On November 17, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka declared that he expected to win 90% of the electoral vote in the presidential elections of 2006, a figure far exceeding anything he has achieved hitherto. At the same time he accused the European Union and the United States of using the “rhetoric of globalization” to try to “enslave” Belarus. Earlier in the week, the United States had stated its belief that the elections were unlikely to be free and fair, given the government’s control over the media, the restrictions on free speech, and the authorities’ refusal to permit observers to monitor the event (Pravda.ru, November 17; AP, November 15).
The EU in particular has recently been very forthright in its condemnation of the Belarusian regime in the wake of blatant attempts by the Lukashenka administration to silence potential opponents, as well as to prevent the holding of nongovernmental opinion polls during the election campaign. Lawyer Harry Pahanyaila commented, for example, that one of the few remaining sizeable NGOs in Belarus, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), is on the verge of closure. An old legal case against the BHC has been resurrected in the Supreme Economic Court, according to which the organization owes a substantial sum in back taxes, despite the fact that earlier trials of the same case in different courts and in the state prosecutor’s office had resulted in “not guilty” verdicts. According to Pahanyaila, the anticipated payment required — around $180,000 — would force the BHC into dissolution (Belarusy i Rynok, November 8).
The EU (as well as the United States) also criticized the harassment and persecution of activists of the unregistered association “Partnerstva,” which observes elections. The leaders of the association attempted to hold a founding congress recently in the hall of the Tsentralnyi movie theater. After 30-40 minutes, militiamen and OMON troops burst into the hall and arrested the entire group — about 70 people in all. They were taken to the Moskovsky region militia headquarters and put into a large hall, where, to the surprise of the militia, they proceeded to continue their meeting and adopt documents for their registration. Most of the participants were released, but four leading figures, including the head of its organizing committee, Mikola Astreika, received short detentions and/or fines (Belarusy i Rynok, November 8).
Shortly after this event, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU Commissioner on Foreign Affairs, along with three EU Foreign Ministers, visited Moscow. In an interview with Deutsches Welles she stated that the EU was seriously concerned about the violations of human rights in Belarus and the worsening situation in the development of civil society. She emphasized the EU’s desire that opposition candidates must have access to the mass media so that people have sufficient information to make a conscious choice in an election. The EU appealed to Belarus to allow observers to enter the country and repeated its assertion that the referendum results of October 2004 — allowing Lukashenka to run for a third term — were falsified (Narodnaya volya, November 12).
From Moscow, Ferrero-Waldner went to Minsk, much to the irritation of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, which, together with its Russian counterpart, issued statements defending the status quo. The Belarusian statement declared that the Council of Europe was manifesting a “desire to impose its will on the authorities and society of Belarus” and that the EU was avoiding contact with the Belarusian government, thereby exhibiting a lack of respect for its sovereignty. It also denounced the EU’s attempts to finance opposition groups, which it maintained is illegal in Belarus and other states. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a more noncommittal statement that any steps to promote democratic processes in Belarus must be adapted to the “local reality” — it did not specify the meaning of the latter phrase (Belarusy i Rynok, November 14).
The EU tactic is to freeze accounts of Belarusian officials abroad rather than ban their travel outright, although “visa restrictions” would likely be imposed if the election campaign were not held on a legal and democratic basis. The goal is to keep open channels of dialogue with the authorities, particularly below the ministry level. The European Commission expressed its intention to open an office in Belarus by the end of 2005, and Javier Solana, Secretary-General of the Council of the EU, plans to send his personal representative on human rights to Minsk to take responsibility for contacts with Belarusian civil society and for disseminating EU views among the authorities. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry expressed its doubts that an office could be opened so quickly, but in December a European Commission delegation will visit Minsk, and in January the issue of the “Belarus Question” will again appear on the agenda of EU ministers.
The message is clear. The EU intends to play an active part in ensuring that the 2006 election campaign is not a repeat of earlier rituals, and is seeking to establish its presence in Minsk. It would also prefer to work with, rather than against, Russia to ensure change in Belarus. Lukashenka continues to resist such incursions. Nevertheless, the regime’s emotional responses to these maneuvers indicate that external pressure is having some impact.