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Conditions in Belarus Worsen for Opposition After Referendum

(Washington, DC--November 28, 2004) Conditions have worsened considerably for the democratic opposition in Belarus, since last month's parliamentary elections when a national presidential referendum was adopted to remove any term limits on the current president Aleksandr Lukashenka, according to a noted Belarusian journalist.

Svetlana Kalinkina, former editor-in-chief of Belorusskaya Delovaya and recent recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists' annual International Press Freedom Award, told an RFE/RL audience last week that prosecutors in Belarus are beginning to assemble criminal cases against opposition candidates who campaigned against the presidential referendum, which was adopted in an election widely criticized by international election monitors. Members of the democratic opposition are also being denied exit visas for travel abroad, said Kalinkina.

While reviewing the methods used to guarantee the election of government-endorsed candidates and the adoption of the presidential referendum, Kalinkina concluded that "normal democratic elections are no longer possible in Belarus." She noted that "the unfair ways and means" the regime used to achieve its results "are nothing new or unusual, because we have seen them under the Soviet regime." During the election campaign, Kalinkina said, only government-sponsored newspapers were allowed to operate, sometimes printing million-copy editions, while 19 regional newspapers were closed in order to eliminate any dissent and local television and radio coverage was censored to prevent any anti-referendum discussion.

Kalinkina asserted that it is not a surprise that only one country recognized the results of the parliamentary election and the vote on the presidential referendum. That country was Russia, where the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, declared the referendum free and fair even though Russian President Vladimir Putin did not acknowledge the results. The lack of global acceptance can be attributed to blatant violations reported by the OSCE international monitors on election day, who found that ballot boxes used at the polls were switched with boxes containing pre-determined ballots, and ballots supporting opposition candidates were later found uncounted in nearby dumpsters. Among the protest actions taken throughout Belarus concerning the presidential referendum results, Kalinkina said, residents of the city of Volkovysk have begun a hunger strike with the hope that local prosecutors will files cases against officials who allegedly engaged in election fraud.

Kalinkina noted that the current government's "ideological machine" is very efficient in manipulating public opinion -- "it has created a propaganda miracle" that portrays Lukashenka as a hero who has "prevented war," "defends the poor and fights the rich," and "saves his country from foreign enemies" because "everyone is against Belarus." Despite the government's success in maintaining power, Kalinkina said, the October 17, 2004 election was fundamentally different from the 2001 presidential election. The majority of people who voted for Lukashenka's re-election in 2001 did not support his 2004 constitutional referendum. It is the "absence of an alternative candidate" that keeps Lukashenka in power, according to Kalinkina.

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