01/09/2008 - Analysis
On 24th June the Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenko established by official decree that the date of the next general elections would be on 28th September. Belarusian citizens living abroad could fulfil their civic duty in 31 countries; their votes will be counted in constituency 95 (Kupalovsky) in Minsk. During the presidential election on 19th March 2006 around 12,000 Belarusians living abroad turned out to vote.
The number of candidates has decreased dramatically in comparison with the previous election on 17th October 2004. To date only 365 people have come forward as candidates in comparison with 692 four years ago. In 6 constituencies only one candidate will be running. 103 people will be running in Minsk.
The cost of the general elections is estimated at 24.6 billion roubles (11 million $). 700 observers are expected in Belarus to monitor the election.
The electoral campaign started on 24th June last.
The Belarusian Political System
Belarus lives under a presidential regime in which Aleksander Lukashenko, Head of State, has absolute power and leads the country with an iron hand; he controls the entire administration together with society.
Former professor of Communist ideology within the Red Army, political commissioner for the border guards, Alexander Lukashenko took over a sovkhoze in 1987. Elected representative in the Supreme Soviet of Soviet Belarus in 1991 he was appointed president of the parliamentary anti-corruption commission of the Belarusian Parliament two years later. On 20th July 1994, aged 39, he was elected President of the country on the basis of a populist programme promising the reimbursement of financial losses caused by spiralling inflation. Since his accession as Head of State the President has constantly spread and maintained his power across the country.
He has established a State ideology taught in schools and higher education and in companies in which liberalism is defined as an "ideology which is symbolic of social inequality between men, of profit and individualism." Shunned by the international community for his infringements of Human Rights he is the only Head of State to have been banned from travelling to the European Union and to the USA – a measure that had only ever been inflicted upon former Yugoslavian President, Slobodan Milosevic.
In Belarus the candidates running in the national or local elections usually have no political experience and are appointed by the presidential administration; mostly the electoral commissions are traditionally made up of representatives of the ruling power. Directors of public companies, kolkhoze or sovkhoze managers, soldiers, hospital directors, civil servants, local administration managers are all linked to the present regime to which they owe their position. The Belarus regime also controls the political parties, the unions, associations and media. At the end of June Parliament approved a law that aimed to restrict electronic publications (many journalists who were prevented from working after the closure of several press agencies had found refuge on the web). "We must protect society from the negative effects of the internet," maintained Lilia Ananich, Information Minister. On 25th March peaceful demonstrations were stopped on the occasion of Freedom Day, two days later on electronic media journalists had their computers confiscated.
The Belarusian Parliament is bicameral. It comprises the Chamber of Representatives (Palata pretsaviteley) with 110 members who are elected by a majority vote for four years and the Council of the Republic (Natsioalnoye sobranie) with 64 members 56 of whom are elected by the soviets of the capital Minsk and of the country's six regions – 8 members are appointed by the President of the Republic. All candidates must be aged at least 21 and collate at least 1000 signatures of support in order to be able to stand for the electorate's vote.
Most (98) of the 110 members of the Chamber of Representatives say they are independent, the others are distributed as follows:
- 8 are affiliated to the Communist Party (KPB) led by Sergueï Kaliakine; 3 to the Agrarian Party (APB); and one to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPB) led by Sergueï Haidukevitch.
14 years of Aleksander Lukashenko's Rule
Ruling in an authoritarian manner for the last 14 years over Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko upholds a certain amount of popularity in his country. He says that his government has safeguarded the Belarusians from the economic difficulties and political chaos experienced by other post-Soviet States such as the Ukraine or Georgia. Belarus does indeed have a higher GDP growth than its neighbours (10.5% forecast in 2008).
He is quick to accuse the USA of employing a geometrically variable policy. "If Belarus had oil, the USA would be our friends as they are with the Saudi Arabia. I do not think that Saudi Arabia is more democratic than Belarus but it is however the USA's best friend," he declared. He accuses the Europeans of blindly following the political goals set by Washington. "It is unacceptable for the EU to accept the dance set by the Americans," he repeats. He recalls quite openly that 50% of European oil and 30% of their gas passes through Belarus.
"The general elections are the most important event of the year," he declared on 29th April. On several occasions since then he has promised that this election will be exemplary. "We shall show the West and Russia how we organise elections, they will be so transparent and so democratic that no one will be able to criticise us, you can rest assured that the results will reflect reality and you will see who really enjoys the people's support," he repeats, also saying; "Instead of working with the people our opposition forces travel to the USA and the UK to find money."
There have been no elections in Belarus in the last 14 years that have been deemed to meet international democratic standards by western observers.
