Belarus and Poland: is the difficult period finally over?

Belarus and Poland are moving closer towards a rapprochement, with Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei paying a working visit to Warsaw on 10 October.

His Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, seems to have a personal affinity for Makei; Waszczykowski trusts that President Alexander Lukashenka’s intentions to mend bilateral ties between Minsk and Warsaw are sincere.

Publicly, both parties have expressed enthusiasm about the recent improvements in Belarusian – Polish relations. However, the increase in dialogue has so far failed to foster any new breakthrough projects. Many obstacles preventing genuine improvement in bilateral relations remain, such as the treatment of the Polish minority in Belarus.

Is the difficult period finally over?

For most of the past two decades, the relationship between Belarus and Poland has remained strained, regardless of whether the ruling party in Warsaw be Socialists, Liberals or Conservatives. The failure of a short-lived attempt at a thaw in 2010 ended in even deeper animosity between Minsk and Warsaw.

A phone call by then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Alexander Lukashenka, placed in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine, may have served as a turning point in bilateral relations. Around the same time, a working group on trade and investments representing both countries met in Minsk. The group had failed to meet for the five preceding years.

Since then, bilateral dialogue has been developing dynamically and without interruptions. Both Belarus and Poland have regularly hosted visits from ministers, deputy ministers, and high-level officials from different agencies and institutions.

The parties have been actively engaged in discussions on foreign policy and security, trade and investment, infrastructure development and construction, agriculture and forestry, culture and environment, and so on. In July, Belarus and Poland signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in education.

In March 2016, Witold Waszczykowski visited Minsk to meet with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. President Lukashenka received the Polish official and reassured him that Belarus was prepared for “closest cooperation with Poland”.

In August, Poland made a significant gesture to the Belarusian authorities when Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, came to Minsk to meet with the chairmen of both chambers of the Belarusian rubber-stamp parliament.

The unwarranted recognition of this institution, which plays no role in Belarus’s domestic or foreign policy, can neither promote democracy in Belarus nor have any meaningful impact on bilateral relations by means of inter-parliamentary dialogue. This was merely a favour granted to the Belarusian executive authorities in expectation of later favours in return.

No problems whatsoever in bilateral relations?

During his trip to Warsaw on 10 October, Vladimir Makei held talks with his Polish counterpart. He was also received by Polish president Andrzej Duda.

On the same day, Makei met with Krzysztof Szczerski, a senior official in charge of the president’s foreign policy schedule. The two officials likely discussed the conditions and timing of a meeting between Andrzej Duda and Alexander Lukashenka.

Makei made his introductory remarks in Belarusian – still very rare among top-level Belarusian officials. Warsaw surely noted the fact that Belarus’s foreign minister expressed himself in the language of his country’s titular nation in a foreign capital. The choice to use the Belarusian tongue sent a delicate signal to Polish authorities that they were indeed hosting a representative of an independent nation rather than a Russian satellite.

However, Belarusian and Polish officials have so far failed to announce any major joint projects, initiatives, or breakthrough solutions to unresolved bilateral issues. Very few specifics were provided. At a press briefing after his meeting with Waszczykowski, Makei spoke warmly about the current tone of Belarusian – Polish relations. He went as far as stating that “Belarus and Poland [were] experiencing a historic moment of transition to a new period of bilateral relations”.

In the same statement, Makei did mention certain “remaining problematic issues” before immediately stressing that “[Belarus and Poland] have no problems whatsoever … in our bilateral relations”. A possible interpretation of this contradiction may be that any remaining disagreements are not of a bilateral nature but rather imposed or provoked from the outside, by Brussels, Washington or even Moscow.

Can one expect a breakthrough?

Despite the recent rapprochement, Belarus and Poland have accumulated a number of issues during the previous period of strained and often antagonistic relations. These problems need to be resolved for a full normalisation of bilateral ties.

The current conservative Polish government has been particularly attentive to issues pertaining to national identity, history, and traditions.

Waszczykowski personally asked his Belarusian counterpart to help bring to light the full list of victims of the Katyn massacre, presumably stored in the KGB archives in Minsk. While Makei has indeed brought some historic documents to Warsaw, he maintains that the authorities have failed to find the Katyn list in the Belarusian archives.

The status of Polish Catholic clergy in Belarus also remains a sensitive issue for bilateral relations. In July, the Belarusian agency in charge of religion categorically refused to extend the work permits of three Polish priests serving in Belarusian parishes. The agency reversed its decision a few days later, apparently under pressure from the foreign ministry. However, this situation may reoccur any day.

A source in the foreign ministry has told Belarus Digest about Makei’s plan to reunite the Union of Poles in Belarus, which the government cleaved in two in 2005. The authorities are allegedly proposing to hold a unification congress of the independent, non-registered association recognised by Poland, and the government-controlled union. The goal is to democratically elect new leaders – but the Belarusian government insists on green-lighting the candidatures in advance.

The intention is to heal the sorest point in the two countries’ relations. It is unclear, however, whether activists of the two associations will be ready to work together after years of mutual animosity and mistrust.

In its turn, the Belarusian authorities insist that Poland curtails its support of democratic Belarusian activists. Belarus’s foreign ministry is particularly invested in the closure of the Belsat TV channel, which is broadcasted from Poland and funded by the Polish government.

Incidentally, Waszczykowski is said to be reassessing the need for Belsat. The minister seems to be ready to go as far as shutting the project down completely. This decision would be part of a trend of Poland decreasing its support of Belarusian pro-democracy groups.

The Belarusian ambassador to Poland has lately been a frequent guest in Polish government agencies, where he is hard selling energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. So far, Poland has been very careful in its response to this pitch, balancing between its loyalty to Lithuania and the potential commercial benefits.

Regional security considerations and genuine economic interests are encouraging Poland to pursue greater engagement with the Belarusian authorities, putting aside “ideological superstitions” (to use a term coined by Makei in Warsaw).

It remains to be seen to what extent this new attitude will allow Warsaw to look past Minsk’s reluctance to undertake any meaningful step towards political liberalisation, which remains the fundamental condition of Europe’s full-fledged cooperation with Belarus.

The Belarusian language in education: a reluctant revival?

On 7 October, Alexander Lukashenka criticised education officials for the lack of Belarusian language instruction in schools. According to him, “because of amateurs in the Ministry of Education, it has come to the point where pupils have six English classes per week, but only two of Belarusian language”.

Such a statement may come as a surprise, given that Lukashenka is largely responsible for Belarus's longstanding policy of Russification. In 1994, when Lukashenka became president, three-quarters of Belarusian school children studied in Belarusian, compared to only 13.7% now. In universities, the number of students who study in Belarusian is a mere 0.1%.

The authorities are currently changing their policy towards the Belarusian language. The appointment of Alena Anisim of the Belarusian Language Society to the Parliament shows that the Belarusian authorities do favour gradual measures promoting Belarusian. However, these measures may not necessarily lead to a revival of the Belarusian language, but rather simply prevent it from disappearing from the Belarusian education system.

Lukashenka and Belarusian medium education

In the eyes of many, the person who contributed most to the decline of the Belarusian language over the past twenty years would be Alexander Lukashenka. After coming to power, the new head of state re-implemented the Russification policy of the late Soviet Union, put in place after World War II.

The Russian language's domination of the Belarusian linguistic landscape would come as a surprise to those living in Belarus in the first half of the 20th century. In 1950, 85% of newspapers were published in Belarusian and in 1955 95% of schools operated in the language. Nevertheless, by 1969 one third of Belarusian pupils were not taught the Belarusian language at all. The role of the Belarusian language declined until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When Lukashenka became president in 1994, three-quarters of Belarusian students studied in Belarusian. In 1990-1995 Belarus could boast four times as many publications in Belarusian than ever before in the past 400 years combined. However, after his election, the leader of Belarus asserted that "the Belarusian language is an impoverished one" and returned Belarus to a policy of Russification.

Lack of Belarusian language in the education system

Lukashenka’s policy resulted in only 10.5% of preschool children, 13.7% of pupils and 0.1% students studying in Belarusian medium schools in the 2015/16 academic year, according to official statistics.

None of the 52 universities in Belarus use Belarusian as the main language of instruction. It seems that the only students whose whole education programme is in Belarusian are those majoring in Belarusian language and literature.

Moreover, some teachers are no longer teaching classes in Belarusian due to the internationalisation of the Belarusian education system. As one professor from the Belarusian State University told the author, he no longer gives his lectures on Belarusian foreign policy in Belarusian because Turkmen students could not understand him.

