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Presidential Election Important Event for Belarus, No Matter The Outcome

(Washington, DC -- February 22, 2006) No matter the outcome, the presidential election to be held on March 19 is still an important event for the future of Belarus, according to three experts on the country who spoke at a recent RFE/RL briefing. Robin Shepherd, Jan Maksymiuk and Alexander Lukashuk said that, even if the outcome of the March election cannot be predicted, it seems clear that civil society is reawakening in Belarus.

Robin Shepherd, Adjunct Fellow with the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that civil society has been seriously weakened in Belarus as a result of the current regime's self-isolating and corrupt policies. Shepherd believes that incumbent Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has decided he needs a democratic election in order to legitimize his regime. Shepherd cautioned that opinion polls be read accurately when evaluating the election results when they become available. For example, he predicted that the true level of support for Lukashenka will probably be from ten to twelve percentage points less than the actual reported vote count, because of a "fear factor" within the Belarusian electorate -- that some voters will fear that Lukashenka can determine how a person voted. Shepherd said that he cannot predict the outcome of the election, but does believe that the opposition could win a fair vote in Minsk.

Jan Maksymiuk, RFE/RL's Belarus and Ukraine regional analyst, noted several differences between Belarus on the eve of its presidential election and Ukraine just prior to its "Orange Revolution" in December 2004. He said that, in Ukraine, no incumbent was running for president, putting both candidates on a more equal footing -- in Belarus, President Lukashenka is running against at least one opposition representative. Unlike Ukraine, the opposition is not represented in the Belarus parliament or in local governments, Maksymiuk said. The primary opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, will not receive any positive media coverage due to state control of the Belarusian media, Maksymiuk said, and the relative economic prosperity of Belarus is another contributing factor to Lukashenka's likely re-election. In reviewing available economic data, according to Maksymiuk, only a small percentage of the economy is in private hands, while 80 percent of enterprises are state-run; in addition, largely as a result of the low prices charged by Russia for oil and natural gas imports, Belarus's GDP reportedly grew by 8 percent in 2005.

The Belarusian people are being deprived of both information and public discussion, according to RFE/RL Belarusian Service Director Alexander Lukashuk. To help promote a public debate, Lukashuk said that his broadcast service now offers five interactive communication platforms to its listeners: letters, phone calls, e-mails, online conferences and SMS messaging. These platforms, he said, allow listeners the opportunity to speak their minds, as well as to express and exchange views on key issues facing Belarus. This "citizen journalism," as Lukashuk called it, gives listeners "a taste of the democratic experience." The steep rise in active participation by listeners, he said, shows a clear understanding that "they want to be heard."

The February 14 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).

Archived audio of this briefing can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.