On 10th April the Council of Ministers of the European Union decided to continue to apply sanctions against Belarus for another year (the freezing of certain financial assets, measures to restrict travel – visa ban for Aleksander Lukashenko and 35 leaders who are known to have committed electoral fraud and to have repressed civil society and democratic opposition during the referendum in 2004). Three days earlier, jointly with the Commission, the Council had adopted a declaration on Belarus in which the two institutions welcomed the liberation of five political prisoners out of the six that the international community had acknowledged as such in the country.
On 16th August the Belarusian President surprised everyone by freeing the most famous political prisoner, Aleksander Kozulin, a candidate in the presidential election on 19th March 2006 (when he won 2.3% of the vote in comparison with 82.6% for Aleksander Lukashenko!); the former Social Democratic Party leader and former rector of the University of Minsk was relieved of his functions in 2003 and sentenced on 13th July 2006 to 5 and a half years in prison for disrupting public order after having being arrested on 25th March 2006 during a demonstration against the "re-election" of Aleksander Lukashenko six days earlier.
"It is a positive step, which the EU had been waiting for a long time. I also expect the immediate liberation of other political prisoners in Belarus," indicated the European Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. "This liberation comprised part of the demands made by the European Union for a progressive return to dialogue with Belarus," stressed France, the present president of the Council of the European Union. "The USA is pleased with the liberation of the Belarusian opposition leader, Aleksander Kozulin. We are expecting new positive signs on the part of the Belarus authorities which might open the way to a significant improvement in relations between the USA and Belarus," said Sean McCormack, the spokesperson for the American State Department. "Bringing Belarus into the fold of European democracies is a priority for our Assembly together with the liberation of political prisoners which is an unavoidable requirement. The liberation of Aleksander Kozulin is therefore a step in the right direction," declared Lluis Maria de Puig, Chair of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) who added, "Democracy and human rights can tolerate no concession. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will obviously take major, long term effort undertaken by the Belarusian authorities into account but it will not however turn a blind eye to the infringements made with regard to freedom and universal rights. Particular attention will be paid to the pre-electoral period and this will enable us to see whether the Belarusian authorities are prepared to provide the necessary conditions for free, fair elections that are a key element of any democracy."
"Only my unconditional liberation and the clearing of my name together with the rapid liberation of the businessmen Andrei Kim and Serguei Parisukevich might be considered as a real step by the Belarusian State on the path to the democratisation of society," declared Aleksander Kozulin as he came out of prison. The opposition member said that he would not accept Aleksander Lukashenko's pardon and asked the State to clear his name completely and provide him with 2 million €. Andreï Kim was sentenced in April to an 18 month term in prison for having hit a policeman in January 2008 during a demonstration and Serguei Parsiukevich was sentenced to 30 months for having hit a security agent whilst he was already in prison.
Four days later, Sergueï Parsiukevich and Andreï Kim were freed from their respective prisons.
On 20th August Benita Ferrero-Waldner said, "the liberation of Andrei Kim and Serguei Parsiukevich and that recently of Aleksander Kozulin are encouraging signs. I hope that this positive impetus will continue and enable the EU and Belarus to develop closer relations rapidly."
These liberations are an attempt by the Belarusian president to improve his image in the eyes of the international community which had set the liberation of all political prisoners as a condition for the lifting of sanctions against him. The western states had already witnessed Minsk's deafening silence after Russian troops entered Georgia at the beginning of August. The European authorities did however ask Belarus not to stop halfway and to continue on the road to democracy, notably by organising free, transparent elections on 28th September next. The liberation of political prisoners should not blind us to the fact that opposition members are only symbolically present in the electoral commissions (out of the 161 representatives of political parties featuring in the ranks of the 69,845 members of the 6,485 commissions only 40 are from the opposition).
Although Aleksander Lukashenko is concerned with his image in Europe it is, according to Alexandre Sosnov, a minister who went over to the opposition, just an attempt to escape from the blackmail undertaken by Russia. At present Russia sells its gas to Belarus for a privileged price: 119$/1000m3 instead of 400 $ to the Europeans. However if Russia joins the World Trade Organisation (WTO) it will have to give up these preferential tariffs and apply prices similar to those applied to its other clients. "Democracy is a method and not an objective," maintained Aleksander Lukashenko on 2nd July. In no way do the elections comprise a democratic exercise in Belarus but a simple obligatory step to legitimise the ruling President's power.
