16/02/2006 - Analysis
On 19th March next seven million Belarusians will be called to elect their President of the Republic. Whilst the election was originally planned for the start of the summer –since the previous election took place on 9th September 2001, the electoral law established the month of July as the deadline for the organisation of the next election – the 104 members of the Palata pretsaviteley, the lower chamber of Parliament, all supporters of the present president Aleksander Lukashenko voted unanimously on 16th December in favour of holding the first round of the presidential election on 19th March 2006. The opposition immediately denounced this decision accusing the ruling powers of not allowing them enough time to organise themselves and to undertake a real campaign. Representatives argued that the summer, a holiday period, was not the right time for the election. In the choice of 19th March political analyst Valeri Karbalevich perceives "a sign of weakness on the part of Aleksander Lukashenko." This reveals the Belarusian president's fear of seeing the opposition succeed in organising themselves and above all witnessing them rally the population to their cause. "I can see two arguments that explain this early election. Firstly fear on the part of Aleksander Lukashenko in the face of the opposition whom he wishes to prevent from mobilising both material and human resources before the election; there is also the hope that the Ukrainian general elections in March -which will take place on 26th March – will divert attention from Belarus," analyses Valeri Karbalevich.
The official campaign will start on 21st February leaving the opposition with four weeks to undertake its campaign.
The Political System
Belarus lives under a presidential regime in which Aleksander Lukashenko holds all power. This omnipotent president, nostalgic of the Soviet period and an adept of its repressive methods is the master supreme and leads the country with an iron hand having total control overall things administrative as well as society. Candidates in elections, both general and local are generally men and women without any political experience appointed by the presidential administration and the electoral commissions traditionally exclusively comprise representatives of the ruling power. Public company directors, the managers of the kolkhoz or sovkhoz, soldiers, hospital directors, civil servants, local administrative managers are all linked to the present regime and owe their place to it. The strong Belarusian regime also controls the political parties – many political opponents are imprisoned – the unions, associations and the media. The Belarus Trade Union Federation, which has over 4 million members, was transformed into a State organisation in 2002 and its management was handed over to Leonid Kozik, a close friend Aleksander Lukashenko. The rare independent media are all in limbo existing under the constant threat of arbitrary closure or economic asphyxia. The country has no independent radio or TV stations and only 1% of the population has an antenna that enables the reception of foreign TV channels. Only Euronews has a broadcasting slot in Russian on the cable. Finally 15% to 30% of Belarusians are connected to the Internet.
Belarus is the holder of the sad record of the greatest number of resolutions on the part of the European Parliament that has condemned it for its behaviour. The most recent was in September 2005 when the regime was condemned for having dissolved several political parties over the last few years, along with 22 daily newspapers – including the independent Narodnaya Volya – and over fifty NGO's that work in favour of Democracy. Over the last four years the number of independent newspapers has dropped from sixty to eighteen. At present Nasha niva is the only independent publication to have survived and prints only five thousand copies.
Aleksander Lukashenko has established a State ideology, a system of anti-liberal values. Liberalism is defined as an "ideology that is a symbol of social inequality between men for profit and individualism"; this is taught in establishments of secondary or higher education and in companies; an ideology manager takes care of each of these. "Ideology must prevent the creation of a rebellious rift within the State structures. The mobilisation of the administrations is therefore a means to control executive activity and yet provide ideological coherence to the presidential policy and avoid the use of over brutal methods with regard to State employees," writes Alexandra Goujon, lecturer at the University of Burgundy.
On 2nd December last MP's voted unanimously on a law that provides for prison sentences of up to three years for all people "who provide information to foreigners that discredit Belarus and its government." In addition to this belonging to an unregistered or prohibited political party is now a crime that can lead to a two year prison sentence and "taking part in demonstrations" can lead to up to three month prison sentences. Finally anyone participating in a "conspiracy to take over power," can be imprisoned for up to eight to twelve years. "Leaders of the politicised opposition parties consciously provide false information on the political procedures in Belarus. The aim of such declarations is to force Western political communities to inflict sanctions on Belarus. Destructive forces want to use the campaign to take over power and change the constitutional regime by organising a revolution as in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and in Kirghizistan in 2005," declared the Belarus KGB chief Stepan Sukhorenko during the presentation of the law in Parliament.
Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been banished by the international community for his Human Rights infringements, is the only Head of State to have been prohibited from travelling to the European Union and the USA – a measure that only previously affected the former President of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic; Lukashenko has isolated his country from the rest of the world to the extent that few political analysts believe that it is possible for Belarus to undergo a democratic revolution on 19th March in the ilk of Georgia and the Ukraine.