The case of school children is also problematic, as it is often difficult to find Belarusian-language teaching materials, calling official figures into question. On 30 August, Radio Liberty published a video in which a journalist attended a huge Education Fair and found few publications in Belarusian on subjects such as geography or computer science. This means that although schools are supposedly holding some classes in Belarusian, they are in fact often conducted in Russian.

Many Belarusian cities, including Viciebsk, a large regional centre with 350 thousand inhabitants, have no Belarusian-language school groups at all. In nearby Mahiliou, another large regional centre, only one pupil is studying in Belarusian.

This is a contrast to Minsk, where several Belarusian medium schools remain, and they enjoy a prestigious reputation. In 2016, citizens of Minsk even took turns waiting in line in the evening to be the first in the morning to submit documents to apply for Belarusian medium School №23.

Not letting the Belarusian language die

After the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities have changed their approach to the Belarusian language, expanding its use in the public space. In July 2014, Lukashenka made his first speech in Belarusian in decades. However, official statements regarding expansion of the Belarusian language in education have so far proved to have more hype than substance.

Even if the government adds one more Belarusian language class per week to school programmes, it will not change the fact that all other classes will remain in Russian. Moreover, Belarus lacks higher education institutions in Belarusian. Therefore, many people do not see the point of learning exclusively in Belarusian at the school level.

Analytical Paper: Belarusian Identity - The Impact of Lukashenka's Rule The regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka rejected the ethno-national model of state suggested by his predecessors in the early 1990s. Instead, he restored a soviet style “statist nation” with a centralised bureaucratic machine at its core.

Lukashenka's words recall previous statements from the Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou. After taking office in 2014, Zhuraukou stated that "geography and the history of Belarus should be studied in the Belarusian language." However, so far nothing has changed.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the authorities may be able to slightly increase the role of the Belarusian language in society. This may be the reason why the regime appointed Alena Anisim, vice-head of the Belarusian Language Society, as one of the two democratic leaning MPs to the Parliament. It seems that she lacks any political agenda other than promoting the Belarusian language.

Moreover, the Belarusian language is no longer a political issue for Lukashenka, as it was in the 1990s when his Russophile policy opposed the Belarus-centric vision of the Belarusian Popular Front. Having marginalised this opposition group, Lukashenka himself can afford to take a more pro-Belarusian stance. Moreover, he lost his chance of becoming president of Russia, so his new aim thus became strengthening Belarus.

The leader of Belarus is unlikely to want more Belarusian medium schools, but one more Belarusian language lesson in Russian medium schools seems possible. It seems that the authorities remain reluctant to revive the Belarusian language, but also want to avoid its disappearance.

Belarus in the Arab World: a one family business?

On 20 September 2016 Minsk hosted the first Oman-Belarus invest forum. More than 40 Omani businessmen held negotiations with over 70 representatives of various Belarusian companies.

The day before the forum, the Omani delegation met with Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who urged the Omani businessmen to invest more in Belarus.

While the Middle Eastern vector of Belarusian foreign policy plays an important role in public declarations, actual trade and business has yet to follow.

Grand plans rather than roadmapping

In August 2016 the Belarusian government adopted a new strategy for export development in 2016-2020. According to this plan, one third of Belarusian exports would go to the Eurasian Union, one third to the EU, and one third to so-called “far arc” countries.

As is often the case with Belarusian state programmes, such ambitious plans are rarely supported by practical follow-through. Statistics illustrate opposing trends in the development of Belarusian exports: Belarus is failing to retain its share of all markets outside Russia. Low quality, high prices on manufactured goods, excessive bureaucracy, and degradation of technology all prevent Belarus from finding new prospective markets abroad.

No place for Belarusian goods in Arab countries?

Despite pretentious declarations about the importance of Arab countries for the Belarusian economy, the actual figures do not support these claims. In January-July 2016 the total turnover between Belarus and the region amounted to around $120m, i.e. less than five per cent of the total turnover.

The following table illustrates Belarusian export (in $m) to Arab countries:

Over the past five years the value of Belarusian exports to the region has remained fairly static: about $250-300m. On one hand this can be seen as a success, given that the total value of Belarusian export has fallen by 35 per cent since 2011.

On the other hand, this also shows the unstable character of Belarusian trade with Arab countries: export and import can fluctuate by 1000-1500 per cent. This is caused by signing one-time contracts without a permanent presence on these markets.

Contrary to widespread belief, Belarus has failed to attain a positive trade balance with all Arab countries. In January-July 2016 Belarus had a negative trade balance with Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Somalia with a roughly $66.5m trade deficit. Moreover, in 2011-2016 Belarus actually lost the Algerian and Lebanese markets. The table below illustrates these trends:

The variety of Belarusian goods exported to Arab countries also remains very limited. Official documents mention powdered milk, tyres, different kinds of steel, tractors and machinery. Egypt and Jordan are among the most important consumers of these goods, but even here the volumes and amounts of these exports is comparatively low.

Numerous reports indicate that Belarus has become a successful supplier of weapons to several Arab countries, including Iraq, Syria and Sudan, while nevertheless managing to avoid any serious involvement in regional conflicts.

Personal relations over public interests

Many experts emphasise the importance of personal ties in this process. Belarus has become sadly notorious for its close relations with Iraq during the presidency of Hussein, with Gaddafi’s Libya, with the Sudanese leader al-Bashir, and the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Such relations can be seen as a form of mutual support between authoritarian and anti-Western leaders. However, Lukashenka and his family also maintain good personal relations with the Gulf monarchies, particularly with the ruling families in Qatar and the UAE. Belarusian researcher Siarhei Bohdan considers that Belarus's relations with the Gulf States are the main vector in Belarusian foreign policy in the Middle East.

The economic benefits for Belarus of such friendship are dubious, and moreover are a source of much gossip about the nontransparent nature of cooperation, especially in the finance and security sectors.

Some experts believe that Lukashenka's family's hidden billions are stored in Gulf banks. The personal devotion of the president’s eldest son – Viktar Lukashenka – to the Formula 1 races in Abu Dhabi is no secret in the region.

Belarus actively participates in training Qatar’s and the UAE’s security forces, as well as in presenting its weapons at military exhibitions in the Gulf. Russian political commentator Evgeny Satanovski has accused Belarus of working against Russia's interests in the Middle East. According to him, Qatar and the UAE purchase arms for ISIS largely from Belarus.

The Gulf States are among the largest investors in Belarus from the Middle East. However, they invest mainly in lands and resorts, while the financial details of these operations remain unknown.

The Omani case

The Omani case serves as an example of the unstable and personally motivated character of Belarusian foreign policy in the region. Actual relations broke off in 2007 after Lukashenka’s visit to Muscat. Trade turnover amounted to $7m, with several Omani businessmen working in Russia becoming a driving force for this cooperation. In the following years the trade turnover fell to $1m and all contacts practically ceased.

Belarusian state companies complain about low demand for Belarusian products in Oman. However, the Belarusian company Sohra Group has become a successful seller of Belarusian machinery in Oman and in the Gulf countries in general. The actual scheme according to which business has been unprofitable for state companies but profitable for one private company remains murky.

In 2010-2012 Omani businessmen tried to purchase a large plot of land in the centre of Minsk for the ridiculously low price of $10m but could not reach a final agreement. Even the price itself led to suspicions about the non-business nature of such investments.

Uncertainty and mysteries

Belarus has failed to establish efficient and sustainable economic relations with the Arab countries. Instead of transparent and profitable business, the Belarusian authorities prefer personally grounded backroom dealings with their counterparts in the Arab world.

At certain points in time, Belarus has vigorously sought closer ties with anti-Western Arab regimes but thoroughly avoids any real engagement in regional conflicts.

Nontransparent business schemes and security cooperation with pro-Western Gulf States seem to be the current preference of the Belarusian foreign policy in the Middle East. Its public economic component becomes less significant.

Will anti-western rethoric help Belarus at the United Nations?

At the UN General Assembly session in New York in late September, foreign minister Vladimir Makei and his deputy Valentin Rybakov worked to promote Belarus’s geopolitical philosophy alongside a few more concrete priorities.

The priorities included broader access to UN development assistance, protection of traditional family values, nuclear disarmament and development of trade relations.

While seeking to improve Belarus's bilateral relations with the democratic world, Belarusian diplomats continue to use anti-Western rhetoric profusely in their public statements at the United Nations.

