The complicated story of Belarusian opposition

The complicated story of Belarusian opposition

Maciej Zaniewicz
PL
01.01.2016
Bartosz Rutkowski
,
Marcin Rychły

Currently looking at the Belarusian opposition scene there are three outstanding groups: the movement “For Freedom”, the “Tell the Truth!” campaign and a number of parties and organisations connected with Mikalai Statkevich. “For Freedom” is a non-governmental organisation founded by Alaksandr Milinkevich after the 2006 presidential elections. Back then, Milinkevich ran for president as a united opposition candidate. The main aims of Milinkevich’s NGO are to defend Belarus’s independence, adopt European standards in the economy and society, as well as become a future member of the European Union. Over the years “For Freedom’s” members entered various alliances. In 2008 it joined the United Democratic Forces of Belarus, however co-operation lasted for just one year. “For Freedom” then allied with the newly established Belarusian Independence Bloc, but this did not last long either. Their partnership ended in 2010 when Milinkevich decided not to run for president.

“Tell the Truth!” is a social campaign launched in 2010 by Belarusian novelist and poet Uladzimir Nyaklyayew. It was meant to be a base for his presidential campaign which took place the same year. On election day, Nyaklyayew, just like the other opposition candidates, was detained by the Belarusian KGB and arrested. “Tell the Truth!” focuses primarily on social issues such as electoral observation, the fight against unemployment and the commemoration of personalities important for Belarusian identity. Surprisingly, Nyaklyayew withdrew from the presidential race in 2015 under pressure from members of the movement he created. Soon after that, he left “Tell the Truth!” and began appearing next to Statkevich, one of
the Belarusian opposition’s most recognisable faces.

The search for the “one”

Apart from Nyaklyayew, another influential oppositionist active in Statkevich’s circles is Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party of Belarus (UCP). There are also two more organisations to be mentioned in that context: the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) and the civil movement “European Belarus”. The Belarusian Popular Front was established in the last years of the Soviet Union. Zianon Pazniak
and Ales Bialiatski are its most “popular” members. “European Belarus” appeared in 2008 and was created by Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister of Belarus who left the regime in 1995. After the 2010 presidential election, Sannikov was also arrested and imprisoned until April 2012. Sannikov now supports Mikalai Statkevich.

Before the presidential election which took place on October 11th 2015, the Belarusian opposition again made attempts to delegate a single candidate to run for president. The opposition established “co-operation platforms” for that purpose. The so-called “Seventh” was the first of them. It gathered almost all the registered and illegal opposition organisations, from left to right, from communists to nationalists. Because of such vast ideological divisions, “Seventh” was not an effective way to discuss political issues. Another much more promising platform was the “People’s Referendum” established in 2013. It consisted of key opposition groups like “Tell the Truth!”, “For Freedom”, BPF, the Belarusian Liberal Party of Freedom and Progress and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party “Hramada”. The negotiations on who should be the next presidential
candidate ended only in March 2015. Nyaklyayew and Milinkevich came out as the most probable candidates. But they were not the only ones, as other candidates were fielded as well, including Tatsiana Karatkevich, the candidate from the “Tell the Truth!” movement.

Over time, greater tension within opposition groups emerged. Nyaklyayew, the most active and ambitious candidate was unacceptable for “For Freedom” and BPF. He was forced to cancel his campaign and gave the floor to Milinkevich who, unexpectedly, also resigned from the presidential run. Due to this situation, Nyaklyayew proposed that Mikalai Statkevich, who was still in prison, be the united opposition’s candidate. Nyaklyayew’s proposal was not only pragmatic but also convenient. If the opposition managed to collect 100,000 signatures supporting Statkevich as a presidential candidate, it would put Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a very uncomfortable position. The incumbent president would either have to let political prisoners free or run for president without an opposition rival. This would certainly leave a huge question mark over electoral procedures in Belarus.

Had Lukashenka decided not to release Statkevich, Nyaklyayew would have had a greater chance to become the new opposition leader. However, Nyaklyayew’s offer was not accepted by all opposition parties. Milinkevich’s “For Freedom”, for instance, left the opposition coalition as a result. In the end, a thinner coalition decided to elect Karatkevich as the opposition candidate. She enjoyed the support of a relatively large part of the opposition until late July 2015 when Hramada’s central committee refused to join Karatkevich’s election campaign.

With no regard to the opposition’s quarrels and negotiations, Anatoly Lebedko and Sergey Kalyakin, leader of Belarus’s communists, decided to participate in the election but did not manage to collect the 100,000 required signatures. In the end, four candidates took part in the presidential election: President Lukashenka, Sergei Gaidukevich, Nikolai Ulakhovich (both Gaidukevich and Ulakhovich are commonly viewed as a “ false opposition”) and Karatkevich.

Turbulence in the opposition

Meanwhile, the Belarusian opposition was hit by another wave of turbulence. After leaving the “Tell the Truth!” movement, Nyaklyayew formed a new organisation whose mission was to free political prisoners. By doing so, he emptied a post in “Tell the Truth!” which in May 2015 was filled by Andrei Dmitriev. Dmitriev, a lesser known figure from the new generation, quickly appeared to be very effective, albeit controversial. In December 2010 Dmitriev was arrested by the Belarusian KGB like many other opposition activists. He was detained together with Statkevich, but Dmitriev was released in January 2011. Many suggested Dmitriev had co-operated with the Belarusian secret service. But the case did not bring much attention and was not a problem until August 2015 when “For Freedom” asked the Belarusian electoral commission to investigate whether Karatkevich really
managed to collect 100,000 signatures. Some opposition leaders claimed it was impossible. Their argument was based on their personal experience and problems with collecting signatures. According to them, the government may have helped Karatkevich collecting the necessary signatures.

