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"Fear Factor" Contributed to Lukashenka Victory in Belarus

(Washington, DC-- March 25, 2006) The Belarus presidential election went as expected, with the country's central election commission announcing a preliminary vote count that gives President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a third-term victory, and the political opposition did not achieve its goal to "break the fear" that paralyzes Belarusian society, according to three experts on Belarus. Alexander Lukashuk, Steven Lee Myers, and Celeste Wallander told a RFE/RL audience on Tuesday, March 21 that the "fear factor" among Belarusians was still too great to allow the opposition to successfully challenge the incumbent president.

Lukashuk, the director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, who reported live by phone from Minsk, said the atmosphere of fear was "acute" and that Tuesday morning there were only a couple hundred people in October Square, the site of the previous two days of demonstrations by the opposition. Lukashuk said that numerous factors, including bitter cold, heavy snow, a lack of information about the protest location and lack of transport to the square contributed to the low turnout. He said that some of those who were rallying had been harassed by the police, beaten and arrested in "ones and twos," particularly around the perimeter of the square.

Myers, Moscow Bureau Chief for "The New York Times," told the audience (also by phone from Minsk) that the election went as expected -- "according to script." The opposition, he said, was somewhat successful in its aim, because the crowd Sunday was "one of the largest in years," with over 10,000 demonstrators in October Square. Myers said the voting results can be explained by a combination of factors: a fear to speak one's mind, the fear of potential consequences of voting against Lukashenka, apathy, and not seeing an alternative to Lukashenka. In addition, he said, the improved economy provides many Belarusians jobs and pensions, so there's less desire for change. Myers said the opposition will have a "hard time sustaining the protests" and he is unsure what event could help the opposition "coalesce," when "there are five years before new presidential elections [are held]."

Wallander, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), agreed with her colleagues that the results went according to "script," noting that the script was probably "written in Moscow, not Minsk." Wallander also said that she believes that fear played a big role in the election results and that numerous factors prevented the opposition from gaining "momentum." Wallander compared the situation in Belarus to that of Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004, saying the Orange Revolution received much more international media attention. In addition, according to Wallander, since the Belarusian political elite did not fracture the opposition had much less support to campaign and mobilize voters.

According to Wallander the opposition also had little opportunity to track and document voter fraud on the day of the election. She noted that the degree of voter fraud in Ukraine prompted thousands of people to rally in the streets of Kyiv. Wallander said this nonetheless could be the "beginning of the end" of the Lukashenka regime and a "turning point" for democracy in Belarus, if the United States and European Union cooperate once again in this region on concrete steps to maintain the democratic opposition.

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