Belarus Reforms Its Elections and Commemorates Chernobyl

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 89

Chernobyl March, Minsk, April 26, 2016 (Source: AP)

Western organizations tend to use a single set of criteria to evaluate the electoral processes and the sundry aspects of the democracy and human rights situations in various non-Western countries. Many consumers of those ratings give no second thought to this practice, implicitly believing that everybody should be like “us.” Some, however, like Stephen White of the University of Glasgow, label this point of view “values imperialism” (Vestnik-MGIMO, 2014). Whereas, those subjected to a one-size-fits-all evaluations scheme tend to grumble against it but, at times, grudgingly follow the evaluators’ suggestions. These non-Western governments often do so out of a desire to curry favor with international investors and lenders, not because there is a domestic call for change. Arguably, such is the case of Belarus, whose Central Electoral Commission (CEC) recently agreed to introduce more transparency into the electoral process following recommendations from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued after the 2015 presidential elections.

The new ruling will specifically introduce local electoral commissions in Belarus, in time for the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for September 11. Though any electoral reforms requiring a change in the legal code will be put off until after that date. The local commissions will be staffed on the basis of open discussions rather than top–down appointments. Also, decisions regarding arguments about local elections will be published online. Finally, the international observers will be able to closely monitor the process of ballot counting (, April 27).

Two sets of observations confirm that calls for those electoral changes were almost certainly not solicited from within Belarus. First, according to a March 2016 national survey conducted by the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS)—the most reputable domestic polling firm, which uses Western funds—public support for the pro-European democratic opposition is at an all-time low. And these low ratings come amidst a steep economic decline in Belarus—that is, when ascribing political blame on the government for the population’s everyday hardships should be easier than ever. However, only 11.3 percent of Belarusians trust the opposition; in December 2012, 20 percent did, and in March 2015—18.8 percent. The opposition is pervaded by internecine fights. The 2010 presidential hopefuls Vladimir Neklyaev and Nikolay Statkevich tour the country, appealing to local opposition activists to collectively conduct the so-called Belarusian National Congress. But the largest members of the opposition, like the United Civic Party and the Movement for Liberty, do not support the idea (, April 28).

Second, the pro-government side itself also does not appear ready to take part in a competitive electoral process. Notably, the pro-regime Belaya (White) Rus movement, headed by the former deputy chair of the presidential administration Alexander Radkov, currently controls 67 out of 110 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament. But the fact that these 67 members of parliament (MP) represent this common affiliation is largely unknown since those MPs do not form a single parliamentary fraction and Belaya Rus is not registered as a political party. Presenting the proposed electoral process changes before activists of Belaya Rus, CEC chairperson Lydia Ermoshina, who had until recently been under European Union sanctions, sounded like a cheerleader for liberal reform. She admitted that candidates running for seats in parliament rarely engage in public debates—during the last campaign, only 7 percent of the candidates did—and they do not publish their programs in the media. In Grodno Oblast, for example, not a single pre-election debate took place, and in half of all precincts, MP candidates ran unopposed. “These are not elections, these are appointments,” Ermoshina admonished the members of Belaya Rus. “Do not simplify your life by such elections! The voters ought to see the electoral process… There should be no spots banned for canvassing. The more bans, the more violations. There should be abundant places for electoral meetings… The passive conduct of the previous parliamentary elections was a disgrace,” she declared (, April 20).

A bit more grassroots activism was expected from the Chernobyl March, an opposition-led rally that occurs annually, on April 26, in commemoration of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which heavily affected Belarus. Seventy percent of the radionuclides discharged by the failed nuclear reactor were deposited in Belarus; the fallout contaminated 20 percent of its agricultural lands and 25 percent of its forests. More than two million people, who lived in 3,600 census-designated places, including 27 cities and towns, found themselves on land irradiated by more than 5 curies per square kilometer; this area exceeded its counterpart in Ukraine, where the reactor was located, by a factor of 4.8 (, April 26). This year, however, only about 1,000 people joined the Chernobyl March, whose major theme was to protest the ongoing construction of the nuclear plant in Ostrovets, in northern Belarus. The expected activism did not quite materialize (RFI, April 27).

Although some consider Chernobyl the utmost mobilizing event that precipitated national consolidation in Belarus, apparently that consolidation is still far from extensive. As Dmitry Trenin, who heads the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in regard to Belarus’s eastern neighbor, “Russia has a population but no nation, as a nation rests on a feeling of solidarity and on a readiness for horizontal cooperation. Russia has nothing of the kind, and it does not have a full-fledged elite either that would be preoccupied with state interests…” (, April 22). “[S]ome important substantive generalizations about the Russian society retain validity when it comes to Belarus” (Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka: Belarus in Cultural and Geopolitical Context, 2014, p. 67), and Trenin’s observation is no exception.

The US State Department has linked the cancelation of economic sanctions to how the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus will be conducted (, April 30). Meanwhile, Freedom House (FH)’s latest score on freedom of the press in Belarus appears to be lower than that in Iran and Syria. Even the author of the Belarus section of the FH report has publicly criticized the organization’s overly harsh scoring convention when it came to this Eastern European country (, April 13). And some opposition-minded journalists reinforce this impression (, April 27). The opinion that authoritarianism has somehow been deceitfully imposed on the allegedly benighted Belarusians, whom better-positioned and informed outsiders (i.e., Westerners) seek to enlighten and liberate, is deeply flawed. More willingness to understand the non-Western cultures and more cultural empathy would greatly benefit the evaluators. It is simply illogical and imprudent to crave Belarusian democracy more than Belarusians themselves do (see EDM, May 16, 2013).