A diverse UN agenda

Vladimir Makei spent five very busy days in New York. His working schedule on 19-23 September stood in stark contrast to his predecessors’ similar trips to General Assembly sessions.

The minister's speech at the general debate, traditionally the central element of such visits, has rarely been complimented by anything more than a few ritual meetings with foreign counterparts. This time, however, Vladimir Makei delegated the privilege of delivering the main speech to his deputy, Valentin Rybakov.

Meanwhile, on 19 September, Belarus’s chief diplomat gave a statement at a high-level meeting of the General Assembly​ on refugees and migrants.

The statement primarily blamed those countries “behind the fuelling of conflicts on the territory of sovereign states" for the refugee crisis.

Makei’s list of culprits might include Belarus’s closest ally, Russia. In an interview on UN Radio later that week, the minister spoke at length about his country’s achievements in accommodating refugees from Ukraine, where Moscow has been fomenting separatist movements.

On 21 September, the foreign minister handed Belarus's letter of acceptance of the Paris Climate Agreement to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General. Belarus emphasised the fact that it is among the first thirty countries (only five of them European), to have ratified the agreement.

On the same day, the Belarusian minister spoke at a ministerial meeting in support of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. On 23 September, Makei and his Costa-Rican counterpart co-chaired the first ministerial meeting of a group of like-minded middle-income countries.

The group, which seeks to promote the interests of about 130 middle-development nations, now consists of thirteen countries, mostly from Latin America, but also includes Armenia and the Philippines.

In the early years of its independence, Belarus received UN development assistance as a part of a group of countries with economies in transition. Now, Minsk is seeking access to such resources by promoting the adoption of a UN system-wide and long-term strategy for development cooperation with middle-income nations. However, this group remains too large and diverse to become a target of a meaningful uniform strategy.

On 23 September, Makei also spoke at a high-level meeting on the implementation of water related Sustainable Development Goals. The main purpose of his statement seems to have been to do a favour to Tajikistan by supporting its president’s initiative to proclaim an international decade of “Water for Sustainable Development”.

Important events on the sidelines

On 22 September, the Belarusian minister took part in several multilateral events held on the sidelines of the General Assembly​ session. Two of them were informal meetings of member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Central European Initiative; Belarus will incidentally be chairing both organisations in 2017.

At the high-level OSCE event on civilian crisis management, Makei underscored Belarus’s willingness to fully support the organisation’s efforts at crisis management in Ukraine.

Unlike in 2015, this year the foreign minister's bilateral meetings in New York included a geographically diverse group of countries – he met with his counterparts from Azerbaijan, Angola, Croatia, Ecuador, Eritrea, Germany, Latvia, Mozambique, Oman, South Korea, Syria, and Turkey.

Importantly, Makei was quick to take advantage of his visit to discuss the development of Belarus – US relations with American officials after the recent elections in Belarus. The minister met with Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state, and Michael Carpenter, the US deputy assistant secretary of defence.

Belarus and the United States are now focusing their dialogue on regional security issues, mostly in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. However, one can hardly expect a breakthrough in political or economic relations between the two countries in the near future.

In New York, Makei signed an agreement with the US on the protection and preservation of certain cultural properties. The document became the first intergovernmental agreement concluded between Belarus and the US in the last two decades.

Despite the agreement’s generic title, the document, signed at the World Jewish Congress headquarters, focuses mostly on the protection of Jewish heritage in Belarus. Makei admitted at the signing ceremony that “the agreement [would] allow American donors to contribute to preserving historic and cultural heritage in Belarus that bears significance, first of all, for the American Jewish community”.

Blaming the Western world

In his interview on UN Radio, Vladimir Makei criticised his colleagues for bringing up domestic problems in their statements, emphasising that one should only talk about “conceptual matters” at the UN.

Deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov obeyed his boss’s instructions. His speech at the general debate on 26 September was a conceptual statement based on a strong anti-Western and anti-capitalist philosophy.

Rybakov blamed the world's current woes on the chaos, in his opinion, “resulting from the interplay of three factors – political, economic and social”.

First, the victors in the Cold War (i.e. the West) failed in their attempt “to impose their will on their opponents”. Second, the balance between the state and the market was destroyed as “the market gained precedence”. And third, the West has been forcing other nations to embrace changes in public opinion with regard to such “key life categories as morality, ethical values, and family”.

Belarus promotes its idea of a “new world order”, which should be “state-driven, inclusive and cultivated”.

Advocating the idea of “a strong state, above all, in the economy”, Rybakov referred to “the will of the people of Belarus unequivocally expressed at the Fifth All-Belarus People’s Congress last summer”. Anyone at least vaguely familiar with Belarusian politics knows that the authorities have always hand-picked the "delegates" of such congresses to rubber-stamp the regime’s plans.

Most challenges that Belarus now faces stem from the regime’s outdated economic policy, its ill-judged and unreserved affiliation with Russia, and long-time neglect of issues of national identity.

However, Belarusian diplomats prefer to play global politics and use the UN rostrum to pin blame for their country's economic, social and security failures on West-induced "global chaos". This may please Russia and help to secure sympathies of some third-world nations but is unlikely to strengthen Belarus's positions at the UN.

Towards a new agenda for the West and Belarus

The results of the parliamentary elections on 11 September surprised many in Belarus. Few believed that Lukashenka’s regime would allow independent deputies in parliament, but these elections have shown that the Belarusian authorities are at least willing to appear to change.

Although this does provide optimism, Belarus and the West still need to create a new agenda to ensure that Belarus remains on a positive trajectory. In other words, the EU and US should not make demands that are completely unacceptable to the regime.

The West's main requirement, free elections, is not an unreasonable one. However, increasing democratic space within the country should be a greater priority. This could be accomplished , for example, by moving Western foundations to Belarus and pushing for a greater number of opposition politicians in local councils.

Parliamentary surprise

The idea that Lukashenka’s regime cannot change has existed for a long time, but the parliamentary elections on September 11 have showed a slightly different side to the Belarusian authorities. The author, an observer at the elections, personally witnessed the election commissions inflating turnout, while the process of vote counting remained opaque. In the end however, the Belarusian authorities surprised many by letting Hanna Kanapatskaja and Alena Anisim, two women with democratic views, into the parliament.

This shows that Lukashenka's regime appears able to at least implement token reforms to appease the West. A year ago, the Belarusian government released a number of political prisoners to this end and now seeks to similarly utilise the democratic MPs. This is a huge step, despite the circumstances.

The Belarusian authorities have in fact made concessions before, such as during dialogues of 2008-2010. At this time the regime returned certain independent newspapers to the public distribution system, such as Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya, and registered the Movement for Freedom, an opposition group led by Alexander Milinkevich.

But today's concessions are of a different nature. Two people with democratic views received official status and a salary of $800 a month and influence, which has not happened in Belarus for 12 years. This legitimises democratic politicians even for those who are not sympathetic to the Belarusian opposition.

The need for a positive trajectory

Pro-regime experts often argue that Belarus is not yet ready for democracy, but the authorities are wisely taking baby steps in this direction. This is not the case. In fact, Lukashenka's regime would like to avoid democracy, as it would threaten many figures of authority or wealth: certain Belarusian officials have made their fortunes thanks to the authoritarian nature of Belarus. One example is Mikhail Miasnikovich, the head of the Upper Chamber of the Belarusian Parliament, whose watch reportedly cost $30,000.

Nevertheless, as the parliamentary elections show, the Belarusian government is capable of some concessions. Changes have become possible largely due to the desire of Belarus and the West to continue normalising relations. As Lukashenka told Scott Rauland, then charge d'affaires a.i. of the U.S. on July 6, Belarus will not have a full-fledged foreign policy without first normalising its relations with Washington. Today, Belarus needs the EU and the US for a variety of reasons – from economic support to a desire to distance itself from Russia.

However, the Belarusian regime remains reluctant to cede power by holding free elections and the West needs to understand this. If the EU and the US require only free elections, it will not encourage the regime to make any concessions. On the other hand, it is vital that the West not give up its ideals, otherwise Lukashenka will lack incentive to reform.

Both sides now need a positive trajectory, in which Western requirements do not exceed Lukashenka's ability to change. It is no surprise that the regime will require carrots, and the West should continue to provide them conditionally. For example, now that the Belarusian parliament has two oppositions members, the level of cooperation with the Belarusian parliament ought to be increased.

What should be done

The story of Anna Kanapatskaja and Alena Anisim shows what the West should focus on: gradual institutionalisation of democratic groups and civil society in Belarus.

