22/09/2008 - D-7
280 candidates are officially running in the general election on 28th September in Belarus ie three times less than during the previous election on 17th October 2004. 62 people, ie slightly less than one fifth in all are standing as independents; 34 are outgoing MPs. In 12 constituencies there is only one candidate; in 53 others the election will be reduced to a duel between two candidates. Adzintsowski, the 7th constituency in Minsk, has the greatest number of candidates. Generally the personalities of the Popular Front mostly run in the capital, those from the Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Hramada) are in Brest-Litovsk and the Communist Party candidates are in the country's second biggest town, Homiel.
Just one week before the vote rumours of a boycott are growing amongst the opposition. The Popular Front, the oldest opposition party in the country, announced that it would withdraw its candidate five days before the election to denounce "their false democratic nature" if no progress was seen in terms of democratisation. Liavon Barschewski, its chair, invited all opposition parties to follow this example. "Massive infringements are being prepared," he declared.
The opposition forces protest against their low representation within the local electoral commissions since these remain in the hands of the ruling power. Only 46 of the 1,900 candidates have been allowed to take office within these commissions. The Popular Front is planning to ask for new general elections. "We cannot acknowledge the future Chamber of Representatives (Palata pretsaviteley) because the political situation in Belarus has not improved since 2004, in some ways it has even worsened," declared Liavon Barshchewski.
But not everyone agrees on the idea of a boycott. United Civic Party leader, Anatoli Liabedzka, candidate in the constituency of Suhkarawski in Minsk believes that by not taking part in the election the opposition coalition would be transformed into a dissident movement; he believes that the opposition should look for a compromise with the authorities in place. "It is vital that the democratic forces are acknowledged after these elections; the greater our base the greater our chance will be in 2011 (year of the presidential election)," he said.
Aleksander Milinkevich, candidate of the United Democratic Forces in the last presidential election on 19th March 2006 (he won 6% of the vote in comparison with 82.6% for Aleksander Lukashenko), shares this opinion. He says that even if the next general elections are not democratic they are a chance for the opposition to make its voice heard. "If the opposition enters Parliament, which Aleksander Lukashenko clearly wants, MPs will have been appointed beforehand and even if this is so we shall have more than we have ever achieved in twelve years, ie the representation of the opposition," declared Aleksander Milinkevich to the daily Vremya Novostei.
On Poland's initiative the EU recently envisaged lifting its sanction against Belarus. "The situation has changed because the authorities have taken a certain number of decisions that meet our conditions, for example the liberation of political prisoners and they have given signs that the general elections on 28th September will be more democratic than the previous ones which led the EU increase the severity of its sanctions," declared Radoslaw Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister, who added: "My arguments and proposals received the encouragement of the High Representatives for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana and the European Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner."
The latter said that she supported Warsaw's proposals believing that it was up to the EU to "take the first step" after the liberation of political prisoners (on 16th August last Aleksander Lukashenko freed the most famous of the political prisoners, Aleksander Kozuline, then four days later, Sergueï Parsioukevich together with Andreï Kim also left prison). Benita Ferrero-Waldner did however stress that nothing could be decided before the general elections on 28th September. "But we might do something to show that we are ready," she indicated mentioning the possibility of reducing visa tariffs for Belarusian entry into the EU.
On 15th September last the 27 Foreign Ministers said that if Aleksander Lukashenko "takes the opportunity to show his respect for democratic values and enables effective access for OSCE observers to all of the stages of the general elections on 28th September," they were "ready to start looking into the restrictive measures applied to Belarus leaders." They also said they were "ready to take positive steps," such as "increasing official exchanges, with regard to trade and culture and opening up the neighbourhood policy," which will allow Belarus to receive significant financial aid.
The USA also acknowledges that the successful running of the elections is an "important element" in the possible lifting of sanctions. "Positive steps on Minsk's part might lead to a significant improvement in relations between the USA and Belarus including the lifting of visa restrictions and economic sanctions," indicated the State Department's representative, Robert Wood. Three weeks ago Washington suspended some of the economic sanctions it had placed on Belarus.
Alexandre Kozuline, Sergueï Parsioukevich and Andreï Kim recently said that it was too "early to say that there were no more political prisoners in Belarus." "We are happy to be out of prison but we do not enjoy real freedom," declared Aleksander Kozuline, adding "in our liberation we see a measure of justice but we have never admitted our guilt and we believe that we were convicted for political reasons." "The very fact that I am here proves that Aleksander Lukashenko could not ignore the combined pressure of the EU and the USA," he said indicating that in his opinion the progress made by the authorities in power on the road to democratisation was tenuous and that the changes "were superficial and that they were not in depth changes." "Aleksander Lukashenko has no strategy to improve his relations with the West, he bargains with the West on the one hand and with the Russians on the other to get the most he can. Europe must not close its doors but it has to be aware of this bargaining. The regime that has governed since 1994 is possibly tired and it is time to co-operate," he said saying that "economic priorities should not be placed ahead of basic Human Rights."
On 12th September Aleksander Milinkevich called on the EU to encourage the Belarus government on its path to democratisation and to lift "partially or totally" the sanctions that weighed on the country.
Indeed as the election approaches Aleksander Lukashenko seems to be extremely concerned by the image he has in the West. He said that Belarus would only take a decision in recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two Georgian provinces that unilaterally declared their independence, in October next when the Chamber of Representatives had been renewed. In August last Belarus's silence after the entry of the Russian tanks into Georgia was indeed noticed. Last year Aleksander Lukashenko said that his country's relations with Russia would be reviewed and threatened that Moscow would have to pay passage rights over its territory (Russia has to cross Belarus to reach the Kaliningrad enclave). In a public interview on 19th September with the Financial Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Aleksander Lukashenko indicated that "the USA and the EU were stronger than Russia."
Although he is increasing the gestures of opening to the West the Belarusian leader is however attached to neighbouring Russia which sells him for example, its gas at a "friend's" price (119$/1000m3 in comparison with the 400$ for the Europeans) and which buys a number of products the country produces. If Moscow was cut off it would be particularly expensive to Minsk. "Russia wants to enter the WTO which means giving up its preferential tariffs and the application of similar tariffs to all its clients. Belarus is not ready. The Belarusian debt with regard to Russia is enormous – between 10 and 12 billion dollars," said Aleksander Milinkievich in an interview with the French daily "Le Monde" on 9th May last.
Finally Aleksander Lukashenko is equally concerned in satisfying the EU and the USA in the general elections on 28th September in view of the next presidential election in 2011 in which he is determined to run.
"The whole world is expecting the first free, democratic elections in Belarus since 1994 (the year in which Aleksander Lukashenko rose to power)" says Ihar Rynkevich, a close colleague of Aleksander Kozuline, member of the Social Democratic Party and candidate running in Minsk during the general elections. In spite of recent developments in the regime the election on 28th September is not due to be very much different from the ones held over the last fourteen years.