On August 4 in Minsk, the rapporteurs on Belarus for the Council of Europe (CE) announced that they would not recommend that the Council send observers to Belarusan parliamentary elections in October. The announcement makes it a virtual certainty that the West and the new democracies in East-Central Europe will deem those elections undemocratic, and the new Belarusan parliament–just like the outgoing one–illegitimate. The Minsk mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is plodding its way toward a similar action.
Although the internal circumstances in Belarus would seem to have made it inescapable, the CE rapporteurs’ decision was not a foregone conclusion. A few West European chancelleries and some CE and OSCE representatives had quietly suggested a compromise whereby the authorities would concede a few seats and “a parliamentary tribune” to the opposition, while the West would recognize the new parliament and ease or perhaps lift the quarantine on the Belarusan executive branch of government. In the eyes of some West European proponents, that solution had the additional advantage of removing a point of friction with Russia. The United States representatives and many West Europeans had no truck with such suggestions. The Belarusan national-democratic opposition rejected a deal that would merely have strengthened the presidential authoritarian rule, even setting the stage for a “recognized” parliament to legislate unification with Russia.
Ultimately, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s inflexibility helped settle the issue. The CE rapporteurs determined that the authorities had failed to meet the CE’s and the OSCE’s four minimal requirements for the holding of acceptable elections: 1) fair access by the opposition to the state-owned mass media, 2) democratization of the electoral code, 3) conferral of meaningful prerogatives on the parliament and 4) a stop to persecution of opposition members by the police and judiciary to create a pre-electoral climate of trust. This fourth requirement could, at a minimum, have secured the release from prison of Andrei Klimau and Uladzimir Kudzinau–members of the parliament forcibly dissolved by Lukashenka in 1996–as well as an official accounting of the fate of the “disappeared” opposition leaders Viktar Hanchar and Yuri Zakharenka and of the similarly “disappeared” journalist Dzmitry Zavadsky. During the rapporteurs’ visit, with only two months to go until the election date, the presidential administration was unable to show any progress toward meeting those four requirements.
Lukashenka’s latest steps confirm his intention to stage a Soviet-type election. He has appointed Communist leader Viktar Chykin to the post of chairman of state television and radio, with Alyaksandr Zimousky as his deputy. Chykin heads the Party of Communists of Belarus, a pro-Lukashenka party. The rival Belarusan Communist Party, long in opposition to Lukashenka, currently holds a fence-sitting position. Zimousky is the long-serving host of the television program Resonance, which specializes in portraying the opposition as “nationalists” and “Fascists” in the pay of the West and its espionage agencies.
Lukashenka, furthermore, has begun describing the parliamentary elections as a “dress rehearsal” for next year’s presidential election. This suggests that he will task the state apparatus to produce in the parliamentary elections the Soviet-style majority of 90 percent that he will aim for in the presidential election. As part of his electoral campaign, Lukashenka has scheduled for next month a Congress of Soviets of all levels–regional, district and city–which will almost certainly apportion electoral tasks to the local administrations.
Unlike all the post-Soviet leaders, this neo-Soviet president has recently declared war on the official trade unions. The Belarusan Trade Union Federation (BTUF), under its Soviet-era president Uladzimir Hancharyk, has recently evidenced an inclination to defend workers’ jobs and salaries and the legal rights of the unions. In response, Lukashenka is attempting to unseat BTUF leaders at the central and local levels and has also launched a propaganda campaign against union leaders in the state media. One statement of the presidential administration, for example, has accused BTUF leaders of acting “against the interests of the working class,” “usurping” their posts for personal gain, and “misleading international public opinion about the real situation in Belarus.” The statement urged “workers’ collectives to support the constructive forces within the unions”–meaning Lukashenka’s nominees to replace the incumbent leaders. And it expressed confidence that “the progressive world opinion will assess those leaders’ destructive actions as a temporary hindrance to the democratic progress of Belarus.”
Hancharyk infuriated the authorities through his appeal to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and personally to its leader Bill Jordan for support. On July 28, Lukashenka personally attacked Hancharyk and the BTUF leadership on national television. On August 2, Hancharyk issued an open letter to the president, demanding an apology and “a stop to the campaign of slander and threats.” On August 8, the BTUF announced that the government has frozen the union federation’s bank account. The conditions seem in place for an alliance of the BTUF and the political parties of the opposition, provided that both sides manage to overcome the gap between intelligentsia and workers which characterizes East European societies. Such an alliance could severely complicate Lukashenka’s effort to produce electoral triumphs even on paper in the upcoming parliamentary elections and next year’s presidential election. (Belarusan Television, July 19, 26, 28; Belapan, Minsk Radio, August 2, 4, 6, 8; see the Monitor, June 30, July 11, 18, August 2; Fortnight in Review, July 21, August 4).
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