The European Union and the Unites States may require Belarus to clear the Augean stables. Some people, like Eduard Palchys, still remain in prison, while accusations against him appear at least partly politically-motivated. Belarus also retains article 193.1 in criminal law, under which a member of an unregistered organisation can receive two years in prison.

The West must take a stand in these matters, but this should not be the focus of its energy, as these issues do not have long-term value. Lukashenka's regime can repeal the law, but nevertheless send people to prison under a different article in the event of a change in the political climate. For example, Ales Bialiatski, leader of the unregistered human rights organisation "Viasna", was sentence for allegedly avoiding taxes in 2011.

More important is to contribute to longer-term changes – to increase Western presence and to help civil society and democratic groups to do the same.

For example, the Belarusian authorities could allow Western political and civil foundations to open their representative offices in Belarus. Their activities may be monitored, but the presence of organisations such as the American National Democratic Institute or the Swedish Forum Syd will be more effective if they are conducted in Belarus. The funds will be able to reach a greater range of Belarusians and support more grassroots initiatives; they remain invisible while working from Vilnius and Warsaw.

Moreover, a physical presence in Minsk will bring the West and democracy greater legitimacy in the Belarusian public space. Belarusian officials, experts or politicians can build long term relationships with the West and stop seeing the European Union or the United States as enemies.

Thus, the West may require more opportunities for democratic groups from the authorities in the local elections in 2018. Representatives of the opposition do not yet have access to all local councils. Moreover, the value of such councils in the Belarusian system seems marginal. Therefore, the election of several dozen opposition politicians will not threaten Lukashenka’s regime, although it will strengthen the germs of Belarusian democracy.

Vitali Silitski, the most well-known Belarusian political analyst, who died in 2011, often emphasised that change needs to come from inside the country, not outside. It seems that today a window of opportunity for active change has appeared.

Belarus delegation brings Russian flag to Paralympics: solidarity or calculation?

On 7 September 2016, Andrei Fomachkin from Belarus became famous for appearing with a Russian flag during the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Upon his return to Minsk, the Russian media hailed Fomachkin, a bureaucrat from the Belarusian Ministry of Sport, as a hero.

The reaction of the Belarusian people, however, was more ambivalent. Over the past year, Belarus has experienced a gradual turn towards soft Belarusisation. Traditionally embroidered clothing and its modernised versions have become a popular trend, infiltrating even official sports: this summer, the national football team started using folk-inspired designs on its uniforms.

However, the regime is carefully balancing this policy with signs of reverence towards Russia, hesitant to antagonise its powerful eastern neighbour. Belarusian authorities were quick to praise the Paralympic solidarity à la Fomachkin, most likely staged to curry favours from Russia.

“Born in the USSR”

The Belarusian delegation made headlines during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil, as one of its members raised the Russian flag at the Maracana stadium. This was a gesture of protest against the disqualification of Russian athletes.

As it turned out, the person who smuggled the flag to the opening ceremony was a certain Andrei Fomachkin, who was not even an official member of the Belarusian Paralympic team.

A native of the Krasnodar region in Russia, Andrei Fomachkin has been working in various bureaucratic capacities for the Belarusian Ministry of Sport and Tourism since 2007. He is currently in charge of winter sports at the ministry and came to Rio as a guest of Aleh Shepel, the chair of the Belarusian Paralympic Committee.

Stripped of his accreditation after the incident in Brazil, Fomachkin proudly returned to Minsk and denied any political undertones of his actions in the media. Instead, he stressed his own patriotism and support for the disqualified Russian athletes.

Fomachkin admitted that although he realised the consequences of his actions, he was also aware that his guest status would preclude any sanctions against the Belarusian team. Aleh Shepel added that the Belarusian Paralympians wholeheartedly backed the idea.

Surprisingly, the Secretary General of the Belarusian Paralympics Committee, Mikalaj Shudzejka, who was in charge of the Belarusian delegation in Rio, reacted with more reservation. In an interview with The Guardian on 9 September, he revealed that not all the athletes supported Fomachkin. Shudzejka also noted that the state took advantage of the Paralympic Games for political purposes. Belarusian TV later dismissed this interview as “speculation and provocation,” claiming that it was fake.

Solidarity or courage at the expense of others?

President Lukashenka's spokeswoman Natallia Eismant stated that initially, athletes on wheelchairs were to appear with the Russian flag. According to her information, security strictly forbade this, thus forcing Fomachkin to turn to “plan B.” Lukashenka praised the stunt as a sign of solidarity, adding that his actions reflected the “official stance of the state.”

In this way, the authorities gave their blessing for the controversial, but in no way spontaneous act. In fact, Aleh Shepel was already openly discussing the possibility of displaying the Russian in Rio on 23 August 2016.

How exactly Shepel planned to implement this plan remained unclear at that time. The International Paralympic Committee immediately warned that sanctions against the athletes would follow should they engage in political protest during the Games.

Ultimately, Belarus managed to kill two birds with one stone. By relying on a ministry employee, authorities minimised the risk of harming the entire Belarusian Paralympic team. On the other hand, the publicity gained from this expression of solidarity with the disqualified Russian athletes allowed Belarus to uphold its image of loyalty to Russia.

Political analyst Andrei Parotnikau in his commentary for suggested that Belarusian authorities might take advantage of the flag incident to extract material dividends from Russia. Valer Karbalevich concurred, noting that in this way Belarusian authorities “caved in” to Russia.

Belarusian social network users used more explicit wording to express their anger, saying they felt “ashamed for their country.” Others pointed out that the state blatantly ignored the interests of the disabled athletes, placing their participation in the Games at risk.

However, others doubted the grounds for disqualification of the entire Russian Paralympic team and supported Fomachkin. For instance, the famous Belarusian swimmer and 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medalist Aliaksandra Herasimenia praised Fomachkin's courage in supporting the athletes, who she believed were unfairly deprived of realising their Olympic dreams.

Spreading white wings: Belarusisation in sports

Just one day before the Rio incident, on 6 September 2016, the Belarusian national football team played the 2018 World Cup qualifying game against France in Barysau. Belarusian football fans had several reasons for celebrating that day: besides an unexpected draw, strict stadium rules were unexpectedly liberalised.

For the first time in years, security did not harass fans sporting national white-red-white flags and the historical coat of arms (Pahonia). Moreover, prior to the game, the Belarusian Football Federation presented each of the 13,000 fans with custom-made t-shirts of the national team. In contrast, in October 2015, authorities arrested and persecuted football fans just for wearing scarves with Pahonia.

Thus, in less than a year, national symbols suddenly found their way into mainstream sports fashion. In July 2016, the Belarusian Football Federation decided to rebrand the national team in an effort to enlarge its fanbase. In particular, the Federation opted for uniform designs featuring elements of traditional folk ornament.​

Given the position of sports in Belarus as prestigious state-run domain and a tool of propaganda, this can not be a coincidence. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, the regime has increasingly been focusing on controlling groups of ultras, which have expressed their support for Ukraine at sporting events. In this context, a turn towards Belarusisation can serve as a soft power tool to foster loyalty to the current regime.

Yet the flag incident in Rio shows that Belarus remains reluctant to antagonise its eastern neighbour too much. It tries to balance gradual Belarusisation with symbolic counter steps. Such steps are not necessarily oriented towards long-term policy but rather at attracting publicity.

Being economically dependent on Russia for resources, the regime is trying to improve its negotiating position in order to receive more discounts, especially as oil and gas prices are currently being negotiated.

Belarusian MFA and the diaspora: a complicated relationship

Speaking at a meeting of the Consultative Council for Belarusians Living Abroad on 5 September in Minsk, Belarus's foreign minister Vladimir Makei sought support from the Belarusian diaspora in preserving the country's “independence, sovereignty and statehood”.

This is a recent and noteworthy trend. Earlier, the government's interaction with Belarusians living abroad remained limited to cultural events or using some of them as the regime's advocates.

Since recently, the Belarusian authorities have become aware of the role the diaspora can play in promoting the country’s political and economic interests abroad. However, the government’s politically motivated selectivity in choosing its partners and a lack of money to support their ties with Belarus jeopardise this cooperation.

Few incentives to remain Belarusian

Different estimates put the number of people of Belarusian descent outside Belarus between 2.5 and 3 million people.

Some of these are autochthonous Belarusians living in neighbouring countries. A significant number of Belarusians migrated to former Soviet republics during Soviet times. Many people ended up in Western countries as a result of several waves of political or economic emigration.

