Belarus opposition calls for election boycott

Reuters News

9/21/2012 11:33:57 AM - Reuters News

By Richard Balmforth and Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - The shattered opposition in Belarus urged people on Friday to boycott a parliamentary election which they denounce as a sham, while hardline President Alexander Lukashenko said his opponents were afraid of going to the people.

The election on Sunday to a 110-member chamber which largely rubber-stamps directives from Lukashenko is widely seen as a formality which will only reinforce his grip on the small former Soviet republic he has ruled since 1994.

But as authorities announced a program of weekend festivities in the country of 9.5 million to encourage voters, the opposition - in disarray following a police crackdown two years ago - urged people to stay away.

Human rights groups said that the run-up to the poll - even though it is unlikely to have any effect on the direction of the country - had been marked by the detention and arrests of opposition activists.

A video by the opposition United Civic Party posted on YouTube featured activists gathering mushrooms, playing chess and reading books in a park - all alternatives to going to vote.

"Chess is a fair game while our Belarussian elections, unfortunately, are not fair yet," says one.

Lukashenko told journalists while touring farms 300 km (186 miles) from the capital Minsk that his opponents "have shown that they are nothing, but maybe they did the right thing because what candidates do they have?"

"They are afraid of going to the people," he said, adding that his opponents were well-financed by Western groups and did not really want power. "They have been given a lot of cash. They have enough," he said.

The poll, which the two main parties have said they would boycott, comes two years since police cracked down on huge street protests in Minsk after a presidential election that secured Lukashenko a fourth term in power.

Scores of opposition activists were arrested in the December 2010 unrest and many people, including several candidates who stood against Lukashenko, were jailed.

Senior opposition figures who have dropped out of sight following the government crackdown include Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister, and Vladimir Neklyayev who heads the Tell the Truth movement. Both of them ran against Lukashenko in 2010 and subsequently spent time in jail.

Amnesty International said the run-up to Sunday's poll had been marked by arrests and detention of opposition members.

"The organization has documented a surge in arrests of people for attending peaceful rallies - such detentions violate their right to freedom of expression and assembly," it said.

Earlier this week, state security police broke up a small demonstration urging people to cook borshch - beetroot soup - instead of voting. Several activists were arrested as well as press photographers covering the event. Some of the journalists were released after about two hours.

SPITE

"Even if the authorities loosened the screws, I doubt that the opposition people left (in parliament) would be anything more than social outsiders. There are no bright, strong personalities capable of triumphing," said Belarussian independent political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.

"The opposition is virtually broken. It has few resources and there is no real program," he said.

The authorities say the opposition simply knows it is not supported by people and seeks to disrupt the election out of spite. "It seems that democracy is not to everybody's liking," Lidiya Yermoshina, head of the central election commission, told Belarus 1 television, earlier this week.

Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in Belarus free and fair since 1995.

Despite U.S. and EU sanctions, which prevent Lukashenko and his inner core of officials travelling to anywhere in the West, the small country has weathered a currency crisis which drained it of dollars and caused two big devaluations.

This was largely thanks to Russia, which provided $4.5 billion in loans and investments in exchange for access to industrial assets such as pipelines pumping Russian gas to Europe.

Lukashenko himself, as long ago as July, put his security forces on alert, telling them to be conscious of threats from "ill-wishers" at home and abroad as the election neared.

There were no signs of tension in Minsk and little sense of a significant political moment taking place. No organized opposition demonstrations were planned.

"There will not be any protests. People are not motivated enough. So we didn't ask them to come out on to the streets - we told them to go fishing instead, not to protest, but just to ignore," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civic Party.

(Writing by Richard Balmforth, editing by Diana Abdallah)