Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 41

The administration of president Alyaksandr Lukashenka has broken the internationally mediated dialogue with the opposition parties and the leadership of the forcibly dissolved parliament. That dialogue had been underway since mid-1999 through the good offices of two panels of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): its Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk, under German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck; and its Parliamentary Assembly’s special group on Belarus, headed by Romania’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Adrian Severin, which has been shuttling to the Belarusan capital for talks with both the authorities and the opposition. The mutually agreed goal of the dialogue, while it lasted, was to prepare conditions for holding parliamentary elections in autumn 2000 which could be recognized as legitimate internationally.

The authorities have now abandoned that exercise. Lukashenka’s newly appointed representative for liaison with public organizations, Ihar Velichanski, expounded the new policy in statements issued on February 23 and 28. The presidential administration is unilaterally changing the format and the agenda of the talks. It will dialogue with any and all political, public and nongovernmental groups which accept the results of the 1996 referendum and ensuing constitution which conferred sweeping powers on Lukashenka. The agenda may involve any number of issues, including electoral issues, in the framework of the existing constitution. These qualifications in effect exclude the opposition and imply that the authorities would be dialoguing with their own supporters. The role of the OSCE is being minimized to the point of exclusion. While the February 23 statement still allowed “a smaller role for international organizations,” the February 28 statement claimed that the OSCE had “accomplished its mission of catalyzing the dialogue; from this point on we shall act on our own.” Lukashenka is prepared personally to participate in the dialogue. Several pro-regime and pro-Russian groups promptly announced that they are available to join in (Belapan, Minsk Radio, Itar-Tass, February 23, 28).

As a harbinger of that decision, the presidentially appointed parliament had enacted, and Lukashenka signed on February 16, a new electoral code, the draft of which had previously been rejected as undemocratic by the OSCE, by the Council of Europe rapporteur on Belarus, Wolfgang Behrendt, and by the European Parliament’s Ukraine-Belarus-Moldova liaison group chief Elisabeth Schroeder. Coincidentally or not, Lukashenka on February 18 appointed a new prime minister, Vladimir Yarmoshin, who came to Belarus some years ago from Russia. The incumbent ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Defense–Ural Latypov and Aleksandr Chumakov–and other senior government officials are arrivals from Russia as well. And on February 25, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov declared on a visit to Minsk that “Western governments ought to show appreciation for the Belarusan government’s policy of openness.” Such statements serve both to encourage Lukashenka and to signal that Moscow will continue defending Minsk against censure in international forums (Itar-Tass, Belapan, Minsk Radio, February 17-18, 25-26).

The OSCE is not prepared to throw in the towel. While warning the authorities that the elections will be deemed illegitimate if held under that electoral code and without the opposition’s participation, the Advisory and Monitoring Group continue hoping against hope to bring the authorities and the opposition back to the dialogue table, with enough lead time to prepare for holding elections on schedule in the event that consensus is reached (Belapan, February 27-28). The authorities, confident of Russian diplomatic support, and apparently fearful of facing their country in a free parliamentary election, seem determined to dig themselves deeper into their political bunker.