liabedzka has a relatively strong opposition party with a relatively strong pro-liberal platform; UCP cannot be discounted. His pro-Russian strategy could potentially benefit a united opposition. It would thus be a shame for Liabedzka to go down a solitary path of opposition or limit himself to an ineffective pro-Russian coalition strategy, which proved so disastrous in the 1991 presidential elections. Many UCP members disagree with Liabedzka’s recent actions and some leaders recently stepped down. Others are attempting to maintain a balance between a pro-Russia policy and a pro-Western ideology. It is unclear whether such a balance can be struck.
Belarus Popular Front
I met with two deputy chairmen, Halina Siamdzianava and Jury Chadyka, of the Belarus Popular Front. We were joined during the meeting by the chairman, Vincuk Viacorka. As well, I met later with representatives of the youth organization, Young Front (see below). The meeting was held one day before Mr. Chadyka was seized by police to serve a 15-day sentence for participating in a demonstration for the disappeared.
The BPF is the oldest pro-democratic opposition political force in Belarus. It was formed in 1988 as a popular movement in the times of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Similar to Popular Fronts in the Baltic States and several other republics of the Soviet Union, the BPF had as its aim the reestablishment of Belarusan statehood and independence. In this struggle, it promoted a joint program of democracy and reestablishment of independence, including reestablishment of important aspects of national heritage, such as the Belarusan language and state insignia, teaching of Belarusan history, and restoration of Belarusan culture.
The BPF gathered together Belarus’s leading pro-democratic dissidents and had the only clear pro-democratic platform during the period of the Soviet collapse. In the first democratic elections in Belarus in 1990, its members obtained a substantial number of seats in parliament, although not as a political party. These members were able to promote a number of basic laws strengthening Belarusan statehood and basic democratic institutions. But in the 1994 presidential elections, the BPF’s initial leader, Zianon Pazniak, lost badly to Lukashenka.
Following the 1994 elections, the BPF decided to strengthen its political party (which was established in 1993) as a separate organization from the BPF movement. But it suffered from erratic leadership and also was prevented from competing freely in the 1996 parliamentary elections. Pazniak emigrated to Poland and later the United States in 1996, saying he feared for his life. He caused some division within the party by trying to continue leading it from abroad. In 1999, the BPF congress elected Vincuk Viacorka, a Soviet-era dissident and BPF founding member, who was well known not only for his pro-independence activities but for his promotion of civil society (he was founder and chairman of Civil Society Center–Supolnasc and an initiator of the Assembly of Democratic Belarusan NGOs). Under Viacorka, the BPF has stabilized its national and local structures and has reemerged as the leading opposition force in Belarus.
The BPF remains both a popular movement and a party. Today, there are 2,000 registered members of the party and 5,600 members of the movement. This is a significant achievement considering that belonging to an opposition party can result in a lost job or benefits, but it still represents a considerable drop-off in combined membership from 1994. The two structures emerged in 1993 so that the popular movement could focus on the common goal of restoring Belarusan independence, while the party could define more partisan goals and participate in politics. In fact, the two are closely linked, with identical programs. Many individuals join the movement to avoid the consequences of joining a party. The movement, however, has a broader membership that includes members of several different parties (including on its national council).
The BPF has made a strong effort to build its local structures despite the difficulties posed by the Ministry of Justice in registering local organizations. It was noted that BPF members were taking part in NDI training on local organization and pre-election campaigning. The local structures try to establish the possibility for people who do not join the party out of fear doing by creating volunteer activities. The sources of party financing are weak and many members who left for business, including former MPs, are not providing help to the party.
