Editorial: Three Election Controversies
The 2015 presidential election in Belarus revealed three important controversies for the authorities, the opposition and the West.
First, the Belarusian authorities want to look more democratic to the West without allowing any real changes inside the country.
Second, the opposition has the difficulty of wanting to play a role in the political process in Belarus but at the same time without legitimising the fraudulent election process.
Third, the desire of the West to engage more with Belarus clashes with its commitment to the principles of human rights and democracy.
As with most controversies, the best practical outcome is a compromise, which usually leaves none of the parties completely satisfied.
The Belarusian authorities allowed the opposition to conduct a relatively free campaign and refrained from brutal repression similar to the 2010 post-election crackdown. However, they persisted in abusing the early voting process and largely prevented observers from watching the vote count, as the preliminary report of a mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe suggests.
Western observers appreciated the peaceful nature of the election campaign but concluded that the election process was far from being fair and democratic. Nonetheless, the European Union is all set to suspend sanctions against most of the individuals and companies, which will be a reward for the "peacefulness" of the Belarusian authorities and the release of all political prisoners in September.
These developments have opened the door for a more meaningful cooperation between the West and Belarus not only on political, but also on economic issues. The Belarusian authorities particularly need economic help because of the deteriorating Russian economy, which is the main supporter of the Belarusian regime. The West will have another chance to test whether the policy of engagement yields more results than the policy of sanctions.
The Belarusian opposition reached the election deeply divided between those who wanted to engage with the system in order to use all opportunities which the election period provides and those who wanted to boycott the election. The engagement camp managed to assemble many protest votes behind a new personality, presidential candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich. However, she is unlikely to become a uniting figure for the opposition.
Ironically, this time the non-democratic election may bring Belarus closer to the West because of the removal of sanctions. However, any optimism about Belarus turning West is misplaced. The Belarusian president will be careful not to cross the red lines drawn by Russia. Although Lukashenka feels uncomfortable in the shadow of Russia, he understands that this is the only game in town if he wants to stay in power.
Time will show how long Belarus will remain a country without political prisoners and free from sanctions. It is also too early to say whether we will see a repeat of the vicious sanctions-engagement circle or the West will manage to develop and implement a long-term strategy towards Belarus.