The World Association of Belarusians ​"Baćkaŭščyna", established in 1990, unites 135 organisations of the Belarusian diaspora from 28 countries. Baćkaŭščyna holds congresses of Belarusians every four years.

Leaders of the Belarusian diaspora, supported by Baćkaŭščyna, for many years sought the adoption of legislation codifying its relationship with the mother country and establishing efficient mechanisms of support.

However, the Law on Belarusians Living Abroad, which came into effect in September 2014, did not live up to their expectations. The law failed to introduce any formal recognition of their status by the Belarusian state. The Belarusians living abroad receive no preferential treatment or incentive when they repatriate or travel to Belarus, study or invest in the country.

Besides, the Belarusian government has no legal and scarce financial resources to support diaspora organisations in their countries of residence. The foreign ministry has been looking – sometimes successfully – for local sponsors to provide such support.

Nor is it prestigious to be a Belarusian, especially in the Western world. The international reputation of Alexander Lukashenka’s regime may cast a shadow on persons belonging to the nation.

All these factors do nothing to stop the negative trend of accelerated mass assimilation of Belarusians outside their home country.

In Poland, where several experts estimate the number of ethnic Belarusians at the end of the 20th century to be 200–250 thousand people, only 47 thousand persons identified themselves as such in the 2011 census. In Russia, the number of self-identified Belarusians dropped from 810 thousand in 2002 to 520 thousand in 2010. In the United States, most children and grand-children of Belarusian emigrants do not speak Belarusian and fail to participate in activities of Belarusian associations.

Talking to carefully selected activists

The foreign ministry, now the main point of contact in Belarus for the diaspora, held the second meeting of the Consultative Council for Belarusians Living Abroad on 5 September in Minsk.

The ministry timed the meeting to coincide with celebrations of the Belarusian Written Language Day held in Rahachou on 4 September. All Council members from nineteen countries were brought to this small town in eastern Belarus 200 km from Minsk.

The composition of the Council, established in September 2014, raises many questions. While it includes members from 19 countries, some (i.e. Moldova) are clearly over-represented and some (i.e. Poland) are underrepresented. The Belarusian community in the United Kingdom has a church, a major Belarusian library and several organisations in London but no representation in the Council.

Several associations of Belarusians operate in the United States with their own community centres, churches, libraries and periodicals. However, the Belarusian foreign ministry has chosen a certain Peter Zharkov, the president of the Association of Russian (sic!) WWII veterans in Minneapolis, to be its interlocutor on the affairs of Belarusian Americans.

To date, Zharkov’s most notable contribution to the Belarusian cause may be his participation in the All Belarusian People’s Assembly in June 2016, where he praised Lukashenka’s “strong and constructive statement”. It would be a challenge to find a single word written in Belarusian on Peter’s Facebook page.

Speaking to Belarus Digest, Dmitry Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, stressed that the Consultative Council was never meant to be a representative body. The foreign ministry sees it as a mere “working tool to interact with the diaspora”.

The Council currently includes people whose candidatures were submitted by Belarusian embassies. One can assume that Belarus’s foreign missions tend to recommend such people who are not averse to the Belarusian authorities’ domestic and foreign policy.

For many years, post-war emigrants from Belarus to the United States remained the most vocal advocates of the country's independence and democratic future in the free world. However, as Dr Jan Zaprudnik, a recognised leader of the Belarusian diaspora in the United States, confirmed to Belarus Digest, Belarusian diplomats have failed to invite people from this community to join the Consultative Council.

Seeking the diaspora’s help in preserving independence

Vladimir Makei’s address to the second meeting of the Consultative Council represented a hodgepodge of policy statements and a Soviet-style activity report. The latter included a detailed account of various events held with the government’s assistance and participation, such as concerts, summer schools or celebrations.

The most important policy statement became the foreign minister’s appeal to the Council’s members “to do everything possible to preserve our country, so that it retains its independence, sovereignty and statehood”. He called it “our common [country]" and “most important task”.

Earlier incessant promotion of the “Union State of Belarus and Russia” and post-Soviet integration may have disoriented many members of the Council, especially those living in Russia and other CIS countries. Some of them sympathise with Putin’s “Russian world” concept. The minister may have wanted to remind such Belarusians that their true loyalty should belong to their mother country.

Makei spoke about the ministry’s intention to work together with the World Association of Belarusians "Baćkaŭščyna" to prepare the next Congress of Belarusians of the World.

While Baćkaŭščyna and the congresses never entered open and direct opposition to Lukashenka’s regime, their relationship always remained quite cold and mostly working-level. The ministry seems to be determined to reverse this trend. It has been working on some undisclosed “important decisions" of revolutionary nature to be announced on or before the next Congress in 2017 in Minsk.

Vladimir Makei also called for a stronger involvement of the Belarusian diaspora in the development of trade relations between their countries of residence and Belarus. However, the decision to hold a business forum for Belarusians living abroad adopted at the 1st meeting of the Consultative Council in July 2015 has yet to be implemented.

The foreign ministry seems to have a genuine interest in establishing a more productive framework for relations with the Belarusian diaspora. However, its efforts will bear fruit only when the government begins to invest more energy in strengthening Belarusian national identity at home.

The government should choose its partners among the diaspora on the basis of their competency and their loyalty to the Belarusian nation and not to those in power. The authorities should also put in place and finance specific mechanisms of support and engagement such as a Belarusian's Card (modelled after a similar Polish document), which could help the diaspora strengthen their ties with Belarus.

Belarusian parliamentary elections: does everybody win?

On 11 September 2016 Belarus held elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly. In spite of the relatively insignificant role of the parliament in the Belarusian political system, these elections seem particularly important given the international situation and current economic crisis in Belarus.

Many experts expected deeper democratisation during the electoral campaign, such as introducing the OSCE’s recommendations into legislation, as well as including several representatives from the opposition into the parliament. According to experts’ views, such steps would demonstrate the authorities’ willingness to continue their dialogue with the West and would guarantee further loans from the IMF.

However, the actual results appeared to be much more moderate than experts had expected.

Authorities Sing the Same Old Song

One needs to be a very attentive analyst in order to find any significant difference between the current elections and previous electoral campaigns. The authorities have certainly introduced a few of minor changes into the legislation to demonstrate their willingness to cooperate with the OSCE and the West in general. Simultaneously, they have launched an information campaign to demonstrate their inability at a constitutional level to implement the OSCE's main recommendations.

As a result, all the flaws of the Belarusian electoral system, such as abuses during early voting, strong administrative support for certain candidates, and a lack of control during votes counting have remained untouched.

96% of the candidates from ‘Nasha Niva’s list became MPs

Naturally, both international and domestic independent observers have called the results of the elections into question. Two month ago 'Nasha Niva', an opposition newspaper, published a forecast of the future members of parliament. The journalists based their assumption not on the candidates’ programmes or on sociological surveys but on the candidates’ relations with the authorities. As a result, 96% of the candidates from ‘Nasha Niva’s list became MPs.

Many experts consider early voting to be one of the main indicators of fraud during electoral campaigns in Belarus. The 2016 campaign has not been an exception – according to official data, early voting amounted for 31,29% of votes compared to 26% during the previous parliamentary elections in 2012 and to 36,05% during the presidential elections in 2015.

Since in 2006 early voting amounted to 31,3% of the vote, one one would need to be quite an optimist to find any liberalisation in this practise during the current parliament elections. Only wide use of administrative resources could guarantee such high results.

When the Results Become More Interesting than the Process

Nevertheless, there has been one surprise during these elections. Two apparently non-establishment candidates won a place in the parliament – a member of the oppositional United Civil Party (UCP), Hanna Kanapatskaya, and Aliona Anisim, a deputy head of the Belarusian Language Society. In this context, Dr. Andrey Kazakievich, one of the leading researchers of Belarusian elections, has stated that for the first time since 2000 the results of the current elections appear to be more interesting than the campaign itself.

​Some experts consider the two non-governmental MPs to be a sensational result of these elections

Some experts consider the two non-governmental MPs to be a sensational result of these elections and speculate on the possible changes in the parliament’s future activities. Anyone acquainted with Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s personal attitude to the very idea of non pro-governmental MPs understands the importance of this result.

During the previous electoral campaign numerous high-level officials in Belarus, including secretary of the Central Commission on Elections Mikalai Lazavik, made statements about the possibility of a few opposition MPs in the parliament. Such non-public discussion continued in the Presidential Administration.

