Belarus president seeks better relations with US after "invisible" elections

Belarus president seeks better relations with US after
Belarusian parliament saw the admission of first opposition candidates in 12 years on September 11.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv September 12, 2016

Just two members of the Belarusian opposition won seats in the lower chamber of parliament during strictly regulated elections on September 11, following a campaign that was described by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) as "invisible".

Anna Konopatskaya of the opposition United Civil Party and Yelena Anisim of Francisak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society won mandates, with the two female MPs becoming the first opposition members to join the 110-seat chamber in 12 years.

During voting attended by international monitors, Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said that the country had done “everything so that there aren't complaints from the West”. Lukashenko came to power in 1994, receiving no less than 75% of the vote in any of the five elections in which he ran.

Some observers saw the election of the opposition candidates as a possible sign of Minsk's desire to improve relations with Western countries and especially the United States, which said earlier that lifting its sanctions against Belarusian persons and companies depended on how the polls went.

Lukashenko also told journalists on September 11 that he seeks restoration with the US of diplomatic representation at the level of ambassadors in the "near future".

"We will surely have [the ambassadors]. We have agreed upon it," Lukashenko's media office quoted him as saying. "When? You better ask the American side. I think that the issue will be addressed after the elections of the US president."

Washington recalled its ambassador in Minsk in 2008 under pressure by the Belarusian government amid a conflict over US sanctions against the Belarusian state petrochemical conglomerate Belneftekhim.

Scott Rauland, former US charge d'affaires to Belarus, told the BelaPAN news agency in July that "probably, a decision will be made what to do about the US sanctions" after the parliamentary elections.

"We are all hopeful that there will be additional progress and then a US decision will be made on further changes of our sanctions regime," the diplomat added. "It could be suspending sanctions for a longer period of time. It could be lifting sanctions entirely from individuals, from companies or altogether. I think the amount of progress that is made in Belarus will have an influence on a decision that the US makes."

According to the country's Central Election Commission (CEC), voter turnout was 74.32%. A total of 31.29% of registered voters cast their ballots during the five-day early voting.

Opposition activists and local observers are sceptical about the transparency of the elections, accusing authorities in Minsk of using early voting to rig the results and engineer victories for pro-government candidates. According to official information, 26% voted early in the 2012 parliamentary election, and 36% in the 2015 presidential election.

Accoding to the ODIHR's interim report published on August 31, campaigning in Belarus was strictly regulated. "The campaign remains largely invisible with very low turnout at observed campaign events. Some contestants expressed very low levels of confidence in the electoral process and noted that their participation aims primarily at making use of outreach opportunities that are unavailable outside of the campaign period," the document reads.

The ODIHR underlined that a number of its prior recommendations had not been addressed in the Belarusian law, including about the role of the executive in the appointment and work of election commissions, the regulation and transparency of signature collection and verification procedures, the grounds for candidate deregistration, and dispute resolution.

"Furthermore, the law gives authorities wide discretionary powers to deny registration or deregister political parties and public associations," the report added. "Electoral actors (other than candidates and their proxies) need permission to hold public assemblies and campaign activities of prospective candidates during signature collection are restricted."

Meanwhile, Oleg Andreyev, a Minsk-based investment expert and former chief M&A specialist at Alfa Bank in Belarus, believes possible lifting of the US sanctions will provide little immediate help to efforts of the Belarusian government to attract foreign investors.

According to the expert, foreign investors will make their decisions over possible entry in the Belarusian market based mainly upon the real economic environment in the country. "The main problem is the domestic currency’s constant marked loss of value, a high level of inflation, capital controls, unclear privatisation rules, etc," Andreyev told bne IntelliNews.

The expert also underlines that Belarus can't rely on foreign investors until "a quality class of Belarusian investors" is formed.

Alexander Mukha, a Minsk-based financial analyst, told bne IntelliNews that possible weakening of the US sanctions "would increase the likelihood" of securing a new support package for cash-strapped Belarus with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and improve the atmosphere for a new sovereign Eurobond placement.