Friday, March 03, 2006

Belarus: Crackdown on Opposition

Two weeks before the 19 March presidential elections in Belarus, the Lukashenko regime is now orchestrating a heavy crackdown on the Belarusian opposition, RFE/RL Newsline reports.

On March 2, police clamped down on the largest opposition rally since 1999, gathering some 3,000 people in central Minsk, in support of united opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. In a separate action the same day, police also beat and arrested another of the presidential candidates, Alyaksandr Kazulin.

It now seems that the only candidate that in reality will be allowed to run for the presidency will be the president himself, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. It thus seems correct that "This isn't an election. It's a sham," as BBC quoted Yaroslav Romanchuk of the United Civil Party saying.

At the same time, the regime is orchestrating its soviet-style party congress - the All-Belarusian People's Assembly - confirming a new five year plan for Belarus. Thus, GDP and industrial output are to grow by 50%, and farm production by 40%. Lukashenka, in his three-hour-speech, also took this opportunity to warn for a western conspiracy to bring down his rule. Calling his opponents "bastards", he claimed that the west is spending "hundreds of million" dollars to oust him from power, and that the Belarusian KGB had "busted 72 organizations" that were conspiring to overthrow him. "The opposition is planning a coup", Lukashenka concluded. As opposition candidate Kazulin said, it is becoming increasingly clear that Lukashenka "will do anything, even use force and weapons" to stay in power. In the meantime, a new symbol of opposition is appearing in the streets of Belarusian cities - jeans ribbons clad on lampposts and fences.

Western concern for developments in Belarus is also rising. The EU is following the situation in Belarus with extra attention and worries in Bruxelles are great that things will get out of hand and turn into violent clashes between regime and opposition. Yesterday, a Polish government spokesman also declared that Poland might not recognise Lukashenka as the legitimate ruler of Belarus, according to Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. Worries are also great that a recently adopted law - permitting police to open fire on illegal demonstrators - will be used, and that opposition protests thus will be met by lethal force.

The massive regime crackdown in combination with the fact that the opposition was able to rally that many people for a demonstration might indicate that Lukashenka's grip on power is not so absolute as was expected. Developments in Belarus are becoming very worrisome two weeks before the elections, and who knows to what lengths Lukashenka is willing to go to remain in power. Memories of the orange revolution in Ukraine are still fresh, and the regime seems intent to prevent any similar turn of events in Belarus - come what may. Hopefully, we will not witness blood in the streets of Minsk on March 19, but we cannot eliminate the possibility that this will be the case.

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