Andrew Osborn








Belarus opposition sees little gain at polls --- Dissidents unswayed by democratic claims for Sunday's election

The Wall Street Journal Europe, 29th September 2008 11:34

By Andrew Osborn

Minsk, Belarus -- HOW LONG does it take to dismantle a dictatorship? Belarus's autocratic president wants to convince the West that all it took was a three-month election campaign.

After 14 years of autocracy, Belarus on Sunday held an election that its president, Alexander Lukashenko, said was "unprecedented" in its fairness.

He allowed opposition candidates to take part in larger numbers than in the previous parliamentary vote, in 2004, and, unlike last time, left them unharrassed. A march Sunday by about 500 pro-democracy activists on Minsk's main thoroughfare was left unmolested by police -- a change from two years ago when riot police used extreme violence to disperse a demonstration here to protest what observers called an unfair presidential election.

But opposition leaders maintain that beneath the showy gestures of loosening his grip, Mr. Lukashenko hasn't changed the rules at all.

"The decorations are being changed, but in principle nothing is changing," said Andrei Kim, an opposition activist recently released from prison. "Nobody really believes that people's votes will be counted."

The opposition said its members made up less than 1% of the country's 100,000 vote counters. In the five days before Sunday, people were allowed to cast their vote in advance, also raising fears of fraud.

For Mr. Lukashenko, the moment of truth will come Monday at a news conference by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe at which its observers will pronounce their initial verdict.

Many leading opposition figures were in prison until a few months ago when the government freed them in a concession aimed at easing Western pressure on Belarus. But opposition activists report that they have had very limited access to the state-controlled media and little ability to campaign.

Alexander Milinkevich, another opposition leader, estimated Mr. Lukashenko's critics would win as many as 30 of the 110 seats in parliament in a truly fair election. He thinks Mr. Lukashenko will "appoint" up to five opposition candidates to please the West. "Our participation in these elections does not legitimize them," he said.

The elections pose a dilemma for the U.S. and Europe, which are eager to counter Moscow's influence in former Soviet states but have few truly democratic leaders in the region to support.

After years of manipulating the levers of a neo-Soviet state to repress his opponents, Mr. Lukashenko, a former Soviet farm boss, has begun to woo the West by allowing greater political freedom. Heightened geopolitical tensions with Russia may make him, an on-off Russian ally, a man worth wooing.

Mr. Lukashenko wants the West to lift financial and travel sanctions and to begin investing in an economy that has been propped up by billions of dollars of Russian subsidies in the form of cheap natural gas. But his intelligence service -- still called the KGB -- has repressed his opponents so thoroughly for so long that he is discovering that he can't create a viable opposition out of thin air.

"Their level of support is in the margin-of-error zone," Mr. Lukashenko told state TV before the vote. In words that would have been unthinkable even a year ago, he said that it might "even be good" if a few opposition candidates got seats -- and that he wouldn't intervene to ensure that happened.

With a record of polls that the OSCE has called unfair, even electoral officials have trouble maintaining the appearance of neutrality. "Our opposition is a phantom," said Lidia Yermoshina, head of the Central Election Commission. "It doesn't really exist." She said the opposition amounted to not more than 1,400 people in a country of ten million.

"We're not expecting miracles," she said, talking of likely international reaction to the vote. A signal that progress and effort were made would be enough, she said.

Western analysts said the opposition has been cowed by an atmosphere of fear that has reigned in Belarus for years. Instead of one single opposition leader, there are at least three.

Some opposition members boycotted Sunday's vote in protest. Most said Mr. Lukashenko had pushed through some changes that made life easier for them -- to campaign without harassment and to pitch their programs on state TV, albeit for only 10 minutes. But they said that the changes only scratched the service and that there had been no real campaign.

Another recently released political prisoner, Alexander Kozulin, said opposition candidates' programs appeared in small-circulation local newspapers only -- not in the main pro-government "Soviet Belarus" newspaper. Opposition posters were restricted to small official notice boards, he said.

"This is all about Lukashenko clinging to personal power," he said.