Belarus opposition splits as leaders form new parties

WARSAW — The Belarusian opposition is splintering, with Pavel Latushko, a former diplomat and minister now in exile, announcing the formation of a new political party on Thursday.

The party doesn’t yet have a name, but it signals that the broad front created by opposition leader Svetlana Tikahovskaya is divided after months of fruitless protests aimed at removing authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko from power.

“We are building a multi-party system in which the citizens of Belarus will have a real choice among political parties,” Latushko said in an online video message.

His move comes a week after another opposition leader, Viktor Babariko — currently in jail in Belarus — announced the formation of his own party.

The moves create an awkward position for Tikhanovskaya — the public face of the opposition who claims to have won the August presidential election. The official result gave Lukashenko 80 percent of the vote, but that outcome has been widely condemned as fraudulent.

The result sparked huge protests across Belarus that led to a fierce crackdown by forces loyal to Lukashenko, with thousands arrested and at least four killed.

Opposition leaders are either in prison or fled the country; Tikhanovskaya is in Vilnius while Latushko is in Warsaw.

The opposition is hoping to restart mass protests against Lukashenko, which died down over the winter. In his appeal, Latushko called for demonstrations on May 9, the day Belarus celebrates the end of World War II.

Both Tikhanovskaya and Latushko sit on the seven-member Presidium of the Coordination Council for Belarus — a non-government body aimed at facilitating a democratic transfer of power.

Strained ties

But two people close to the presidium said that contacts between Tikhanovskaya and Latushko have dwindled.

For Tikhanovskaya, the key is to keep all the leading opposition politicians in a united front against Lukashenko, who has designated both Latushko and Tikhanovskaya as terrorists.

“We don’t have [another] choice than to stay united,” she told POLITICO. “We work together, we share [the] same goal. I understand that I am the unifier. Pavel Latushko, Valery Tsipkalo, Viktor Babariko — they have their political ambitions, and it’s OK. But our primary goal is to make Belarus democratic, and this is why I am here.”

Speaking from a nondescript office building in Warsaw, Latushko downplayed any rift with Tikhanovskaya.

“Tikhanovskaya decided to put herself forward at a crucial moment in our nation’s history. She received a lot of votes and I have a great respect for her,” he told POLITICO. 

In his message, Latushko called for the creation of a “parliamentary-presidential republic, based on the principles of alternation of power with a multiparty system of checks and balances.”

The idea is to set up a party structure that can swiftly step in and conduct an election campaign if conditions in the country permit.

He’s also open to talks with Lukashenko, saying that if the leader sits down to negotiate, “at that point we would know he has lost.”

For her part, Tikhanovskaya has long said that if permitted, she would preside over a free and fair election and then “continue to be of use to Belarus.”

Many leaders

The anti-Lukashenko movement inside Belarus has been largely leaderless for months — organizing spontaneously or through online forums — which creates difficulties for the politicians claiming to represent them.

Tikhanovskaya became the leading opposition candidate in the August election after Lukashenko jailed her husband Sergei, a popular opposition blogger, as well as Babariko, a former senior banker who was doing well in opinion polls.

It’s not easy to conduct polling in Belarus, but what surveys do exist show fragmented support for opposition politicians. A January online survey carried out by Chatham House found that Babariko was the most popular, with 28.8 percent support — narrowly ahead of Lukashenko — while Latushko was second at 12.1 percent. Tikhanovskaya, as well as several other politicians, were clustered at around 4 percent.

“If [Babariko] were to be released, he would become a real challenger. But the government understands that and won’t let him free — he’s getting a long sentence” said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, a think tank.

Tikhanovskaya has a claim of legitimacy because of the election result but has “failed to turn symbolic capital into political leadership,” said Preiherman.

Despite those doubts, it’s clear that Tikhanovskaya has become the leading figure of the Belarusian opposition, meeting world leaders, being featured in the media and picking up human rights awards. Many countries recognize her as the winner of the August election.

“No one can match her standing inside or outside for Belarus,” said Jörg Forbrig, director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, adding: “She’s managed to assemble a strong team, build international support, and keep the momentum of the movement, despite the obstacles from Lukashenko [and] his propaganda machine.”

That creates difficulties for Latushko in his bid to lead a new political force, especially when it comes to obtaining approval from Lukashenko’s key ally Russia.

“Despite being well respected, professional and having a far deeper understanding of diplomacy than Tikhanovskaya, Latushko still can’t bridge the EU-Moscow divide. Russians don’t see him as someone they can work with,” said Forbrig.

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