by Roland Oliphant
The Belarussian parliament has finally set a date for the country's much-anticipated presidential elections - December 19.
Belarussian opposition figures and human rights groups are reporting a worrying increase in intimidation, and the relationship with Russia is clearly going from bad to worse, with mysterious claims that Russian authorities have ordered the assassination of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarussian opposition has failed to agree on a single candidate, so Lukashenko can expect to face several opponents in December. The main hopefuls are Alexander Milenkevich, the leader of the For Freedom movement and the candidate the opposition rallied around in 2006; Jaroslav Romanchuk, a Minsk-based economist and political scientist running on a jobs platform; Vladimir Neklyaev, the poet and leader of the popular "Tell the Truth Campaign;" and Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and co-founder of the Charter 97 opposition website, whose campaign manager Oleg Bebenin died in mysterious circumstances last week.
Although the opposition has yet to unite behind one figure, Sannikov warned against attaching too much significance to the issue. "Back [in 2001] we had more than 20 candidates entering the signature-gathering stage:and in the end we had a single candidate," he said.
Lukashenko has been through three elections and won them all. His first victory in 1994, when he ran as a populist insurgent candidate, was also Belarus' first democratic presidential election. In 2001 and 2006 he brushed aside a fractured opposition in elections that the OSCE said failed to meet its standards and was characterised by a "climate of intimidation". And the incumbent seems confident that he can repeat his previous triumphs - he has said he sees "no reason" not to run, and that if he didn't, "the people might not understand me".
But one thing has changed this year - Russian support. The spectacular falling-out between Minsk and Moscow led to a partial suspension of Russian gas supplies in June, and burst into what the Russian press are calling an "information war" in July, when the Russian channel NTV broadcast a three-part documentary called "The Godfather", about Lukashenko's democratic shortcomings.
Opposition figures reckon that could be just the break they need. "Lukashenko is a product of Russia himself. No matter what they say now, for a very long time, starting with Boris Yeltsin, they used him and supported him, and he used them. [The change in relations] is already making an impact on the situation," said Sannikov.
That's especially likely in light of negotiations on energy imports scheduled for December. Sannikov guessed that the decision to move the election forward to December this year rather than February next year was made because Lukashenko realised that he had no hope of making a deal with Russia. "If he did have that hope, he would probably have postponed it so he could announce that he made a good deal with Russia, and life will be better and so on," said Sannikov.
On the contrary, Belarussians can expect a "practically inevitable" rise in the price of fuel and communal services in the New Year, a Russian daily reported Wednesday. And that's just the kind of bread-and-butter politics the opposition will hope to cash in on. While Sannikov campaigns on a platform of European integration, Romanchuk has long been pushing a jobs and wages line, but both rely on the message that Lukashenko can no longer guarantee the wealth of the nation.
Sannikov says he's "feeling quite good" following the announcement of the date, and expects a big turnout. "It's rejuvenated interest in the elections. I've been getting calls from the public expressing their support," he said.
And Sannikov isn't alone in his optimism. "Lukashenko's time is up, but he doesn't want to go," said Valery Kostko, a retired KGB lieutenant colonel and respected opposition figure. "Regardless of the winner of the elections, the result will be the same: Lukashenko is leaving." The former intelligence officer gave the president till May to make his exit.