Baltics look on helplessly as Lukashenko steals election and opposition forces protest

  • 2006-03-22
  • By Sven Becker

SOLIDARITY: Hundreds of Lithuanians have taken to the streets, peacefully protesting Lukashenko's presidential victory alongside their Belarusian neighbors.

VILNIUS - Leaders of all three Baltic states expressed their strong disapproval of the Belarusian presidential election, which resulted in the incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko mustering 82 percent of the vote. Baltic politicians slammed the poll as undemocratic and non-transparent.

President Valdas Adamkus was quoted in a press release as saying, "Just like the rest of the world, I was surprised by the number of detained election campaign participants, the monopoly on the media and intimidating statements by representatives of the administration. Is that how state leaders should be elected in Europe in the 21st century?"
Lithuanian MPs expressed solidarity with Belarus' democratic opposition and tried to put a positive spin on the defeat by saying that the country's democratic forces "are waking up."

Thousands of people gathered in Minsk's October Square to protest the results, which all Western observers have censored in no uncertain terms. Famous Belarusian ensembles played on stage, while the crowd waved the forbidden white-red-white Belarusian flag. Cheers could be heard for top opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich, who stood among the demonstrators and encouraged them to bring along friends and relatives.

Milinkevich is confident that Belarus will see a re-election. "Victory will be ours. God is with us. Freedom, truth and justice are on our side," he says. Independent surveys presented during a round-table discussion in Lithuania's Parliament on March 20 showed that Lukashenko may have actually only received 43 percent of the vote, while Milinkevich received 31 percent. Alexander Kozulin, another opposition candidate who is an ally of Milinkevich, took 18 percent.

International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election did not comply with generally-accepted standards and was neither free nor fair. The OSCE had already criticized intimidations and repressions toward opposition groups during the election run-up. The OSCE's report prompted the EU and United States to consider sanctions against the Lukashenko-regime.

Alexander Milinkevich's press officer, Paval Mazheijka, told The Baltic Times that four members of Milinkevich's staff, including head of the United Civic Party Anatoly Lebedko, were beaten up and detained when they left October Square early on March 21. Police in Minsk reported that an additional 16 people had been detained, while the opposition estimates more than 100 arrests.
Two Estonian observers of the election were detained by police on March 20 but were soon released. The observers, Tonis Leht and Erik Moora, were detained near Minsk's central square. Security police officials reportedly shouted phrases such as "Let's go now, fascist," and "Don't come and stage your orange revolution here." Erik Moora told the Baltic News Service that he and Leht were likely arrested by accident in one of numerous round-ups.

Mazheijka said the demonstrations would go on as long as people show up, which heavily depends on the international community's reaction: "Western countries must not approve the election results and should keep their focus on October Square," he said.

Maria Svensson, president of the Swedish non-governmental organization Cultural Clinic, who spent several nights with the people in October Square, was surprised by the protesters' determination. All of them, she said, repeatedly called out one phrase: "Don't leave us now!"
In Vilnius, a parliamentary round-table discussion highlighted the demonstrations in Minsk. Politicians, members of international NGOs as well as politicians in Brussels and Washington who were present through a TV-cam were looking for solutions to boost democracy in Belarus.

They all agreed that it was inevitable for the European Union and the United States to have one unanimous position toward Belarus. However, approaches differed.
While Louis O'Neill from the U.S. State Department and U.S.-Congressman Thaddeus McCotter favored economic sanctions, Lithuanian MP Vaclav Stankevich underscored the necessity of cooperating with the official administration of Belarus in order to influence legislation that might foster democracy.

MP Egidijus Vareikis opined that, while playing by Lukashenko rules, it was not worth considering that any other candidate would win. He drew a parallel to former U.S.-president Ronald Reagan and his strong stance toward the Soviet Union.
"But where's our Reagan in this case?" he asked rhetorically.
Trygve Olson, director of the International Republican Institute's Belarus office, which is based in Vilnius, stressed that the time has come to take definite measures. "The Belarusian opposition set up their goals last year, which was to support one single candidate who will go to the streets if Lukashenko manipulates the election," said Olson.
"Those people are now in October Square, while we talk, talk, and talk. If we had established independent radio stations and television channels on a large scale, we might have 50,000 or more people on the square, not 10,000. We should feel ashamed," said Olson, who is barred from Belarus.

Maria Svensson in Minsk had a first-hand experience of what Olson meant by that: "These demonstrations mark a turning point, for sure. But it might be too early for a colored revolution in Belarus."
Meanwhile in Riga, around 20 young activists from the organization Open Belarus staged a picket in front of the Belarusian Embassy on March 21 to express solidarity with their eastern neighbor.
All three Baltic governments echoed this unity in a joint resolution denouncing political repression in Belarus.
The European affairs committees of the Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Polish parliaments passed the document, which condemned attacks on the mass media, journalists, opposition leaders, human rights activists and minorities in Belarus. The resolution also "denounces the repressions carried out by Belarus authorities against the representatives and leaders of civic society who promote, with their work, democratic processes in Belarus."

The authors voiced regret over the deteriorating political situation in Belarus, as well as human rights violations in the country.
At the same time, the signatories express support for free and democratic presidential elections in Belarus and "for all democratic forces in Belarus resisting the official power and its wish to restrict the process of transparent and fair elections and the exercise of human rights."

The MPs have asked all EU member states, as well as the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and other international institutions to "provide substantial and coordinated support to democratic forces and civic society in Belarus." They also urge the EC to consider a new strategy regarding relations with Belarus, if the country fails to observe international standards of democracy.