Those officials and agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who supported this idea, pointed out the inability of such a small group (up to 10 MPs) to have any influence on the decision-making process. At the same time, their mere presence in the parliament would send positive signals to the West. However, the president rejected all such proposals.

Games with the West

One can doubt whether these two MPs are even truly members of the opposition as such. Aliona Anisim has publicly rejected the "opposition" label. Her activities promoting the Belarusian language correspond to the authorities’ latest trend of soft belarusization.

Moreover, her presence could help Lukashenka in his negotiations with Moscow – the weak economic situation strengthens nationalistic forces, which could be potentially dangerous for Russia. The head of the Belarusian Language Society – the very well-known member of the opposition Aleh Trusau – was not elected.

The situation with Hanna Kanapatskaya is even more ambiguous. Her victory could force the UCP to recognise the results of the elections, which would mean internal legitimisation of Lukashenka's parliament. This makes conflicts inside the UCP, as well as among other opposition organisations, even more possible.

two MPs can do almost nothing within the strictly authoritarian Belarusian political system

Despite the expectations of certain experts, two MPs can do almost nothing within the strictly authoritarian Belarusian political system. Moreover, serious doubts exist about Kanapatskaya’s and Anisim’s intent to truly represent the opposition in parliament, let alone disturb the authorities with non-approved initiatives.

Almost no one doubts that the West remains the main audience for these elections’ results. The OSCE, EU, and USA have already expressed doubts regarding the fairness of the Belarusian elections and have called for further reforms of electoral legislation. The artificial character of the campaign, as well copious fraud remain an open secret. However, given the continuing conflict with Russia and the balancing position of Belarus nobody wants to antagonise Lukashenka.

Rumours exist that such ‘liberalisation’ should become a precondition for a new loan from the IMF, as well as to improve relations with the EU and particularly the USA. However, even if these rumours have nothing in common with the reality, the authorities lose nothing.

Does Everybody Win?

Thus, it seems that everybody wins as a result of these elections. The president maintains a completely loyal parliament which has no actual influence on the decision-making process in the country.

The West achieves ‘apparent’ steps towards democratisation and liberalisation in Belarus. The opposition had its ‘minute of glory’ and once again demonstrated to everybody, including foreign partners, its inability to propose any serious political alternative. The intensive cleansing of the political field in the country since 2010 has born fruit for the authorities.

Thus, in terms of economic and social development of the country, the new Belarusian parliament is shaping up to become as efficient as the previous one, which initiated only three laws during its four year term. Its main function this time around will be reintegrating and legitimising the current Belarusian government to the world.

Opinion: four Russian instruments of control over Belarus

Many observers have noted that Belarus is slowly drifting towards the West and away from Russia.

This is corroborated by experts, results of independent opinion polls, and the intensity of contacts between Belarus and the European Union.

Russia retains four convincing arguments which effectively act as instruments of control over Belarus including economic, public opinion, and defence.

Belarus’s economic dependency on Russia

Since the late 1990's, Belarus has been regularly receiving subsidies from the Russian Federation to the tune of about $10bn per year. This aid takes a variety of forms: direct investments, intergovernmental credits, reduced rates on fuel, etc., but the amount of money provided from year to year is more or less constant.

Moreover, Russian subsidies have become such an integral part of Belarus’s economy and of the state budget that the main duty of one deputy prime minister consists of obtaining economic preferences and subsidised energy from Russia.

This brings us to our first conclusion, that the economic independence of Belarus is a myth. The same is thus true of the “Belarusian economic miracle”. One should also be cautious when talking about Belarus’s political independence, for what sort of political independence is possible when there is no economic independence?

Shaping public opinion: trust in the Russian media

The Belarusian Analytical Workroom, headed by Andrei Vardomatsky, presented their findings in Warsaw regarding the influence of the Russian media on viewers in post-soviet countries, including Belarus.

According to this research 73.1% of respondents from Belarus responded in December 2014 that they trusted (to a varying degree) the Russian Media. This means that Russia shapes (or at least significantly influences) the public opinion in Belarus. This also means that politically, Russia can promote or bring down any politician they choose, including Alexander Lukashenka.

The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, another independent national public opinion pollster in Belarus, conducted a study in June 2016 demonstrating that 33.6% of respondents were ready to side with Russia should an armed conflict break out between the Russian Federation and the West on the territory of Belarus.

public opinion in Belarus is shaped by Vladimir Putin, not Alexander Lukashenka

Three times less people – 13.4% – were ready to stand with the West. Moreover, 26.1% of Belarusians viewed Russia as a protector against potential aggression from NATO. It is hard to believe that despite the Russian media's influence, even 10.6% of respondents in Belarus supported NATO. In March 2016, when asked plainly: “with whom do you want to unite” 48% of respondents preferred uniting with Russia; whereas 31.2% of respondents preferred joining the EU.

Thus the second conclusion is as unfavourable as the first: public opinion in Belarus is shaped by Vladimir Putin, not Alexander Lukashenka. This means that in the event of a serious conflict between Belarus and the Russian Federation, the majority of the population may not side with Lukashenka.

Russia's influence on Belarus’s non-profit organisations

There has lately been an outburst of activity from various previously dormant organisations in Belarus. These include Cossack organisations, unions of Afghan war veterans, Orthodox youth camps, patriotic military clubs, and others.

The Russian-language social network Odnoklassniki hosts many such groups and the number of their subscribers is estimated in the thousands or even tens of thousands. A peculiar feature of these groups is that they are often administrated by individuals with experience of armed conflict.

The way the state has been treating Afghan war vets recently has been very unfair: the veterans have lost their well-deserved benefits after a recent and hugely unpopular social reform. What's more, the state does not provide any form of re-habilitation programme for former soldiers suffering from war related trauma. As a result veterans have turned into a societal delayed-action bomb that is more dangerous than the Belarusian state would like to believe.

Moreover, there is an emerging group of new ‘veterans’ – vets of the Donbass war. These are people who travelled to the Donbass in Ukraine to participate in the on-going armed conflict between Ukraine in Russia over the past several years.

there is no actual border between Belarus and Russia: anyone could hypothetically bring weapons across the border

Compounding the problem is the fact that there is no actual border between Belarus and Russia: anyone could hypothetically bring weapons across the border. In the current geopolitical context, the presence of a group of disenfranchised people who know how to use arms is an unpredictable element which could be employed with a completely unpredictable effect during times of social unrest.

Thus, the third conclusion is also pessimistic: any large manifestation or political rally attracts all sorts of active individuals in the country. This means that the above mentioned groups could be involved as well, which may lead to armed conflicts and confrontation.

Defence and law enforcement agencies

Military and security enforcement services – siloviki – are a very influential group: these are after all the people who are permitted to carry guns. In the event of a coup, revolution, uprising, or confrontation with a neighbouring country their decisions may be a deciding factor. They determine whether or not to fire.

Closer examination reveals that a large number of Belarus’s siloviki have ties to Russia. Let us start with the Defence Ministry of Belarus and its leaders. The Minister of Defence, Andrei Ravkov, graduated with honours from the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School, and he later graduated from the Russian General Staff Academy. All of his four deputies studied in Russia; two of them were citizens of the Russian Federation by birth.

The leaders of various forces and troops must also be scrutinised. There are twelve such leaders in total, eleven of whom studied military science in the Russian Federation at institutions such as Gagarin Air Force Academy, the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Khroulyov Military Academy of Logistics of the Ministry of defence of the Russian Federation. By the way, three of the above mentioned leaders are Russian citizens by birth. This trend holds true in other areas of siloviki leadership as well.

Thus, the fourth conclusion is also worrying: nobody knows what the Belarus(s)ian siloviki would do should disagreements between Russia and Belarus escalate to a serious conflict.

It is intriguing to see how Alexander Lukashenka will be able to cope with these "instruments" in the coming years.

Olga Karatch

Olga Karatch is a Master of Arts in Political Sciences, European Humanitarian University, Vilnius, Lithuania (2012). For 2003-2007 she was a member of Vitebsk City Council (only oppositionist elected). Now she is a director of International Centre for civil initiatives "Our House".

Editorial: Lukashenka’s election message to the West

Two representatives of the opposition and civil society will end up in the newly-appointed Belarusian Parliament.

This reflects not the true level of support of the opposition, but rather Aleksander Lukashenka’s willingness to demonstrate good will to the European Union. The West, however, should not get too excited about this progress.

