28 February 2005
by Alyaksandr Kudrytski
A former ally emerges as a potential challenger for Lukashenska in 2006.
MINSK, Belarus--On 19 February the biggest opposition daily, People's Will, devoted its entire front page to the manifesto of a new political movement. Led by Alyaksandr Kazulin, former rector of Belarusian State University, the movement carries a name almost identical to that of the paper--Will of the People--but Kazulin's links to established anti-Lukashenka groups remain unclear.
The same day, Kazulin emerged as the probable leader of a new party when he addressed a joint convention of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Hramada) and Social-Democratic Hramada. As they have done in the past, the two parties pledged to unite, this time under Kazulin, who will likely challenge Alyaksandr Lukashenka for the presidency in 2006.
Kazulin's leap into the spotlight is the first major development in the opposition since Lukashenka easily won the right to seek another term in a referendum last October.
Kazulin was born in Minsk in 1955. He studied mathematics at Belarusian State University (BSU), served in the Soviet navy, and began his career in the lower ranks of the communist youth organization Komsomol.
Lukashenka appointed him to high-level posts beginning in 1994, when he became deputy education minister, and in 1996, when he was named rector of BSU--the first time the university's head had been directly appointed by the president rather than elected by its professors.
Kazulin initiated a number of schemes to turn BSU into a profit-making enterprise, founding or reviving several BSU-affiliated firms to spin the university's scientific expertise into commercial products. He also opened a university-run FM radio station and won a court battle over a McDonald's restaurant built on university property.
Signs of worsening ties between Kazulin and Lukashenka emerged during the 2001 presidential election, won handily by Lukashenka. Rumors that Kazulin would run for the presidency himself proved unfounded, but the rector failed to bring out the student vote for his patron: Lukashenka won less than 20 percent of the vote in the two electoral districts for dormitory students.
In November 2003 Kazulin was finally sacked after a scandal involving two top managers of the largest BSU enterprise, Unidragmet, which enjoys the state monopoly on extracting precious metals from metal waste. The two were charged with misuse of $300,000 earned from extracted gold.
WHO IS KAZULIN?
Kazulin's reappearance aroused a wide range of reactions in opposition circles, from enthusiasm to suspicion. Is he a straw man put up by Lukashenka? Creature of the secret services--or of Moscow? Or a promising independent politician playing his own game? Kazulin himself is not giving much away. "I am sure that Alyaksandr Ryhoravich [Lukashenka] believes I'm a traitor," he said in an interview with the independent weekly Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta on 25 February. "The present opposition will probably claim that I am on the other side of the barricades [from them]."
Kazulin stressed his disenchantment with the president: "Lukashenka did a lot of good for his country and his people. But we are now hostages of his weak traits. The country has no more prospects for development with this leader."
The list of Kazulin's supporters may shed some light on his political background. Although most of the 84 signers of the Will of the People manifesto are unknown regional activists, workers, peasants, and pensioners, there are some well-known personalities, including Natalya Masherava, daughter of Piotr Masherau, the charismatic leader of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1960s and '70s, who died in a mysterious car accident in 1980. Masherava ran for president in 2001 as a pro-Russian democratic candidate but withdrew shortly after entering the race. Masherava's signature may indicate a pro-Russian plank in Kazulin's political agenda--something the candidate himself hinted at recently when he remarked that Belarusians "are destined to have relations with Russia and live in Europe. We must become European Russians or Russian Europeans." His words surprised a group of signatories to his manifesto associated with the Belarusian-speaking intelligentsia, such as writer Volha Ipatava and Ales Pashkevich, head of the Belarusian Writers Union. Kazulin hurried to say that he had been misunderstood, but some took his words for a Freudian-style slip of the tongue.
Kazulin may have a lead on other potential candidates in one key area: winning the loyalty of the bureaucracy. Backed by several of his former university colleagues who signed the manifesto, Kazulin seems to be capable of drawing officials' sympathy. He is thought to retain many contacts in official circles. The administration lost no time before striking at this potential source of institutional support, firing all BSU-connected signers of the manifesto, including Alyaksandr Rukhlia, head of the BSU department of international affairs and coordinator for Will of the People in Minsk.
Lukashenka seems unsure of Kazulin's strategy at this point. On 22 February, he told guests at a meeting on corruption-fighting efforts that the opposition "is searching for people who are ostensibly linked neither to the opposition nor to the authorities, in order to present them as independent and ready to assume power." He added, "We know who finances these allegedly independent people, and soon Belarusians will learn about it."
Kazulin is proving to be skilled at evading direct answers. In his interview for Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta he said, "It's better to do without revolutions, but if we can't do without them, then revolution is the only way to go." So far any speculation regarding Kazulin's intentions remains just that--speculation. One thing seems clear: His appearance has added a new ingredient to the political scene and may encourage other opposition candidates to gear up for next year's presidential contest.