Suspicious of everything Aleksander Lukashenko has locked his country away. Seeing that the populations of the former Soviet Republics, such as Georgia and the Ukraine, have used their history, their language and their culture as a support to demand greater democracy and to claim the right to live as they think fit, the man, who the USA qualifies as the "last dictator in Europe", has for example prohibited the national flag which he has replaced by the former flag of the Soviet Republic of Belarus and the use of the Belarusian language. "The battle is ongoing on two fronts: that of democracy, founded on universal values and that of the independence of our country. These two aspects are linked. If our country does not become an independent, sovereign State how can it become a true democracy?" asks opposition member Oleg Minkin. "It is likely that Russia is preparing to annex Belarus. It is an insidious annexation. To avoid this we must create our own State immediately. We are not dangerous nationalists. We just want our independence," he added. Two weeks ago Vladimir Putin indicated that an "integration procedure" between Russia and Belarus was underway.
Aleksander Lukashenko owes much to his Russian neighbour. The country that imports 90% of its energy could not in effect live without Russia's economic aid which sells it gas at 46.7 dollars per one thousand m3 and which the Ukraine has to pay 230 dollars for. The former governor of the country's central Bank and present director of the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies based in Vilnius, Lithuania, Stanislav Bogdankevich believes that direct gifts on the part of Russia represent nearly one quarter of the Belarusian GDP. He believes that "three quarters of Belarusian companies are not profitable and 120 companies alone produce more than half of the country's GDP." In 2005 the country underwent high economic growth (8.6%) and demonstrates healthy economic indices (less than 2% of the working population is unemployed), which does not prevent however 20% of the population from living below the poverty line. Finally, although salaries are paid regularly, prices are still very high.
In November 1996, two years after he was first elected president (20th July 1994), Aleksander Lukashenko organised an initial referendum enabling him to extend his term in office by two years and to extend his prerogatives – and this whilst the electoral law prohibited any modification to the country's Constitution by referendum. He was then re-elected as Head of State for a five year term in office on 9th September 2001 in the first round of the election with 75.65% of the vote, versus 15.65% for his main adversary, opposition candidate Vladimir Gontcharik. This election was not acknowledged as being valid by the observers of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and was virulently challenged by the opposition.
On 17th October 2004 during the general elections, which were also denounced as fraudulent on the part of the observers responsible for monitoring them, Aleksander Lukashenko organised a popular vote on the following question – since the Constitution did not allow him to stand for a third term in office – "Do you give the President of the Republic of Belarus Aleksander Lukashenko the right to stand for the Presidency of the Republic of Belarus?" Hence by an illegal referendum and according to the results – deemed rigged by all of the international organisations in charge of monitoring the election – three quarters of the electorate (77.3%) voted in favour of the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution thereby removing the restriction on the number of times any one person could be re-elected President of the Republic. The participation rate reached 90%. Aleksander Lukashenko therefore believes he can run for a third term in office.
The Presidential Election
Electoral law obliges each candidate running in the presidential election to hand in at least 100,000 signatures in order to stand. As expected, Aleksander Lukashenko is the one who delivered the greatest number of signatures (1 905 631). In vain the opposition forces lodged a complaint with the Central Electoral Commission for infringements in the collation of the signatures denouncing the fact that a number of heads of companies and public organisations has vigorously encouraged their employees to support Lukashenko's candidature.
The four people running in the presidential election on 19th March are:
- Aleksander Lukashenko, president in office since 20th July 1994;
- Aleksander Milinkevich, elected as the only democratic opposition candidate on 2nd October during the congress of the Unified Opposition Forces that rallies around 20 political movements and numerous non-governmental organisations;
- Aleksander Kazouline, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, a former opposition party taken over by the Belarusian authorities after the imprisonment of its former head Mikola Statkevich, accused of having organised a demonstration against the ruling power;
- Sergueï Gaïdoukevich, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, a nationalist party.
Several personalities such as Zenon Pozniak and the academic Aleksander Voïtovich, who initially said they wanted to stand for election, finally gave up believing that the election could be rigged.
Aleksander Lukashenko, who received the support of Vladimir Putin said in November that he was convinced that he would be re-elected. "Can it be otherwise?" he quite simply asked. On 19th January Batka (father in Belarusian) as he likes to be called finally accepted that the OSCE send observers for the election on 19th March. But he incessantly attacks the European Union for its so-called interference in Belarusian affairs. The organisation will send four hundred observers to monitor the equability of the election. At the beginning of February an OSCE delegation visiting the capital, Minsk, denounced Human Rights violations and the harassing of the opposition members. "The situation in Belarus has worsened with regard to Human Rights," said the head of the delegation Uta Zapf, as she deplored the repression suffered by independent unions and the "imprisonment of political personalities from the opposition."
"It is difficult to imagine the advent of free, fair elections in the present circumstances," declared the American Deputy Secretary of State for European Affairs, Daniel Fried. The latter was refused a visa by the Belarusian authorities when he tried to go to Minsk with the Director General of the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, Robert Cooper. "If the elections are not fair, the USA might plan to undertake other measures," said Daniel Fried.