Adding fuel to the fire was the release of political prisoners by Lukashenka in August 2015. A few days after his release, Statkevich began organising a political movement which could be seen as an alternative to the “People’s referendum”. It gathered all the parties that lost influence and significance between March and August 2015, including Nyaklyayew’s and Lebedko’s movements. On August 28th 2015, they presented their official position on the upcoming presidential elections and called supporters to boycott it. During a press event, Statkevich publicly asked
why BPF did not join his new movement. The answer was “BPF is currently working for a candidate [Karatkevich – editor’s note] who is backed by a traitor.”

Soon after that, every major opposition leader not connected with the “Tell the Truth!” movement began to promote this narrative and Dmitriev was frequently accused of collusion with the KGB. This led to the marginalisation of Dmitriev and, of course, Tatsiana Karatkevich. BPF finally withdrew its support for Karatkevich  citing “differences in political programmes and views”. This was the defining moment
when the opposition’s division crystallised into three groups.

The open remaining issue is whether “Tell the Truth!” worked with the KGB. According to Statkevich, Dmitriev signed KGB papers which allowed him to leave prison in January 2011. His task afterwards, as his rivals claim, was to create a mild party within the opposition which would take part in the elections and oppose a violent change in power. In exchange, he and his colleagues would be untouchable. For Lukashenka, the existence of such a party has two basic advantages. First, it would guarantee legitimacy of elections as nobody could blame the Belarusian president for making life harder for the opposition. Second, it would decrease the possibility of a “Belarusian Maidan”.

Certain elements of this claim seem to be true. Karatkevich’s main campaign slogan was “peaceful change”. She stressed that she opposed any kind of revolution in Belarus. No doubt, her participation in the election was in Lukashenka’s favour. Statements made by the head of the Central Election Commission of Belarus, Lidia Yermoshina, additionally suggest Karatkevich was on relatively good terms with the regime. When “For Freedom” asked the commission to look into Karatkevich’s signature lists, the commission refused. Yermoshina even praised Karatkevich for “behaving like a civilised person”. It is still unclear, however, what led to the division inside the opposition, whether Dmitriev’s treason or his high
political ambitions.

Divisions

The structure described above does not have the same impact on all opposition politicians. At a certain point in their political careers, all actions, ideas and interests combine and create nothing but chaos. Party leaders aside, the members of BPF, “For Freedom” or “Tell the Truth!” are idealists who want to change their country.

Young people dedicated to the idea of “rebellion” are their organisations’ engines but are not so aware of these divisions. Many young activists work for several movements simultaneously. Rumours about new leaders, arrests and persecutions; this is what the Belarusian opposition’s everyday life consists of. Rivalry between faction leaders and inter-party intrigues are also routine affairs. Activists at the grassroots level often do not know what is taking place at the top of their parties. It also occurs that many grassroots initiatives are being conducted in co-operation between parties despite the fact their leaders may hate each other.

There is a new generation of leaders which is slowly emerging inside the Belarusian opposition. They cannot clearly identify, however, the goals they want to achieve. There are a variety of scenarios. So far, the younger generation is not in a position to take a real leadership position since people like Statkevich are still strong. Milinkevich, however, seems to be slowly leaving his place in public life and whoever will replace him will inherit a well organised movement. One possible replacement for Milinkevich is Alaksandr Lahvinets. Educated abroad, Lahvinets has gained unique experience, but lacks charisma which could be a challenge when trying to mobilise people to protest. Lahvinets is also very hostile towards another representative of the younger generation in the Belarusian opposition –Dmitriev.

It seems there is a brighter future ahead for Dmitriev than for other young Belarusian oppositionists. He is a skilful organiser and the divisions among the opposition and accusations against him paradoxically make him stronger. In our conversation with him, Dmitriev claimed two things which reflected his future plans. First, he said “Tatsiana Karatkevich is a means, not the end”. Second, he stated that his “greatest fears are opposition demonstrations and repercussions from the state”.

Recently, Dmitriev and Karatkevich both intensified their travels abroad. Just a few days after the election, they both had meetings in Brussels and Washington. Without a doubt, it increases the popularity of the “Tell the Truth!” movement and strengthens its position. Although Dmitriev is now head of the movement, without Karatkevich he would have no chance to get an invitation in the West.

The financial aspect of the opposition’s activities in Belarus is a topic nobody likes to talk about. But everyone confirms the main source of money for opposition activities comes from the West in different forms. Western grants and subsidies are, simultaneously, the main reason the opposition is so divided. It is like a cake everyone wants a slice of, but the number of slices is limited. The problem is that none of the opposition groups try to bake another cake, but argue over who gets a larger slice of the existing cake.

Another reason for the divisions is power. Sometimes, opposition activists seem to forget their ultimate goals. Internal tensions within opposition groups result in the disappointment of many young people who would otherwise be willing to engage more in the movements. Today not many people in Belarus perceive the opposition as a real alternative to Lukashenka’s regime. Voting for the opposition in Belarus is regarded simply as a vote against Lukashenka, but not in favour of any new ideas or changes.

It is easy to get lost in the complicated world of the Belarusian opposition. It is difficult to understand complex relations between certain leaders who may accuse each other of collaboration with the regime one day and then meet and discuss it freely the next. This leads to the conclusion that Belarus’s opposition is divided not because of different views and ideas but because of its particular leaders’ ambitions. Perhaps this is why there is decreasing hope within Belarusian society, much of it concluding there is no real alternative to its modest but quiet life under the current regime.

Translated by Bartosz Marcinkowski