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Don't Abandon Belarus, Democratic Reformers Ask

(Washington, DC--February 14, 2006) Democratic reformers in Belarus are urging the international community not to abandon them after the country's 19 March presidential election. Three of these reformers -- Svetlana Zavadskaya, Olga Stuzhinskaya and Marina Rakhlei -- told a recent RFE/RL briefing audience that while the democratic opposition in Belarus may not win the March presidential election, it is gaining valuable experience and building community networks that will serve as a foundation for future change.

Belarus is standing at a "historical threshold," according to Zavadskaya, president of the Dmitry Zavadsky Foundation, an organization she founded in honor of her husband, a cameraman for ORT Russian Television who disappeared under suspicious circumstances in 2000, to help independent journalists. She believes that, without help from the international community, the March election will be the "last chance for the Belarusian opposition to bring about change." Although the opposition has united around a single candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Zavadskaya said it is virtually impossible to access the state-controlled media to inform the public of Milinkevich's candidacy and platform. In addition, Zavadskaya said, Belarus has "no alternative media" that could be used for that purpose. In her comments, Zavadskaya cited U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent statement that a fair election is impossible in Belarus without an independent media to "get through the information blockade."

Olga Stuzhinskaya, Brussels coordinator for the opposition group "Democratic Belarus," said that the international community has tried to help Belarus by providing funds to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country. But recent laws adopted by the Belarusian government, she said, prohibit NGOs from receiving funds from abroad, while new "anti-revolution laws" that criminalize free speech impede their ability to function. Stuzhinskaya agreed with Zavadskaya that, while a Milinkevich victory appears impossible, polling shows 25 percent of Belarusians are pro-Milinkevich -- a result she characterized as good progress, considering the campaign is mostly "door-to-door" and lacks media coverage. Furthermore, Stuzhinskaya cited the fact that more than 200,000 signatures were collected in support of Milinkevich's candidacy.

Marina Rakhlei, a journalist for the independent BelaPAN News Agency, described the situation among independent media in Belarus as "dramatic and deteriorating." At a time when state media is flourishing -- state television operates with $44 million budget grant and state-controlled newspapers have seen their funding doubled since 2004 to $11.5 million -- Rakhlei said that "from October 2005 to January 2006, 31 independent newspapers disappeared," adding that 90 percent of election coverage in the country focuses on Lukashenka. She noted that foreign newspapers are not available to the Belarusian public -- "only the foreign embassies get them." As a result of unequal access to the media, Rakhlei concurred with her colleagues that the upcoming election cannot be free and fair.

The February 7 briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office was co-sponsored by the Russian and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the International League for Human Rights (ILHR).