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Opposition in Belarus Unites to Select Candidate for President

Opposition parties in Belarus have agreed on a single candidate to run against long-time ruler Alexander Lukashenko in the presidential election set for next summer. Hundreds of delegates met on Sunday and pledged to work together to end the dictatorial rule of Mr. Lukashenko.

Around 900 delegates from various political groups met in the Belorussian capital, Minsk, to pick a single candidate from among various political parties and groups.

They named Alexander Milinkevich, a 58-year-old academic to run against Alexander Lukashenko in next year's election.

Mr. Milinkevich studied at the University of California and also attended the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. He won over three other political leaders at the meeting, which brought together people who have not always been so united in the past.

But many delegates stressed the importance of coming together to unseat Mr. Lukashenko, who has run Belarus with an iron hand for over a decade.

Mr. Lukashenko is widely considered in Western Europe as "Europe's last dictator," but he does enjoy support from Russia, China and some other countries.

Opposition leaders say they realize a tough struggle lies ahead. But many also say they take inspiration from popular movements which have brought down unpopular rulers in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia in recent years.

President Lukashenko, meanwhile, has cracked down on the media and his opponents. His government shut down the last independent newspaper in Belarus recently, making it difficult for the opposition to get its message out.

Irina Korbinskaya is head of the European Security department at the Institute of Europe in Moscow. She says the odds are stacked against the opposition even if Mr. Lukashenko permits a free and fair election, which, she says, isn't likely.

"If the opposition is given the right to speak openly, I do not think the support of the opposition will be enough, will be sufficient, for them to win," she says.

Mr. Lukashenko enjoys significant backing in rural areas where the social welfare network has remained virtually unchanged since the Soviet era.