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Belarus opposition holds congress, considers replacing its leader

Belarus opposition holds congress, considers replacing its leader

Fractured Belarusian opposition forces opened a raucous congress Saturday with some activists calling for the replacement of their chief with a collective leadership.
But Alexander Milinkevich, the top opposition leader who challenged authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in a March 2006 presidential vote, opposed the call, saying it would further weaken the opposition.
"The opposition is in a deep crisis," Milinkevich said in a speech before 600 delegates at the congress in the capital, Minsk. He accused fellow opposition leaders of sliding into infighting instead of working to consolidate their forces.
But Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party who agreed last year to put aside his own presidential ambitions to support Milinkevich in the presidential race, said the opposition needed a collective leadership.
"Milinkevich isn't a British Queen. We are offering an alternative program of change to the society," he said.
Lebedko and Communist leader Sergei Kalyakin argued the opposition must have several leaders who should undergo regular rotation.
Kalyakin also suggested Saturday that the opposition must engage in a dialogue with Lukashenko _ a proposal Milinkevich rejected.
In what appeared to be an attempt to soften the opposition and improve relations with the West that dubbed Belarus "Europe's last dictatorship," Belarusian authorities this week released three opposition leaders.
Paval Sevyarynets and Mikola Statkevich have been freed earlier this week a year earlier than their three-year terms, and Yekaterina Sadovskaya was freed Saturday after serving seven months of her two-year prison sentence.
"Lukashenko is trying to imitate processes of democratization in order to launch a dialogue with the West amid cooling ties with Russia," Sadovskaya told The Associated Press after being released.
Belarus' relations with its main ally, Russia, has worsened recently amid disputes over energy and other issues.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, quashing dissent, closing down opposition media and extending his term through flawed elections. The U.S. and the EU have imposed sanctions on him and top members of his government.
The 2004 referendum scrapped presidential term limits and gave Lukashenko the go-ahead to seek a third term in 2006 and prompted days of protests by opposition parties and youth activists. Lukashenko's win in last year's presidential election was widely criticized by opposition groups and Western observers.