Belarusian authorities have made clear that changes in the electoral process happen not because of domestic pressure but to please the West. Indeed, the prospect of massive domestic protest is almost non-existent, largely because of events in Ukraine. However, the economic crisis in Belarus is pressuring the authorities tired of being outcasts in Europe to diversify their partners.

So what messages are the authorities trying to convey to the West?

1. The authorities will not fundamentally change the election process – it will remain entirely controlled.
2. They are making slow progress towards liberalisation and greater transparency of elections and support for the opposition is low.
3. It is now time to recognise the Parliament of Belarus and accept the leadership of Belarus at a higher level.

Each of these messages should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

It is true that the authorities remain entirely in control of the election process. The number of opposition representatives in the election commissions remains minimal; early voting and non-transparent ballot counting procedures allow the authorities to appoint anyone they want to Parliament while bypassing the election process. They have no serious intention of giving up control of election results and even the possible departure of Lidia Jarmoshyna will not change this.

Election results fixed in the vast majority of polling stations fail to reflect the real preferences of Belarusians. With independent sociology on political issues virtually non-existent, it is hard to judge the true level of support for the opposition.

However, allowing two pro-democracy MPs means that alternative opinions will finally enter the Parliament. It will also improve the morale of the opposition.

However, the Parliament plays a merely decorative role in the current political system. In practise it initiated no laws, rubber-stamped all decisions of the executive and its members never seriously criticised the authorities. Moreover, the president can overrule any law with a personal decree.

Should allowing  two pro-democracy members lead to recognition of the Parliament in the West? The parliament should be treated as a decorative rather than a decision-making institution – as a symbolic organ which plays no real role in the political decision-making process.

In other words, it makes little sense to have serious negotiations with the Parliament not only because it is far from being representative but also because it plays no serious role in politics. Any deputy minister probably plays a more influential role than the speaker of the lower chamber of the Belarusian Parliament.

At the current pace of liberalisation it would take Belarus hundreds of years to attain transparent elections

The authorities allowed two non-regime MPs out of 110 future MPs. At the current pace of liberalisation it would take Belarus hundreds of years to attain free and fair elections of all MPs.

However, the West needs an excuse to cooperate with Belarus for geopolitical reasons. Belarus matters as a part of the European security puzzle, as a country which transits energy, migrants and goods.

Normalising relations with the Belarusian authorities should not be an aim on its own. Not only security and geopolitical goals should drive cooperation but also concrete projects to improve the lives of Belarusians. These should include anything from visa liberalisation and improving the business climate to cooperation in education, exchange of know-how, and institutional and rule of law reforms.

The West will persist with its demands of liberalisation in Belarus. But the modest improvement seen during these elections will make it easier for Belarusian society and the international community to accept the greater degree of pragmatism in the West's attitude towards the Belarusian authorities.

Belarus parliamentary elections 2016 – live updates from Minsk

Belarus Digest provided live online coverage of the parliamentary elections in Belarus scheduled for 11 September: the most important developments as well as reactions to the process and results.

We featured a collection of stories from international and Belarusian media, videos, pictures, and comments from experts.

Read continuos coverage.

Should you have any questions for our experts or further comments on our coverage please contact our team in Minsk.


Early vote period – digest of the 2016 parliament elections

The five-day early voting period of the 2016 Belarusian parliamentary elections took place from September 6 to 10. The main Election Day is Sunday, September 11. Polls are open from 8 AM to 8 PM. In these elections nearly seven million Belarusians are eligible to cast their ballots for one of the 484 parliamentary candidates running for 110 seats.

This report on early vote trends was compiled based on information published by governmental bodies, media, and social network users and information received directly from Belarusian parties, and observer groups.

According to official Central Election Commission (CEC) reports, 31.29 percent of Belarusians cast early ballots. Independent observer groups challenged official statistics citing major turnout discrepancies between observers and commissions. The early vote in Belarus is often described as the “most convenient time for falsifications.”

Major problems identified by observer groups include increasing turnout though forced and incentivized voting of students and workers, as well as artificially inflating turnout though protocol or voter list manipulations. Parliamentary elections in Belarus can be declared valid if more than 50 percent of eligible district voters cast their ballots. The security of ballot boxes and overall transparency of the early vote were major concerns of observer groups as well.

Domestic Early Vote Observation Efforts

The early vote was primarily monitored by two independent Belarusian election observation initiatives: “Right to Choose-2016” (R2C), a coalition of eight political forces (“Belarusian Christian Democracy”, Belarusian Social-Democratic Party Gramada, BPF party, United Civil Party, “For Freedom”, “Greens”, Party of Freedom and Progress, REP Labor Union), and “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” (HRD), an initiative of “Viasna” and “Belarusian Helsinki Committee”. In addition, “Tell the Truth” (TtT) campaign ran early vote observation in some parliamentary districts of their candidates. Incident reports from all of these groups were published on election monitoring crowdsourcing website during the early vote. in partnership with HRD and R2C launched a mobile application “Vochy” to allow citizens timely and anonymously report violations. Citizens may also report violations directly on the websites of R2C, HRD, or also acts as an observer aggregator publishing violations reported by citizens and the above mentioned election groups.

R2C deployed 764 observers to monitor 100 percent of 382 polling places in ten parliamentary districts during early vote. These districts will also have full monitoring coverage on the main election day. Monitored districts were selected based on where prominent democratic candidates from R2C member organizations are running (see R2C candidate page to find violations and turnout for a particular candidate’s district). HRD deployed 364 observers at 182 polling stations throughout the country. According to TtT they deployed 180 observers at 90 polling stations in three districts.

R2C reported 332 incidents and filed 225 official complaints regarding the Electoral Code violations in five days of early voting. Below is the R2C infographic reflecting the major types of violations recorded by independent campaign observers during the whole five-day early vote period.

Observers Identify Several Methods Used to Artificially Inflate Turnout

R2C conducted a parallel turnout count in the ten parliamentary districts where they had 100 percent observer coverage. During a parallel turnout count, observers at each polling station record each person casting a ballot continuously and without intermission.

As a result of their parallel turnout count, R2C found that official and observer turnout overlapped only in 69 of 382 observed polling stations, highlighting significant levels of artificial turnout inflation. The turnout discrepancies per fully observed parliamentary districts are noted in the table below.


HRD’s 364 observers recorded a 14 percent turnout discrepancy at the 182 polling stations where they observed.

Discrepancies at the individual polling station level are best reflected on the website, which used R2C data to construct detailed infographics. As shown in the following chart of parliamentary district #92 (Avtozavodskoy in Minsk), a number of polling stations inflated turnout, some of them significantly, like polling station #70, where on September 9 the official turnout was 187 voters higher than R2C observed.

HRD reported that in electoral district #14 in Bobruisk, an observer challenged 157 votes written in September 8 protocol, because she calculated only 37 voters that day. As a result, the protocol was edited. PEC staff recorded it as a “technical mistake”. The new vote total, however, still did not match the observer’s. A similar incident was reported by R2C at the polling station #32.

According to R2C reports, election commission efforts to boost their turnout percentage sometimes are a result of reducing the size of voter lists. At polling station #422 in district #103, observers noted a “voter list manipulation” on September 7, when the total number of voters was decreased without explanation by 879 people. At polling station #71 of district #18 in Vitebsk, the voter list was shortened by 191 people. These cuts resulted in an increase in the turnout percentage.

‘Carousel voting’ was reported as another mechanism used to increase turnout. Yuri Gubarevich, a parliamentary candidate from movement “For Freedom”, a R2C coalition member, informed observers about ‘carousel voting’ in his Kalinovskiy electoral district #108 in Minsk. He claimed a blue minivan brought the same group of people to vote at different polling stations.

Observers confirmed ‘carousel voting’ incidents at polling stations #631, #635 and #618. Some observers managed to take pictures of ‘carousel voters’ and confirm the same people voted at polling stations #616, 617, 618, 619, 631, and 632. An HRD observer at polling station #367 claimed to have spotted the same people voting on two different early vote days. She said her video documentation of this was seized by a police officer who took her camera.

Numerous Reports of Forced or Incentivised Early Voting

Certain social groups, such as students or workers of state-owned enterprises are most vulnerable to forced or incentivised voting during the early vote period. They tend to cast their ballot several days before the E-Day. Prior to the early vote, HRD appealed to the administrations of higher education institutions noting that “any form of forcing students to vote in elections is an unacceptable violation of the constitutional rights.”

