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Frustrated, Dissent Fades in Minsk

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
Updated: March 22, 2006

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The presidential election (ElectionGuide.org) in Belarus that returned to office a man dubbed by the International Herald Tribune as "The Last Dictator in Europe" has drawn widespread criticism from abroad. The European Union (EU) has called the vote there far from free and fair (BBC) and both the EU and Washington are considering sanctions (VOA).

In snowy Minsk, however, opponents of President Alexander Lukashenka appear to have far fewer options. Widespread arrests held down protests (NYT). Cfr.org's Lionel Beehner, reporting from Minsk, says that while protesters initially gathered in the thousands in October Square, the opposition's momentum is beginning to fade.

In an interview with cfr.org, opposition candidate Alexander Kozulin said people in Belarus simply are too scared to stand up to such tactics. "You have to understand that Belarus has suffered a lot in history," Kozulin says. "Those Belarusian people who stand up for freedom and independence never succeeded and always were killed. That's why we have that feeling of fear and it's very serious."

That Lukashenka—who according to official preliminary results won 82.6 percent of the vote (ChiTrib)—has managed to hold back the tide of democracy that swept away the rest of the continent's tyrants in the 1990s is testament to the relative obscurity of his nation, the loyalty he has inspired from his security services, as well as a cleverly tended alliance with Russia (Russian Observer). This CFR Background Q&A looks at whether the elections could reflect the small stirrings of civil unrest in Belarus. Opposition leader and former statesman Stanislav Shushkevich, in an interview with cfr.org in Minsk, vowed resolve in the face of polls that were "absolutely falsified."

The runup to the election saw intimidation and arrests of opposition figures. Dozens of opposition campaign workers were arrested, newspapers have been closed, and nongovernmental organizations have been muzzled (CSMonitor). This CFR Background Q&A looks at some of the American NGOs active in democracy promotion abroad, including in Belarus.

Neither the EU nor the United States appear to have much leverage in Belarus when compared with Russia. Moscow, meanwhile, supplies almost all its smaller neighbor's energy needs at discount prices. Since Russia's standoff with Ukraine over gas prices in January, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intention to transport more of the gas it exports to Western Europe through Belarus instead (MosNews.com). As a recent study by the Batory Foundation, a Polish think tank, concludes, "Russia has no interest in changing either the situation or the regime" in Belarus.

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