The BPF put forward Belarus’s first private property law in 1991, as well as laws on education reform, elections, privatization, and military reform. The economic-social programs of the BPF and UCP are similar, with BPF being more oriented toward Christian Democratic parties (as in Germany) and the UCP being more strictly liberal on economic matters. The main difference between the parties is in their geographical orientation, UCP being oriented toward the Russian “liberal” oligarchs, and BPF to the European Union. BPF, expecting that economic-social changes will be necessarily painful, reserves some role for the state during the transition, including to create a large program for training and education of workers to reorient to the new economy. Its new program, however, adopted by a congress on Dec. 1, 2002, is much more liberal in its economic chapter, making it closer to UCP. It also has put forward a proposal to Western countries to expand educational opportunities for young Belarusans in the next period so that they can bring back the knowledge, training, and experiences of the West to their country. BPF has prepared legislation in areas of reforming police and security structures, the army, state and local administration, elections, privatization, and other broad areas of economic, social, and state policy that it had pushed or enacted prior to 1994. All of these programs are prepared for quick enactment in any transition period.
BPF put forward a “Program for Belarus” before a meeting of the 13th Supreme Soviet (the parliament dissolved illegally by President Lukashenka in 1996). It was considered under the chairmanship of Hanchar, but when he was kidnapped, the Supreme Soviet, which until then had attempted to meet despite Lukashenka’s actions, fell apart. For the presidential elections, only a brief one to two-page general document was adopted that did not provide voters a serious alternative to Lukashenka. This was due mainly to the inclusion of the former Soviet-era structures, none of which had been in open opposition to Lukashenka previously, in the “single candidate” strategy pushed by Western governments.
The BPF, like the UCP, is pushing for participation in the local elections, despite the fact that these elections will be held under worse circumstances than the presidential elections and any success will be mitigated by the weakness of municipal councils in determining policy (indeed, the state administration controls all local media that comes under the umbrella of the councils). The main aim of the opposition parties in participating in the elections is to take advantage of an opportunity to popularize the party, to educate voters about the possibility of an alternative to Lukashenka, and to further promote the idea of change through peaceful means.
The Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces (KRDS), the main opposition coalition, has agreed to joint participation in the elections. However, Anatoly Liabedzka, leader of the UCP, has used the more pliable Advisory Council of Oppositional Parties that includes former Soviet-era structures to declare neutrality on the issue of joint participation in the elections. It is unclear what the UCP’s aim is at present, except that it is trying to position itself as the sole significant opposition to Lukashenka with ties to Russia. What BPF leaders point out is that Liabedzka’s switches are nothing new and that in 1994 his Democratic Political Club avidly supported Lukashenka and Lukashenka’s pro-Soviet platform. While the BPF continues to seek a modus vivendi with UCP in a united opposition to Lukashenka, it feels it is more important to create a stable opposition coalition force that can go into the local elections — and further political action — on a common platform and common strategy.
The Young Front is Belarus’s most dynamic youth organization. Eric Chenoweth met with the vice chairman responsible for international relations, Andrei Dzenisevic and two members of the executive board. Young Front has a membership of 2,000 base activists and claims several thousand more supporters in 80 branch structures throughout Belarus. While formally it is the youth wing of the BPF, and many activists in the regions regard it as such, a significant part of the Minsk leadership views the Young Front as separate. In many ways, Young Front acts autonomously and is considered a distinct political movement in its own right (Nasa Nitva writes that it is Belarus’s “fifth political force” behind the president, the parliament, and the two main opposition parties). This creates some friction with the BPF, especially the current Young Front leadership’s belief in a clearly “Christian Democratic” party, meaning a pro-Catholic religious orientation, a stance that goes against the secular and inclusive values of BPF. Despite this friction, there is mostly a creative dynamic between the adult and youth wings.
Young Front received very little support for its electoral efforts in contrast with Zubr, nevertheless it claims to have been more active in the presidential campaign. Each of its structures organized creative GOTV activities; as a result of its campaign, it had 8,000 new applications for membership.
Since the election, its main campaign has been “Belarus to Europe.” Supported by the Youth Wing of the European People’s Party, Young Front carried out a campaign over a three-month period from February 14 to May 14, 2002. In this time period, events were held in 114 towns and villages that included meetings with European officials, the Polish ambassador, and others. Young Front’s single mass action for this campaign was dispersed, with many arrests. The campaign will continue as an ongoing part of Young Front’s activities and the slogan will become part of the opposition’s platform. During the campaign, polls were taken that showed that young people highly identified themselves and Belarus with Europe as opposed to Russia.
