After the parliamentary electionscin Belarus on September 28, both President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his close ally, Lidziya Yarmoshyna, Chairperson of the Central Election Commission, have stated that they expect the EU to lift sanctions against Belarus’s leaders and develop closer relations.
On the face of things, such desires seem far-fetched. The OSCE sent 450 short-term monitors to Belarus; they were reportedly denied access to over one-third of the polling stations and cited several cases of deliberate falsification of the results. Thus, the OSCE reported that the elections could not be considered free and fair (AFP, September 30). On its website, Charter 97 reported, somewhat hyperbolically, “total outrage” at polling stations, including 135 complaints about violations from opposition deputies (www.charter97.org, October 1).
Although rumors circulated at the national television station that victorious candidates from the opposition would have to be allowed air time (www.russiaprofile.org, October 1), not a single opposition candidate will have a seat in the new parliament. According to the Central Election Commission, 75.3 percent of the electorate took part in the process, with the highest turnout of 86.8 percent in the Vitsebsk region and the lowest in Minsk, where three electoral districts reported figures of 57-58 percent. According to official figures, of the opposition candidates, Ihar Rynkevich, chairman of the Social Democratic Hramada party received 15 percent; Syarhey Kalyakin of the Party of Communists, 15.6 percent; Anatol Lyabedzka of the United Civic Party, 9.7 percent; and Volha Kazulina, the daughter of the released political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin, 8.6 percent. Olga Abramova, a deputy in the previous parliament, polled 24 percent (Interfax, September 29).
On the evening of September 28, the United Democratic Forces held a protest on Kastrichnitskaya Square against what they called the falsification of the results of the parliamentary elections. About 700 people took part, carrying the white-red-white national flag and EU flags, as well as slogans that declared “Yes to free elections, no to the farce!” and “Long live Belarus!” (Belapan, September 28). The authorities took no action against this protest but have since noted that it was unsanctioned and that charges may be made against the initiators.
Despite the evident lack of change, there are some limited grounds for optimism on the president’s part. Lukashenka informed the EU that he expected sanctions to be lifted, claiming bizarrely that the country had lost one-third of its population defending Europe in the Second World War and that it had suffered 85 percent of the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 (which is incorrect), thus identifying his own regime with sacrifices and tragedies of the Soviet past. Pleas were combined with threats: the president also said that Belarus did not necessarily need Europe; but if sanctions continue, “We will not let anyone into Belarus” (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, September 30).
According to one account, Poland and Lithuania are eager that Belarus be opened up to the Europeans. Both countries would like to see the country extricated from the Russian orbit and have been encouraged by Belarus’s apparent reluctance to support Russia in the Georgian crisis. The EU presidency has noted some positive developments prior to the election, including the release of political prisoners (AFP, September 30). The maverick ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Germany to Belarus, Gebhardt Weiss, commented on an official Belarusian website that the OSCE’s report was not totally critical and was notably milder in tone than in the 2004 and 2006 election years. Weiss stated emphatically that Germany would remain a “partner” of Belarus (National Legal Internet Portal of the Republic of Belarus, October 1). Two days after the election, Lukashenka held talks with Ann-Marie Lizin, Vice-Chairperson of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Special Coordinator of the OSCE’s short-term observers in Belarus (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, September 30).
Analysts concur, however, that Lukashenka may have been psychologically unprepared to concede parliamentary seats to the opposition, whatever the stakes involved. Vitali Silitski, for example, writes that the “realpolitik” carried out by the EU and United States with regard to a new dialogue with Minsk may have been a singular act of self-deception. He notes that the October 6 visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Minsk might provide a real indicator of whether Belarus’s leader has moderated his views. That should not, however, rule out efforts to seek a new dialogue or to pursue further the strategy of “change through engagement” (Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, September 30).
Throughout his long tenure as president, Lukashenka has shown great aptitude for political maneuvers and about-turns, particularly given uncertain relations with and mounting debts to Russia, dependence on Russian imports of oil and gas, and growing trade with the EU. Essentially, however, his presidency has not changed; and it would be naïve to expect him to abandon the lessons learned building an authoritarian regime over the past fourteen years. The president may point to the fact that the opposition was disorganized and divided over the issue of an election boycott and that perhaps its candidates would not have won seats in a fair election. It is equally obvious, however, that his methods have not changed. Belarus will never be a democratic state under his leadership. The EU and the United States provided an opportunity for Lukashenka to mend his ways but can hardly be surprised that, given the propaganda value of winning a parliamentary election, he opted not to take it.