At the end of January the European Union for its part called for the Belarusian authorities to ensure that the "presidential election took place freely and legally," that "all candidates could undertake their campaign freely" and finally that "the OSCE observation mission could work without obstacles". It also warned Belarus if democratic standards were not respected that there might be more economic sanctions (freezing of financial assets for example) and even the refusal of visas for certain leaders. Belarusian leaders have been denied access to the Union's territory since 10th July 1998. Belarus is the only State on the European continent not to belong to the Council of Europe that suspended its observer status nine years ago for the non-respect of democratic standards.
Aleksander Milinkevich was appointed the only democratic opposition candidate by the 830 delegates and representatives of the Congress of the Unified Democratic Forces that was held in Minsk on 2nd October last. During this rally that was inaugurated by the reading of a message of support from the former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Aleksander Milinkevich won 399 voters versus 391 for Anatol Lyabedzka (the Civil Union Party)."I do not consider myself to be the winner," he declared on his appointment, "I only came out just ahead of men who are my equals." Division was for a long time the opposition's main handicap. It is the first time that in overcoming their differences the opposition has succeeded in coming together around one candidate. "The victory of the presidential election is impossible unless the opposition forces come together," declared Aleksander Milinkevich, adding "the real challenge to which we must rise is our ability to work as a one team." The only democratic opposition candidate continues his campaign amongst the population trying by all possible means to meet people. "I am calling on all of those who feel affected by the future of Belarus and who defend the idea of change undertaken for the people in this country. In spite of the pressure from the government I shall continue, like all the pro-democratic forces, to travel the length of the country in order to meet people. Our objective is simple: to give our country its freedom, truth and justice once more," repeated Aleksander Milinkevich.
The 58 year-old democratic opposition candidate comes from Grodno, a town in the West of the country. He studied at the University of California as well as at the European Centre George C Marshall. After having worked at the Academy of Science of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Belarus he taught physics in Setif, Algeria during the 1980's before becoming Deputy Mayor of his town between 1990 and 1996; he was notably in charge of culture, education, healthcare, sport, youth and international relations. In 1996, he became the director of Ratusha, the public association that was disbanded by the authorities in 2003. Since he did not belong to a political party he became part of Semen Domash's campaign team in the presidential election on 9th September 2001; the latter finally gave way in favour of Vladimir Gontcharik. Aleksander Milinkevich speaks several languages fluently and has increased his trips abroad to inform people of the situation in his native country. Moderate and competent he speaks in a balanced manner about Russia that is however involved in the support of Lukashenko and counts on the "citizens' lassitude" who hope to have good relations both with the West and the East.
In spite of the small hope of seeing a free and transparent election the opposition candidate would however like to show Belarusians and the whole world that there exists a true opposition and therefore a real political alternative in his country.
He travelled to France on 9th January last and received the official support of the French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy. He enjoys the support of all the European Union countries along with the USA. On 30th January he visited Brussels where he met the head of European diplomacy, Javier Solana, the European Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and the president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell. He also attended the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers. "Until now international opinion has not been interested in the situation in Belarus. It is important that it does take interest because the government media are trying to convince the Belarusians that the West has abandoned them," declared Aleksander Milinkevich to Polish journalists. The European Union decided –exceptionally – to finance the launch of an independent radio station that would broadcast towards Belarus. This programme will be undertaken by a consortium of Russian, German, Lithuanian and Polish radio stations.
Each candidate only has the chance of two TV and radio appearances of thirty minutes each and all are in danger of being banned from going on air if the authorities decide for example that the speech is overly critical of the ruling power. However, Aleksander Lukashenko can speak as much as he wants in the media who support his cause. Hence on 27th January he took 90 minutes airtime on three TV channels during which time he accused the opposition forces of having received Western money to organise demonstrations after the presidential election on 19th March next. Aleksander Milinkevich, who is prohibited from undertaking what one might call a real campaign in this country spoke on a number of TV channels in the border countries (Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland and even Russia), as well as on Euronews hoping to reach his fellow countrymen. Candidates are also allowed to publish their electoral programme in seven newspapers (Sovietskaya Respublika, Narodnaya Gazeta, Znamya Yunosti, Belorusskaya Niva, Zyyazda and 7 Dnei).
A survey undertaken by an independent opinion institute showed that a quarter of Belarusians mostly those living in the countryside and pensioners hope for the re-election of Aleksander Lukashenko, another quarter, mostly the young and city dwellers, are openly demanding for political change. Half of the population, that is extremely worried about its economic survival and deprived of its freedom of expression, has not expressed any opinion and may be the source of a great surprise. It is to this part of the Belarusian population that Aleksander Milinkevich will address himself first and foremost to try and convince them that fatality does not exist and that nothing and nobody has the right to deprive the Belarusians of the freedom and the democracy to which they aspire. All democratic countries hope that this election will not be the caricature of Democracy again. Aleksander Milinkevich's score will really be the measure of this.
Presidential Election Results 9th September 2001
Participation rate: 83.9%
Source Agence France-Presse