Belarus presidential candidate appears at Forum 2000

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and Alexander Milinkevich, photo: CTK

In Belarus this month allied opposition activists agreed on a single candidate to challenge the autocratic rule of President Alexander Lukashenko in next year's presidential elections. Alexander Milinkevich, the man picked to take on "Europe's last dictator," travelled to Prague this week at the invitation of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, a vocal opponent of the Lukashenko regime. Mr Milinkevich discussed the current situation in Belarus at the Forum 2000 meeting.

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and Alexander Milinkevich,  photo: CTK
Former president Vaclav Havel, who founded the Forum in 1996, was among 70 foreign guests invited to October's congress in Minsk, where Mr Milinkevich was chosen as a candidate to unite the opposition to President Lukashenko. Also present was another famous communist-era dissident turned president, Lech Walesa of Poland.

Mr Milinkevich told Forum 2000 that regime change in Belarus can only occur following a wide popular protest, similar to Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004, or Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution of 1989. International pressure, he says - and financial support for a free, independent press - can help stir up that critical mass. Brian Bennett is Britain's ambassador to Belarus.

"I think it's very good that someone with the profile of Vaclav Havel is interested in Belarus - is personally interested. The more people who talk about Belarus, the more people are concerned about it, then the better it will be for the people there."

Eight years ago Belarussian opposition groups set up the Charter 97 organization, modelled on Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 human rights group, co-founded by Vaclav Havel. Charter 97 has an office, a website and a press officer. But most civil society and opposition groups keep a lower profile. Ambassador Bennett again:

"The other side of the coin is that some of these initiatives are best conducted with a low profile, because if they attract the attention of the authorities, they may themselves get into difficulty. We need to be discrete about the assistance that we're making, because in some instances it causes difficulties for people in the country and causes the authorities to block the bank accounts that the money is going through."

Alexander Milinkevich represents a broad coalition of ten political parties and more than 200 non-governmental organisations, bringing together communists and liberals. Mr Milinkevich admits he has no chance of winning next year's elections. Belarussian opposition groups are pinning their hopes instead on a mass expression of peaceful opposition which has so transformed the former Soviet bloc in the last 15 years.