Fri, Mar 17, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Unorthodox candidate wins respect

AP , MOZYR, BELARUS

Opposition presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich began his rally in the city of Mozyr by telling supporters he is going to lose Sunday's vote. It is an unorthodox strategy, but his backers still find him inspiring.

Just his appearance at the rally is a victory of sorts. Scores of his aides and supporters have been arrested and he has had virtually no access to media coverage, but he is pressing forward all the same in his challenge to authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, characterized in the West as Europe's last dictator, is widely expected to win the vote amid fears that opposition calls for peaceful protests against possible election fraud could lead to violent confrontation with the authorities.

But Milinkevich, 58, a former physicist, city official and rights activist says his chance to reach out to this ex-Soviet republic of 10 million is worth the struggle.

``We know the election will not be free, fair or transparent,'' Milinkevich told voters in the southeastern city of Mozyr this week. ``But we simply wanted to appear on television once in five years, meet with you, engage in dialogue with you.''

Milinkevich and two other challengers have been given small amounts of airtime for speeches on state-controlled TV and radio, but state media otherwise either ignore him or slam him as a traitor in the paid service of the West.

Many of his planned rallies have been banned, and those that occur are repeatedly interrupted by pro-government activists.

Milinkevich, soft-spoken and modest in demeanor, seems an unlikely player in the tough world of Belarusian politics, which is dominated by Lukashenko's aggressive style and penchant for hours-long hectoring speeches.

Born in the western Belarusian city of Grodno in 1947 to a family of school teachers, Milinkevich graduated from university with a physics major and went on to teach and study physics in Belarusian universities while also going on training programs and postings to Algeria, France and the US.

Milinkevich combined academic research with advocacy work by founding the country's largest network of regional non-governmental organizations. He has also worked as campaign manager for an opposition political candidate in 2001 and had a brief stint as deputy mayor of Grodno in the 1990s.

Milinkevich became the candidate of an opposition coalition that includes democrats, communists, greens and nationalists in October.

He pledges economic reforms aimed at increasing Belarusians' living standards and democratic changes that should end the country's international isolation.

Milinkevich calls for the partial privatization of state enterprises and collective farms, which now amount to some 80 percent of the economy.

Profitable plants and farms could remain in the state hands, he says, while the rest should be transferred into private hands, including foreign investors.

He also promises democratic reforms which would free the country's mass media from state control, increase the parliament's power at the expense of the presidency and go back to electing, rather than appointing regional officials.

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