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Doubts Hound Vote in Belarus

President Seeking To End Term Limit

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page A16

MINSK, Belarus -- In the opposition United Civic Party, they've taken to calling Lyudmila Krasnoselskaya the "sausage lady." A 45-year-old women's rights activist from southern Belarus, near the border with Ukraine, she decided this summer to run as a candidate for parliament in elections scheduled for Sunday. Soon after filing signatures with the local election commission to get on the ballot, Krasnoselskaya was visited by the tax police and accused of illegal speculation.

Her alleged crime: making sausage runs to Poland, where she shopped for herself and her neighbors. The police accused her of illegally exchanging thousands of dollars worth of currency over a number of years on her long bus trips for foodstuffs, candy and over-the-counter medicines.

"They said I was illegally importing sausages and other things," said Krasnoselskaya, who said she was fined and denied permission to run, "but I never exceeded what you can bring in. Anyway, a lot of people shop in Poland and no one says anything."

Krasnoselskaya's experience was not unusual. Nearly half of all opposition candidates who had hoped to run for parliament, including a former presidential candidate, were barred from running. Their offenses ranged from the exquisitely technical -- tiny differences between declared income and official pay slips -- to the farcical, such as Krasnoselskaya's sausage.

The government insisted the law was being applied fairly. "A person just for the merit of him being a candidate in the political elections, should he be absolved of all misdeeds?" said Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov, a former ambassador to the United States, in an interview. "Have you noticed that all, practically all of the leaders of the opposition have eventually been reinstated?"

Voters in Belarus, a country of 10 million sandwiched between the European Union and Russia, are also being asked Sunday to vote in a referendum that could extend indefinitely the 10-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. Barred by the constitution from running for a third term in 2006, Lukashenko is asking voters to amend it in a way that would allow him to serve for any number of terms.

"You, when I asked you, always supported me," Lukashenko, 50, a former collective farm manager, said in announcing the referendum. "Not only have we led the people away from an abyss, the country has firmly embarked on the path of creative and progressive advance. By its own labor, without going into debt, our state has been steadily moving ahead."

The opposition has raised concerns, as have the United States and the European Union, that the balloting will not be free. Belarus's already tense relations with Washington and Europe appear ready to take another dive if a government that is frequently called a dictatorship consolidates its already formidable grip on power.

Polls by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies here, in conjunction with the Gallup Organization based in neighboring Lithuania, show that 40 percent of those surveyed support changing the constitution, far short of what Lukashenko needs. To succeed, he must get the support not just of 50 percent of those who go to the polls, but 50 percent of all registered voters. Thus, he would have to receive support from close to 70 percent of likely voters in the survey, analysts project.

"We predict with the highest level of probability that the authorities have no chance to win without manipulation," said Oleg Manaev, director of the Independent Institute, a group affiliated with the opposition.

"Casting doubt on an upcoming election is very, very unfair," said Martynov, the foreign minister. "This is an instrument of pressure on the observers. Who is there to judge? The United States. They don't even have direct [voting] in presidential elections."

Martynov pointed to other polls. Indeed, another previously unheard of polling organization, Ekoom Analytical Center, believed to be a government creation, reported that 66.5 percent of Belarusans supported Lukashenko.

Lukashenko is popular with a core constituency of around 40 percent of voters in any election. After winning the presidency in 1994 in an election that was widely regarded as free and fair, Lukashenko brought a degree of stability after the post-Soviet tumult. The country, highly industrialized, retains many features of a planned economy but has experienced significant growth in recent months, according to the Interstate Statistical Committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The state has also maintained an extensive system of social protections, according to the World Bank.

"Life has never been better," said Zenaida Dennissevich, a 77-year-old retiree, in remarks typical of interviews with elderly people. "I have lived a long life and have never seen a better president."

But Lukashenko has systematically brought under his control alternative power centers, such as parliament, the media -- especially television -- and the judiciary. He has harassed and shuttered human rights groups, closed newspapers and imprisoned political opponents on the flimsiest of charges. On Sept. 7, for instance, two political activists were sent to prison for two years for defamation because they noted in a leaflet that Lukashenko had taken ski vacations in Austria and alleged that he was "having a good time at your expense."

In the past two months, nine independent newspapers have been closed, including three in the past week, according to Reporters Without Borders, an international group that monitors press freedom. One paper, the independent Rehiyanalnaya Gazeta, a large regional publication, was suspended, in part for printing TV listings on the wrong size paper.

Also, over the last 18 months, dozens of prominent nongovernmental organizations have been closed, mostly for not being properly registered by state authorities, who refuse to allow them to register properly, according to a report by the former head of the human rights group Spring, which was outlawed. Dozens more disbanded upon the "recommendation" of the Justice Ministry, and hundreds more smaller organizations were warned, the report said.

"Lukashenko's main partner is fear," said Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party. "It's not a mistake that this is the only country in the former Soviet Union where the KGB has not been renamed."

Senior government officials have also been accused, most recently in a Council of Europe report, of complicity in the disappearances of Belarusan opposition leaders and a journalist in 1999 and 2000. The report also accused the government of blocking a full investigation. The E.U. banned two Belarusan ministers and two senior security officials from entering any country in the union after the report's publication this year. One of the men, Dzmitry Paulichenka, head of a special forces unit, was jailed in 2000 in connection with the disappearances but was later released on government orders.

The government accused the E.U. of acting as "judge and jury," and Lukashenko, in particular, responded with fury. Referring to Western diplomats, he declared, "We must show society what they do here, how they try to turn our girls into prostitutes, feed our citizens with drugs and spread homosexuality." The president's broadside was followed this month by a television program that featured pictures of U.S. and European diplomats, accusing them of frequenting prostitutes, dealing drugs or promoting religious sects.

George A. Krol, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, said in an e-mail that "the allegations of 'misconduct' of U.S. diplomats in Belarus in this 'film' are false. None of the U.S. diplomats featured in the film were requested to leave Belarus nor had there been any official complaints from the Belarusian authorities about the conduct of these American diplomatic personnel."


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