Belarus’ opposition seeks way forward

Depleted by a wave of arrests, Belarus’ opposition movement is seeking ways to regroup after week-long protests were broken up by a state apparatus determined to defend President Alexander Lukashenko.

Authorities at a detention centre outside Minsk finally confirmed that they had in detention Alexander Kozulin, an opposition candidate at the March 19 presidential election who was arrested on Saturday when security forces violently broke up a protest march, Kozulin’s wife Irina said.

About 100 youths attended a vigil on Sunday evening to honour the marchers beaten by the police, lighting candles at a monument to 53 young people who were crushed to death in a May 1999 stampede at a Minsk metro station.

Lukashenko ”won’t last five years,” said Liliya, a 21-year-old teacher, referring to the length of a presidential term. ”He’s only got a little while left — he’s very afraid.”

The arrest of Kozulin as he and others tried to visit a jail holding fellow opposition supporters came amid a wave of detentions of those who have tried to protest against Lukashenko’s re-election to a third term in office.

The main opposition candidate at the election, Alexander Milinkevich, attempted to visit Kozulin on Sunday but when he rang at the entrance to the detention centre in the town of Zhodino he was turned away by a metallic voice telling him to come back on Monday.

”I came to check if Kozulin is here. I want to bring him my moral support,” Milinkevich told journalists.

Milinkevich promised to launch an information campaign that would counter the authorities’ claims that the opposition had resorted to violence.

A stepson of Milinkevich is among up to 250 opposition supporters said by human rights groups to be held in Zhodino in connection with Saturday’s clash with police and with the days-long protest on Minsk’s October Square.

Most of those who camped out on the square were handed administrative sentences of up to two weeks for hooliganism.

”The country doesn’t know what happened due to the propaganda of the state media,” Milinkevich said.

”We are in solidarity with those injured yesterday [Saturday]. We will invite him to join our coalition,” Milinkevich told Agence France-Presse, referring to Kozulin.

Among others in detention was the leader of the United Civic Party, Anatoly Lebedko. The head of the Belarussian Popular Front, Vintsuk Vyachorka, was in hiding, a relative of Vyachorka told Agence France-Presse.

At a news conference earlier, Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov did not say how many people had been arrested at the Saturday evening march.

He said Kozulin had begun ”to call on people to attack state and restricted installations and even for the physical liquidation of the head of state”.

Despite the blow dealt to the opposition, Vyachorka’s deputy, Viktor Ivashkevich, said progress had been made on forming a new united opposition movement called For Freedom.

”Many are now in prison but were convicted for 10-15 days and will come out and continue work,” Ivashkevich told AFP.

The movement had a three-pronged strategy, Ivashkevich said:

  • To ensure students expelled from university for taking part in opposition protests have a chance of finding education in neighbouring European countries.

  • To ensure alternative sources of news to those provided by state media.

  • To secure Lukashenko’s impeachment by campaigning for the recall of pro-Lukashenko parliamentary deputies on a constituency-by-constituency basis.

”There’s been an explosion of activity, a new wave of young people and entrepreneurs who thought they could just work without getting involved in politics but realised it was impossible, that they had no prospects under the current authorities,” Ivashkevich said.

But political analyst Sergei Pankovsky said the opposition was still struggling to find its response to growing public discontent.

”What’s happening is the search for a way to use this popular discontent. Even under conditions of an information blockade, people came out onto the streets … The opposition only aligned itself with them,” said Pankovsky.

Kozulin’s arrest unleashed a new chorus of protest from the West at the Belarussian leadership’s tactics.

”The United States deplores today’s use of force by Belarussian authorities against peaceful demonstrators in Minsk,” said US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack in a statement.

State television here showed a series of ”vox pop” interviews with members of the public who unanimously defended the election, saying they had voted for the stability they believed Lukashenko had brought. – AFP



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