Preparations for the parliamentary elections scheduled for September 28 are well under way. Chair of the Central Election Commission Lidziya Yarmoshyna has declared that the election is intended to “smash stereotypes” about Belarus (Moscow Times, September 14). Although some opposition parties are taking part, Charter 97, European Coalition, and the Belarusian Popular Front intend to withdraw their candidates on September 23 and hold a protest in Kastrychnitskaya Square on the evening of the September 28.
Following Belarus’s release of the last designated political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin last month, the European Union has declared its readiness to ease sanctions, provided that the September 28 vote is conducted in a democratic fashion. The EU imposed a visa ban on 41 of Belarus’s leading officials in 2006, and declared both Yarmoshyna and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka personae non gratae (EU Observer, September 16). Despite some reticence—Czech Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexandr Vondra said that the Czech Republic would not back the immediate lifting of sanctions, for example (www.naviny.by, September 16)—the Europeans seem prepared to adopt a more conciliatory attitude to the Lukashenka regime.
The Belarusian authorities have noted the positive response of the electorate toward the elections. A survey in late August suggested that 79.6 percent of the respondents knew about the elections and a further 14.5 percent had “heard about them.” The director of the Information-Analytical Center with the Administration of the President of Belarus, Aleh Praleskouski, commented that 84.6 percent of those polled intended to vote in the elections (62.2 percent had made a firm decision to do so), a figure that has hardly varied since last May. Less than 10 percent, on the other, hand, declared their intention not to take part (SB Belarus’ Segodnya, September 16). Similarly, 54.3 percent of the respondents were satisfied with procedures for advance voting (very common in Belarus), 29.4 percent had neither positive nor negative sentiments, and only 12.9 percent were negative (Belorusskoe telegrafnoe agenstvo, September 16).
On September 12 Yarmoshyna reported that of 279 registered candidates for the 110 seats, 89 were representatives of political parties (31 percent), including 63 from the opposition: 23 from the United Civic Party, 15 from the Popular Front, 13 from the two Communist parties (the Communist Party of Belarus, however, is pro-government), and 11 from the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada). The leader of the rival wing of the Social Democrats, Stanislau Shushkevich, is running as their sole candidate (Belorusy i Rynok, September 15-22).
The media is at pains to point out the “normal procedure” of the election campaign. One typical report related how the Brest city government had permitted Social Democrat candidate Ihar Maslowski to hold rallies at different locations and is reportedly meeting with voters in factories and going from door-to-door without hindrance (Belapan, September 15).
In many respects, however, the campaign is notable for similarities with the past. Opposition parties may have candidates running but they are practically excluded from the election commissions that run the process and count the votes. Of the 111 people running from the United Civic Party in Brest region, for example, only seven members were nominated for the commissions (Politika, August 13). In contrast to the statements by Yarmoshyna, apathy in single-candidate constituencies signifies that the candidate is unlikely to receive the necessary total of 50 percent of the possible votes; and repeat elections are likely (Belorusy i Rynok, September 15-22). On September 16 riot police violently dispersed an unsanctioned opposition rally in central Minsk, commemorating the ninth anniversary of the abduction of politician Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski. Those assaulted included United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, a parliamentary candidate. The police tore up European and the national white-red-white flags on display (www.charter97.org, September 16).
At a press conference on September 16, Zmitser Bandarenka, one of the leaders of the “European Belarus” campaign, urged voters not to listen to politicians from East or West but to boycott the contest and take part in the protest on the square. Also present was Lyavon Barcheuski, leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, which is also backing the boycott. Zyanon Paznyak, leader of the rival Christian Conservative Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, has endorsed the boycott and says that European states are deceiving themselves into believing that a democratic election is taking place (www.charter97.org, September 15 and 16).
A member of the United Civic Party from Vitsebsk, Volha Karach, has denounced those supporting a boycott, singling out Charter 97 in particular. She bemoans the betrayal of supporters who have risked their jobs and suffered intimidation by working for opposition candidates, and she says that those who choose to back out cannot expect public support in the future. In her view, the United Democratic Forces is being hijacked by Charter 97, which she says is neither a party nor a public organization. She mocks the view that boycotting the election can lead to a political dialogue and “real elections” in future, commenting that the only beneficiaries will be pro-government candidates who gain office without competition (Politika, September 17).
For the Lukashenka regime, the benefits of a more positive international press are considerable at a time of tension with Russia. The campaign can hardly be described as democratic, however. Although the new parliament may contain a few token opposition figures, it will remain a rubber-stamp assembly in the hands of the president. As for the opposition, there are bitter divisions over the issue of a boycott, and the unity exhibited in the 2006 presidential elections is sadly lacking.