A few weeks ago Aleksander Lukashenko provided himself with the services of Margaret Thatcher's former communication advisor, Tim Bell. The latter is now in charge of improving the Belarusian dictator's image and to fight against disinformation campaigns which Belarus is the focus of. "Each has the right to a lawyer. I cannot see why my company and I (Bell Pottinger) should follow the ethic values that are set arbitrarily with regard to what we should or should not do. I do not want to be involved in the hypocrisy of international relations," declared Tim Bell to the daily The Financial Times. Apart from Margaret Thatcher, the British advisor has worked for Rupert Murdoch, Boris Yeltsin and the Sultanate of Brunei as well as for Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British Prime Minister.
The Belarusian Opposition
Alexandre Kozulin and Aleksander Milinkevich are the two most well known personalities of the Belarusian opposition.
Aleksander Milinkevich won the Sakharov Prize (created in 1988 by the European Parliament to honour people or organisations who dedicate their life to the defence of Human Rights and Freedom) in December 2006. He ran as the candidate for the United Democratic Forces in the last presidential election on 19th March 2006 (in which he won 6% of the vote in comparison with 82.6% for Aleksander Lukashenko!). He announced that he would not run in the general elections on 28th September – an election whose non-democratic nature he condemns but he will take part in the electoral campaign supporting democratic candidates. "Our opposition is much stronger than in Russia. It regularly rallies between 3,000 and 10,000 people," declared Aleksander Milinkevich to the daily Le Monde on 9th May last. In an interview granted to the Robert Schuman Foundation four days later http://www.robert-schuman.eu/entretien_europe.php?num=25),
he warned, "we must win the support of the population. (...) Belarusian society is not aware that there is an alternative."
The other unlucky candidate in the presidential election, Aleksander Kozulin has been free since 16th August. On 5th August, 11 days before he was freed the Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Hramada) decided to replace him as party leader by Anatoly Lenkovich; Aleksander Kozulin was then appointed honorary chairman of the party.
On 19th August Aleksander Kozulin became an honorary member of Front Malady (Youth Front) led by Zmitser Dashkevich and indicated that he wanted to join this movement which has been registered in the Czech Republic.
For a short time the opposition parties were tempted to boycott the general election, an idea that was given up at the end of May. The 11 parties in United Democratic Forces, who have adopted the motto "government for the people and not people for the government", will present a list of 110 candidates on 28th September.
On 25th July last the European Coalition which rallies the Social Democratic Party and the Freedom and Progress Party together with the Front Malady (which decided to boycott the elections and for the time being has suspended its membership of the coalition) invited the United Democratic Forces to sign an agreement on the co-ordination of the electoral campaign. "There is no reason to sign such an agreement," answered Anatoly Liabedzka, Vice-President of the United Democratic Forces, "the aim and goals of our candidates has been clear for a long time; it is a question of presenting an alternative to the pro-Lukashenko candidates. The other candidates, whoever they are, are not our rivals." "The aggressive, hostile reaction to our proposals to join forces against electoral fraud is not clear. This is why we are asking the candidates of the United Democratic Forces to co-ordinate their activities with those of the European Coalition," declared one of the European Coalition leaders, Mikhail Statkevich.
In April last the European Coalition withdrew its delegates from the United Democratic Forces organisations saying that they mostly comprised "people who were against European commitment" and who were against the establishment of a pro-European programme for the upcoming general elections. The European Coalition is accusing the United Democratic Forces of creating an additional threat to Belarus's independence - "they are ignoring the signs on the part of European leaders of the possible integration of our country into Europe in a context where the geopolitical choice is between joining the EU or incorporating into Russia."
And so the Belarusian opposition remains divided. The tension between the European Coalition and the United Democratic Forces is increasing daily. "The European Coalition will reconsider its commitment with the United Democratic Forces after the elections," says Mikhail Statkevich who adds that the Forces were "no longer really united and no longer really democratic."
The Liberal-Democratic Party appointed 7 candidates to run in the general election during its congress on 3rd August next. It announced on 24th July that it intended to boycott the election before then changing its mind after – according to its leader Serguei Haidukevich - a number of supporters said they wanted it to take part. The Liberal Democratic Party is the opposition party that has the most members and is one of the best organised. Re-elected as leader on 23rd February Serguei Haidukevich condemns the settlement of political problems by the force undertaken by the present Belarusian authorities and denounces the regime's corruption and its development into a monarchy with unlimited power.
So the election we shall see on 28th September is more a sham than a true vote in Belarus. The authorities really do not want the "jeans revolution" to flare up again since this might affect the next presidential election planned for 2011. This is why they may allow some opposition members, the most discrete, to enter Parliament to legitimise the election. This group of selected opponents will have no real influence and will not be a threat to the ruling power in any way.
Reminder of the Election Results 17th October 2004 in Belarus
Turn out: 90.1%