Young Front also began the Kurapaty campaign that stopped bulldozers from carrying out President Lukashenka’s plan to pave over one of Stalin’s most gruesome burial sites with a major state road. Maintaining Kurapaty as a national memorial — it is the site where the remains of 100,000 to 200,000 executed victims of the NKVD, including much of Belarus’s lost intelligentsia, are buried — was a major issue in the rise of the BPF. Lukashenka’s attempt to bury it had major symbolic intent. The Young Front organized a youth coalition with Zubr, the Greens, and the Belarus Freedom Party, backed with strong organizational support of the BPF and the Assembly, to keep a 24-hour vigil over the site. There were arrests and beatings by state police, an attempt to set fire to the tent city, and provocations organized by the regime using gangs of pro-fascists. After more than three months, however, the Council of Ministers acknowledged the existence of Kurapaty as a grave site of 100,000 to 200,000 NKVD victims and agreed to pass a law protecting the land from being disturbed. It was one of the most significant victories of the opposition in the last several years.
Young Front was beginning a new campaign, again aimed at a positive message to young people, called “I Love Belarus.” The campaign uses the famous heart symbol to signify “love” to build on the Belarus to Europe campaign, promoting positive feelings among young people toward their country just as in other countries and hoping also to promote positive feelings in favor of independence. It is intended as an ongoing three-to-four year campaign building toward the next national elections. Another area of strong activity is the arrest of Pavel Mazejka, who is a member of Young Front. It has organized protests and petitions around Pahonia’s two editors’ sentencing and subscription drives for Pahonia. It is also trying to assist the Belarus Student Association in its registration struggle.
Social Democratic Party–Karol
Alaksiaj Karol is a leader of one of several factions calling themselves social democratic. Like Vincuk Viacorka, he is a political figure with a clear identification with European political values and a high degree of knowledge and understanding of European politics. His analysis of the presidential elections and their aftermath was precise: the choice of Hancharyk by the so-called “five candidates” proved an enormous failure for the opposition and the parties making up the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces. He believed that allowing the former nomenklatura groups to influence the decision in favor of the official trade union chairman had deprived the opposition of building support around a serious leader who could bring together the opposition as a national bloc into the next elections. As a result of this mistake, the opposition is farther away from a critical situation that might allow real struggle with Lukashenka.
Karol (who worked in the Institute of History of the Communist Party of Belarus until 1990) believes that to reach such a critical stage will require a push from outside, as in periods like 1905, 1917, and 1985-1990. Even so, it is up to the opposition to create a step-by-step strategy through first local, then parliamentary, and finally presidential elections. He thinks this strategy will be more successful if the current nomenklatura sees that Putin and the U.S. no longer support Lukashenka. What is more necessary is to prevent a “next selection” after Lukashenka being taken without the clear wishes of the Belarusan people expressed through elections.
He reviewed the current situation of the political opposition. The strongest party, he stated, is the BPF. It has the largest membership, strongest national and local structures, general public support, and most defined program. He praised Vincuk Viacorka’s efforts to build a strong opposition coalition and to build a strong social movement for democracy. He noted that BPF, in fact, was not a party until 1994, until then relying on its position as a national movement. Even then, it could not compete in the 1996 elections and thus was not represented in the 13th Supreme Soviet. The UCP and SDP–Narodnaja Hramada factions had 21 and 17 members, respectively in that parliament. The UCP is clearly the second most important party, but it does not always act in coalition. The Social Democratic Party–Narodnaja Hramada (which united the Party of People’s Consent and the Belarus SDP–Hramada) is led by Mikalaj Statkievic. A second party was formed from a rump SDP–Hramada and was led by Stanislav. Shushkievic, the university professor who was independent Belarus’s first post-Soviet president. His party is often referred to simply as the Shushkievic party and today has few members and weak national and regional structures. Finally, the Women’s Party of Valancina Palevikova, known mostly as Hancharyk’s campaign manager, regards itself as social-democratic, too.
