Sunday, March 26, 2006

Minsk Saturday

The news story arrived Saturday, showing President Lukashenko's willingness to use the iron fist that wasn't employed in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution.

Riot police dispersed a fresh challenge to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko on Saturday, blocking thousands of antigovernment demonstrators from reaching the central square in the capital and later arresting a top opposition leader ...

The turnout on Saturday in the face of police violence suggested that the opposition had far more support than Mr. Lukashenko had conceded in his derisive public remarks.

The protesters, who have modeled their effort in part after freedom movements against Communist or post-Soviet governments in Poland, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, were young and old, men and women. They called loudly for a new way of life, free of state repression and with integration with the West, which Mr. Lukashenko loathes.

With even critics of the current Belarussian regime saying President Lukashenko could have been re-elected if the election had been "free and fair," if only based on his rural support, I do wonder what a new election would do. To make the election free and fair, the country needs a free press (on BBC Sunday, an election monitor said this was the main reason the election wasn't "free and fair": the opposition couldn't get its message out). A free press doesn't appear overnight. And when Lukashenko's three challengers split 17 percent of the vote, with one of these candidates preaching a platform similar to the president's, I do wonder what the cost of a national election would be. At least elsewhere, national elections are extremely expensive. If that's the price of winning a free press, it would be worth it. Right now, I can't see any other goal. It wouldn't be a popular revolution, or a democratic revolution, if a group, however vocal and urban, seized power with less than 50 percent of the vote. The votes of the majority were miscounted in Ukraine in 2004. TO have a similar situation in Belarus, either the votes were mistallied on a much larger scale, or people felt afraid to voice their true opinion in the polling stations. Those overseeing the election, 500 people from 38 countires, say:

The vote count proved highly problematic, with observers assessing it negatively in a large number of counts witnessed. In a number of instances, the results were completed in pencil, and the majority of observers were prevented from standing close enough to see the marks on the ballot.

Over 30 per cent of voters cast their ballot during five days of early voting. Lack of security provisions for the ballot box increased the possibility of fraud. The mission also received a number of reports that managers and directors pressured staff to vote early.