MINSK -- The fragmented political opposition in Belarus chose a US-educated physicist yesterday to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed ''Europe's last dictator," in next year's presidential election.
Inspired by the ouster of unpopular governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, about 800 representatives of Belarus's opposition parties and movements named Alexander Milinkevich as their candidate at a congress in Minsk, the capital.
''We believe that Belarus will be next after Georgia and Ukraine," Milinkevich said.
''Belarus will win freedom forever in 2006," said Milinkevich, who holds an advanced degree in physics and briefly served in a local administration in his native western city of Grodno, near the border with Poland in the early 1990s.
Milinkevich, 58, studied at the University of California and also attended the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.
Lukashenko has led the nation of 10 million people since 1994, extending his rule through a series of elections and referendums that Western observers called fraudulent. The latest referendum last November allowed Lukashenko to run for president an indefinite number of times.
In Ukraine's Orange Revolution, protests against election fraud led to victory for the pro-Western presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Similar public protests also have ousted unpopular rulers in the former Soviet nations Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Lukashenko has reintroduced Soviet symbols, disbanded Parliament, closed independent media, and maintained rigid Soviet-style state controls over the economy. Many opposition leaders have been jailed or have disappeared.
Belarus's opposition activists last tried to field a single candidate in 2001.
Milinkevich urged foreign nations to ''break an information blockade" imposed on the opposition by state-controlled media.
The list of potential presidential candidates at the congress also included Belarus's first post-Soviet leader, Stanislav Shushkevich; United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko, and Communist Party chief Sergei Kalyakin. All have tried to challenge Lukashenko in past elections.
Milinkevich, who edged out Lebedko, 399 to 391, at the congress, pledged to name his three rivals to key positions in his campaign.
Shushkevich said authorities had tried to hamper the congress by harassing its delegates.
Lukashenko's strongman ways have made him a pariah in the West, but he has signed a union agreement with Russia envisaging close political, economic, and military ties. Russia provides Belarus with loans and supplies oil and gas at low prices.
Belarus's united opposition has chosen a red tree on a white field as its emblem -- the symbol of life and victory over fear imposed on the colors of the nation's post-Soviet flag, which Lukashenko replaced with an old Soviet one after his first election.