Lukashenka also made attempts to create a “social democratic” party on the basis of the Party of People’s Consent faction, but it does not function, with Lukashenka preferring to rule without parties. Other pro-Lukashenka parties include the Labor and Social Justice Party, based on the Society of the Handicapped, which also hardly functions.
In December 2000, Karol led a split from the SDP–Narodnaja Hramada after Statkievic defied the majority in the party and in the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces to break the boycott of the parliamentary elections. Karol viewed this action as reflecting Statkievic’s general authoritarian behavior within the party. He also considered other actions of Statkievic to be detrimental to a united opposition and counter to a social democratic party. The new party, the Belarus Social Democratic Party, became known as SDP–Karol. Its main aim, however, has been unification with other social democratic parties.
Soon after the presidential elections, SDP–Karol’s Congress adopted a call for unity platform that was supported by both Shushkievic (whose party was losing members) and Palevikova. The unification with Palevikova’s Women’s Party took place in July; early in 2003, Shushkievic finally agreed to unification after the new party of Karol and Palevikova was denied registration. In Karol’s view, this strengthens the effort to create a serious anti-Lukashenka coalition and to isolate those political forces that serve to divide the opposition. In his view, the Advisory Roundtable strategy of Liabedzka is counterproductive, especially because it is unsuccessful. The two main parties it hopes to include in the opposition, the Communist Party–Kalakin and the Buchvostau’s Labor Party, refuse to adopt any strong statements. They even refused support of creating local coalitions for the local elections. (Meanwhile, Statkievic announced a “left coalition” with Buchvostau and Kalakin, but then Kalakin finally refused.)
The West has generally tried to create a larger opposition and it has looked at any attempt at unity positively, even when none existed. This was the case with Statkievic’s claims of Social Democratic party unity or with the general claim of Liabedzka of opposition party unity. These attempts go back to before the parliamentary elections, when the OSCE Advisory Monitoring Group pushed for the creation of the 8-party Advisory Council, and later with other ineffective coalition attempts like Campaign 2001 and New Belarus.
By contrast, Karol believes that the KRDS (Coordinative Council of Democratic
Forces) has shown that it is a real coalition and a stable pro-democratic
bloc. The united SDP, with the likely head being Shushkievic but with Palevikova
and Karol as vice chairmen will benefit this coalition; Liabedzka, meanwhile,
must decide if he wants to play with a new coalition that won’t work or
recommit to a working coalition in KRDS. But, “we must form a real coalition
bloc with or without the UCP.” If UCP does not agree to such a bloc at
first, he believes its local and regional branches will send the message
later that it is necessary to act in a real coalition.
Karol believes that the new united Social Democratic Party, with an expected 3–4,000 members, would be the third strongest opposition party with equal opportunities to liberals and “independentists” in elections. Its advantage might be in the membership of low and middle level nomenklatura who still want to maintain a left ideology but are not tied to the regime. Another advantage may be the many independent trade unionists who are members of the current BSDP — although he noted that “to be a member of an independent trade union is worse than being a member of a political party”; trade unionists are subject to much stronger pressure and repression.
• • •
Civil Society Center–Supolnasc
In concluding meetings, Mr. Chenoweth and Mr. Dereta shared some of
their initial impressions, including the overall quality of the Mobilization
Campaign and the clear competence and democratic understanding of the many
people involved in the campaign at a national and local level or working
through their own organizations. They stressed the importance of communicating
the success of the campaign abroad and of building a broader active network
of international support, especially through the Centers for Pluralism
Network. Finally, they encouraged a continued focus on an electoral strategy,
but also utilizing different campaigns (like Kurapaty, e.g.) To achieve
concrete gains, especially at the local level where there is more possibility
of success. Mr. Dereta committed to pursue several avenues for exchanges,
especially with the BWWA and other women’s groups. He also discussed from
his own experience the issue of the connections between different civil
society organizations and political parties and the importance of maintaining
organizational integrity between the two separate actors in the democratic
movement. Other conclusions and observations are above.