Avoid elections, Belarus warns

April 16, 1999

Students and lecturers at the University of Mahileu have been warned not to take any part in presidential elections under way in Belarus.

Elsewhere in the country, students have been arrested for collecting signatures for the petitions that entitle a prospective candidate to stand.

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko does not acknowledge the need for elections. He argues that his statutory five-year term should date from November 1996, not from his 1994 election. In 1996 he held a referendum to augment his already considerable powers to amend the constitution. This, he said, was equivalent to a new five-year mandate. His argument is not recognised internationally; in the eyes of the world's governmental and diplomatic community, his mandate expires this summer.

President Lukashenko's first act after the referendum was to dissolve the elected parliament, retaining only a few loyal MPs as the core of a new bicameral assembly of, effectively, his own choosing. It is these ousted MPs, together with other democratically minded activists, who plan to hold "presidential" elections on May 16. This initiative is supported by Lukashenko opponents across a wide political spectrum.

At Mahileu University, Mikhail Alausievich, the deputy rector, has taken a determined stand. All faculty and departmental heads have been told that any electoral activity is illegal and could bring unpleasant consequences. Many students, he said, have considered joining the opposition in society. But members of the university where President Lukashenko used to study should keep clear of such activities.

In fact, President Lukashenko did not attend a university. His tertiary education was in a teacher training institute, where he qualified as a Communist Party adult education worker. Only recently did he promote his obscure alma mater into a university.

A high-level confidential document, leaked to non-governmental news agency Belapan, revealed that a "covert general staff" has been set up in the ministry of justice to block the elections by, among other things, increasing surveillance of opposition activists and clamping down on human rights organisations and "radical and extremist" groups.

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