Belarus' stage-managed democracy fails its test from the West

By bne IntelliNews September 30, 2008

Graham Stack in Minsk -

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has recently been trumpeting his desire to hold "unprecedented fair and open" parliamentary elections as part of a thaw in relations with the West. But Monday, September 29 revealed the limits of this "stage-managed" democracy - the western observers refused to play their scripted role and declined to recognize the elections as free and fair.

In contrast to Russia's "managed democracy," where only a handful of Western observers were invited to elections in 2007, Belarus' stage-managed democracy actively welcomed a large contingent of 450 observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a fact that Anne-Marie Lizin, vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and special coordinator of the OSCE short-term observers, warmly praised in a Minsk press conference discussing the mission's findings September 29.

However, despite opposition fears, the OSCE observers didn't allow themselves to be deceived by appearances, and refused to find the elections democratic. "The clear signals to improve the election process were not implemented and substantial improvements are required if Belarus is to conduct genuinely democratic elections," said Lizin, adding that the elections "fell short" of democratic standards.

The OSCE's findings will be highly embarrassing for Lukashenko who has staked a lot of personal credibility on securing Western recognition for the parliamentary elections. He declared earlier in September that if the West failed to recognize the elections as democratic, he would break off the nascent thaw in relations.

The OSCE observers criticized specifically the lack of transparency in vote counting. In 48% of polling stations, the transparency of counting was assessed as "bad" or "very bad." In 35% of cases, OSCE observers were prevented or hindered from observing the count.

The OSCE was broadly critical of most aspects of the elections, saying in a statement that: "The legislative framework continues to present obstacles for elections in line with OSCE commitments. The media coverage of the campaign did not provide meaningful information for voters to be able to make an informed choice. Political parties played a minor role and restrictions imposed by the state authorities did not allow for a vibrant campaign with real competition."

OSCE representative Geert Ahrens, however, expressed optimism that the originally expressed intentions on the part of the Belarusian authorities to hold fully democratic elections, while not properly implemented, still provided the basis for ongoing dialogue and for improving relations with Europe. "We would only be too happy to come up with a positive report," said Ahrens, who still spoke of a "wind of change" in Belarus. Lizin also said it was possible that the good intentions expressed by the country's leadership had simply not be adequately communicated down the line.

But for all the diplomatic phrases, the OSCE's refusal to recognize the elections as democratic is a blow to authoritarian President Lukashenko, who likes to be seen as in control of everything. So the OSCE formula that Belarus has shown enough good intentions and made sufficient minor improvements for dialogue to continue could be face-saving on both sides. However, putting all the diplomatese into perspective, Lizin, when asked to compare Belarus' elections with Russia's parliamentary elections of 2007, where she had been an observer in Vladivostok, stated unequivocally that the Russian poll had been much more democratic.

Opposition failures

The elections were not only disappointing for Lukashenko, but also for his opponents. No democratic candidates managed to win their constituencies in Belarus' first-past-the-vote system where party allegiance plays virtually no role. This constituted a major surprise. It was widely anticipated that the authorities would actively ensure the election of a number of opposition candidates to the parliament. Lists of opposition candidates supposedly prescripted for election victories were circulating on the Internet on the eve of elections.

However, when late in the night the head of the Central Election Commission Lidia Yermoshina announced the voting results in 100 out of 110 electoral districts, not a single opposition candidate had won in his or her constituency. The opposition alliance United Democratic Forces fielded 70 candidates out of a total of 264 competing for the 110 seats.

Opposition figures attributed their failure to enter parliament to the lack of access to media and electoral manipulation. In addition to the non-transparency of vote counting referred to by the OSCE, opposition figures pointed to the prevalence of early voting. 26% of voters voted before election day, and the figure reached 92% in voting wards largely populated by students. Alla Salivonchik, 42, the head of a student dorm, told bne how she checked off the names of the students who had been to vote, "a relic from Soviet times" she said.

Opposition figures argue that, during early voting, sealed urns were not protected at night against simple substitution. In comments to bne on the day of voting, Jens Eschenbacher, member of the OSCE election observation team, confirmed that the high level of early voting was a "Belarus peculiarity" and the overwhelming majority of election observers arrived too late to monitor the early voting adequately. However, the final OSCE report had little to say on the prevalence of early voting. "International observers just don't grasp that it's possible to substitute entire urns of votes," Sergei Kolyakin, leader of the Belarus Communist party said at a press conference on election day. "They can't get their mind around the idea. It's not European."

Kolyakin and Vladimir Nistyuk, both opposition candidates running for Minsk constituencies, also alleged that a major goal of electoral manipulation was to ensure the minimum turnout of 50% in Minsk, where voting activity on election day seemed very low frequency. The final turnout countrywide was 75%, according to the Central Election Committee.

Most people questioned by bne on the streets of Minsk confirmed that they had already or intended to vote. Their almost unanimous complaint, however, was about the lack of information on candidates. Most voters said they only learnt in the polling station that candidates were running in their constituency. They made their decision on the basis of the scarce information provided about the candidates on the premises of the polling station itself. "We chose the youngest candidate, because the country's future is in the hands of the young. Older people will simply sit in the parliament and do nothing," said Anna, 54 and Anatolia, 57, now pensioners, formerly engineer and doctor respectively. Like most Minsk inhabitants interviewed on the streets, they declined to provide a surname. The 30-year-old candidate they chose was in fact a communist.

Protestors on the streets

While failing the electoral test, stage-managed democracy's one real masterstroke was to allow opposition forces to take to the streets without any accompanying police presence.

Following the end of polling, 1,000-1,500 opposition supporters, mostly young, assembled outside the headquarters of the Central Electoral Committee on Minsk's October Square for an unapproved demonstration together with opposition leaders Alexander Kozulin and Alexander Milinkevich and a large foreign press contingent. Among the crowd were a youth group called Young Guard, which pitched symbolic tents on the square, reminiscent of the tent cities of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004. Young Guard, which refused to comments on ties to organization in the Ukraine, chanted for an end to the Lukashenko regime.

With no police presence anywhere to be seen, the Young Guard lit flares, hoisted flags and led the rally on a colourful unapproved march down Minsk's main street, Independence Prospect, even pausing provocatively in front of the feared KGB headquarters. They then proceeded to the government building on Lenin Square, where they called for the release of a number of political prisoners. With still no single policeman in sight, the demonstrators marched back up to October square where they were addressed by Kozulin, who asked them to disperse peacefully.

In comments made to bne during the demonstration, Kozulin, recently released from jail, expressed fears that the West could lower its demands of Belarus regarding human rights and democracy in exchange for Belarus moving away from its close alliance with Russia. "The danger exists, especially after the Georgian conflict. Lukashenko knows to exploit it," he said.

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Belarus' stage-managed democracy fails its test from the West

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