Belarus and the OSCE: Peacekeeping and Elections Critisism

Aliaksand Lukashenka and OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Serbia's MFA Ivica Dacic

By the end of August, 40 long-term observers of the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will arrive in Belarus to keep an eye on the Presidential elections.

Since 1991 Belarus has been a member of this organisation and a constant target of criticism. This year the observers will probably not call the elections free and fair, but the Belarusian authorities hope that at least they will admit to improvements in the election campaign.

The Belarusian authorities also want to reform the organisation and call for moving its focus from elections and human rights to security.

From Love to Hate

Since Belarus is the only country in Europe outside of the Council of Europe, it has no choice but to take the OSCE seriously as it remains the largest European forum where Belarus can advance its own international initiatives and cooperate with the West without gaining Russia's jealousy.

The Vienna-based organisation includes 57 participating countries from Europe as well as Asia and Northern America. The Belarusian authorities appreciate that the decision-making process is based on the consensus of all states.

OSCE Minsk Group that facilitated negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

In early the 1990s, the relationship between Belarus and the OSCE developed well. Belarus quickly reduced its military capacity that remained in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, including nuclear weapons.

In 1992, Belarus initiated the creation of the OSCE Minsk Group that facilitated negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Like in the case of the negotiations with Ukraine, Belarus received respect from the international community for the peace initiative and contribution to European security.

The relationship between Belarus and the OSCE deteriorated with Aliaksandr Lukashenka's 1996 referendum and the dissolution of the Belarusian Parliament. Belarus, depending on the West's willingness to have a dialogue prevaricated on keeping open or closing the OSCE Office in Belarus. The biggest scandal related to the activities of Hans-Georg Wieck, who headed the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk from 1998 to 2001.

Wieck worked closely with the Belarusian opposition and five days before the Presidential elections in 2001 published an article in which he accused the authorities of involvement in the disappearances of Belarusian politicians. Then Lukashenka promised "to hurl out" Wieck from Belarus after the election and actually did it.

What Belarus Wants From the OSCE

Belarusian authorities traditionally intensify relations with the OSCE on the eve of the election, although Belarus remains one of the biggest critics of the organisation. On 21 July, Lukashenka received in Minsk OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Serbia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic. The next day, Belarus’ MFA Uladzimir Makiej stated that “Unfortunately, today the main principle of the organisation is to lodge claims and lay mutual accusations at each other”.

According to the website of the Belarusian MFA, Belarus "positions itself as one of the most active and consistent supporters of a comprehensive reform of the OSCE". In short, the Belarusian authorities want two things. Firstly, they want the OSCE to reduce election observation, as according to Lukashenka, "the OSCE is sometimes like a stick in someone’s hands in the run-up to the elections"​. On the background of the war in Ukraine, Belarus's authorities emphasise the need for the OSCE to engage in security, not democracy and human rights.

Secondly, the authorities want western members of the organisation to stop using sanctions against eastern ones. In 2013, Uladzimir Makiej stated that the OSCE has a crisis of confidence because of "the excessive politicisation of human rights issues, exaggerated attention to some issues to the detriment of others, continued geographical bias with respect to the countries to the east".

Why Belarus Welcomes OSCE Observes This Year

By late August 40 OSCE long-term observers will come to Belarus and another 400 will arrive just before the election in October. Approximately the same number of observers came to Belarus during the presidential elections of 2010 and 2006. This shows that the number of observers does not depend on the political context. It rather reflects the willingness of the authorities to show their own people that Belarusian elections are open for the international community.

Also, the authorities expect that the OSCE will note improvements. During the presidential elections in 2006 and 2010, the government conducted itself brutally in the post-election period. On 19 December 2010, according to the OSCE, "just before midnight, hundreds of OMON personnel (police) violently dispersed the demonstration." As it remains unlikely, that the opposition will hold mass protests this year, the authorities will not need to repress them.

This year, the government will use more transparent ballot boxes at polling stations and for the first time PACE observers will arrive in Belarus. So far, the collection of signatures has taken place without major obstacles from the authorities. Belarus Today, Lukashenka’s main propaganda newspaper, even positively writes about the collection of signatures of Tacciana Karatkievich, who is an opposition candidate.

If the authorities free Statkievich, the only major problems will be the transparency of vote counting and access by the opposition to television

This can be perceived as steps to meet the OSCE Commitments on elections and the 1990 Copenhagen Document that outlines commitments in the field of elections and human rights. According to these commitments the OSCE actually assesses "the extent to which elections respect fundamental freedoms".

Still, these steps are not enough. For instance, the authorities retain several political prisoners, recognised by the West, including Mikalaj Statkievich, the presidential candidate for the 2010 elections. However, on 4 August, Lukashenka admitted that “question of Statkievich’s liberation can be solved in the near future”.

If the authorities free Statkievich, the only major problems will be the transparency of vote counting and access by the opposition to television. According to the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report from 2010, “the vote count was flawed and lacked transparency, which raised serious doubts on whether votes were counted and reported honestly”.

It seems unlikely that Belarusian authorities will change the procedure and that the whole election campaign will meet the OSCE Commitments for free elections. But even with lack of transparency the authorities will may hear what they want - that the OSCE has seen some improvements, and noted that gradual changes are taking place in Belarus. That may change relations not only with the OSCE, but the West as a whole.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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