The CEC Chair Lidia Yermoshina stated there is no forced voting, that school administration’s encouragement to vote early or vote for a particular candidate does not violate the law. However, observers often recorded that school administrations did not limit themselves to just voter encouragement. For instance, at polling station #42, Mogilev State University students had to sign in the dormitory administration’s list to confirm they voted early (the list was captured on video).

HRD reported cases of forced voting in Slutsk district #67 and Soligorskiy district #68.

An anonymous “Vochy” user reported that “Belaruskaliy” workers had two hours free from work to vote early. RFE/RL reported forced voting of convicts. In this case a policeman left a number of passports with the head of the local commission and returned later to pick them up. Some cases of organized voting were reported on, including a photo of military conscripts heading towards the polling station.

At polling station #6 in Baranovichi, R2C observers reported than an ineligible 17-year old student of Baranovichi State University was brought by an elder of the student group to vote early on September 7.

Another effort to ensure a high turnout was the organization of parental meetings at schools during the early vote period. For instance, in Bobruisk gymnasium #2, where polling station #4 is located, parents were asked to attend meetings on the second and third day of early voting. The parental meeting was attended by a Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) representative who is also a proxy of a pro-governmental candidate. The proxy promoted her candidate and encouraged parents to vote.

Unsecured Ballot Boxes

R2C observers reported 185 incidents related to unsecured ballot boxes. According to reports, either the ballot boxes were not sealed properly or the room they were stored was not sealed. In some reports observers claimed police officers stayed overnight in the room with the ballot boxes.

A notable example of ballot stuffing was reported at polling station #625 of parliamentary district #108 (Kalinovskiy) in Minsk. An R2C observer took a picture of “tightly packed ballots” put inside the transparent ballot box. The existence of a “tight pack of ballots” raised his suspicion because ballots cast one at a time should be loose.

The Observer also emphasized that he counted 42 voters on Friday, while a PEC claimed 228. Later, the chief commissioner of the polling station rejected the ballot stuffing claim as a “provocation”. The chief commissioner also claimed the turnout discrepancy was the result of mistake by the commission secretary who wrote down the cumulative turnout instead of the daily vote total. Yermoshina said the “truth will be found after the vote count.”

Independent Observers Face Obstacles

R2C observers reported five incidents in which they were not able to properly conduct observation. In 19 cases local commissions refused to provide requested by observers information. On the left you can see a picture taken by an HRD observer titled “the place for observer in Belarus.” The image shows the observer was placed outside of the voting room.

R2C reported 23 of their observers were deprived accreditation. For instance, in Minsk, at the polling station #188 of the district #96, members of the election commission refused to accredit observers due to the absence of the commission chair. BCD candidate Olga Kovalkova reported that at polling stations #429 and #430 observers were denied the use of bathrooms.

Some independent observers could not begin the observation due to pressure. For instance, R2C reported that the administration of the Gomel State Technical University forbade students from observing elections on behalf of the R2C campaign.

According to campaign representatives, students were threatened with the expulsion from the university. In Grodno, R2C observer refrained from election observation claiming his wife was threatened with a job loss by the ideology department in a state hospital.

Authorities Get Ready for the Election Day

The Ministry of Antimonopoly Regulation and Trade of Belarus sent local authorities instructions how to please voters with food and other treats during the election day. The instructions were leaked to R2C and re-published by independent media. The same day, state media highlighted what food and entertainment will be available to voters at the polls.

Michael P. Murphy & Juljan Jachovic
National Democratic Institute (NDI)

Parliamentary campaigning period – digest of the 2016 parliament elections

This report covers campaign developments that occur during the Belarusian parliamentary ‘campaigning period,’ which lasts from the end of candidate registration on August 11 until Election Day, September 11. It focuses on candidate campaigning, particularly TV appeals and debates, candidate pickets, and meetings with voters.

During the campaigning period, democratic candidates emphasised the “absence of free and fair elections,” as well as their approaches to socio-economic problems. Candidates presented party programmes like “One Million New Jobs” or “People’s Program” as possible solutions to political and economic problems.

A portion of the opposition candidates put traditional opposition white-red-white flags on their speaking tribunes during speeches and debates. The call to action differed among democratic candidates. Some called on people to join their parties or participate in election observation.

Others emphasised the importance of voter participation, discouraged indifference, and urged voters to cast ballots on Election Day. There were attempts by officials to limit communications of certain democratic candidates by refusing to broadcast TV appeals, rejecting programs, or forbidding the re-publishing of TV appeals on the Internet.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has observed that a notable aspect of parliamentary election campaigning in 2016 in comparison with recent elections is the shift of most opposition forces’ communications away from internal conflicts and towards voter outreach based on socio-economic issues. The bitter accusations and fierce public infighting that dominated the independent media and enhanced perceptions of a dysfunctional opposition have largely vanished from the 2016 political discourse.

Instead of caustic rhetoric against each other, the majority of opposition forces are focused on communicating with voters based on key socio-economic issues and offering critiques of the authorities’ management, and in some cases articulating alternative visions to solve the country's problems.

Democratic candidates continued to criticise the incumbent authorities, some quite harshly

Democratic candidates continued to criticise the incumbent authorities, some quite harshly, in what can be considered traditional opposition rhetoric aimed at a traditional opposition electorate, but these attacks and other traditional opposition issues, like calls for free and fair elections, were often grounded in themes that are relevant to a broader audience, such as the creating jobs, improving roads or developing rural regions.

The shift away from internal fights and towards building public support might be attributed to the decision of most major political forces to actively participate in the elections. With many pursuing a similar approach, there is little need to focus on divisions. The busy work of running campaigns and talking with voters might also be leaving little room for playing political games on the side. The change might also reflect the recognition that past squabbles significantly damaged public credibility and that the path to a successful future depends on breaking out of the existing mold to build the trust and support of the public.

The final week of campaigning, September 6-10, overlaps with the start of the early vote period. Nearly seven million eligible Belarusian voters are able to begin casting ballots for one of nearly 500 candidates running in 110 districts. Election Day itself is Sunday, September 11. In the last presidential election government reports showed that more than one-third of voters voted early. Election observers criticise the early vote period as being prone to government abuses, including forced voting, artificially inflating turnout through protocol manipulation and vote count.

Campaigning Opportunities and Limitations 160903_dbt_2016_01_cult_fb.jpg

Each registered candidate was entitled to one five-minute television and radio speech and the publication of their program in the newspaper; additionally, brief debates (five minutes of airtime for each candidate) on state TV were held if at least two candidates agreed to participate. Speeches were broadcast on state-owned channels between August 15 and September 2. Additionally, nearly 30 candidates participated in debates on “Belsat” TV channel. Topics included culture, regional development, economy, foreign affairs, domestic politics, and social policy. Copies of all debate programs can be found on

Officials found means to restrict the public discussion of issues raised in TV appeals or candidate programmes. Newspapers declined the publication of some programmes, claiming the programmes violated the Electoral Code. The state TV channels did not broadcast some of filmed candidate appeals. For instance, two regional newspapers rejected the program of the United Civil Party (UCP) candidate Nikolay Ulasevich, a “persistent opponent” of Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) construction. His TV appeal was not broadcast either.

Pavel Stefanovich, who advocates for “marijuana legalisation,” was deprived of publication of his program

UCP candidate Pavel Stefanovich, who advocates for “marijuana legalisation,” was deprived of publication of his program and the broadcast of his speech. The program of UCP contender Yuriy Haschevatskiy, which mentioned “twenty years of authoritarian regime,” was rejected by “Vecherniy Minsk” newspaper.

The “Vecherniy Brest” newspaper initially rejected the program of Igor Maslovskiy, Belarusian Social-Democratic Party Gramada (BSDP-G) candidate, as it included the call “not to support pro-governmental candidates.” An additional problem noted by Maslovskiy was unequal circulation of issues with candidate programs. Maslovskiy, who succeeded in getting his program published after appeals, noted that the “Vecherniy Brest” newspaper gave his program a circulation of 4,300 copies. Meanwhile, the issue including his opponent’s (Vladimir Bazanov, incumbent member of parliament) program had 10,000 copies in circulation.

Haschevatskiy’s TV appeal was broadcast on state television, but after it was re-published on YouTube and became viral on non-state media outlets, “Belteleradiocompany” requested its removal, and warned other candidates not to republish their speeches due to copyright infringement. In 2015, however, state TV broadcast the speeches of presidential candidates on their website. Nevertheless, the restriction seemed to invigorate re-publishing speeches and debates on YouTube and other websites.

General Trends in Candidate TV Appeals and Debates

Some Belarus Popular Front (BPF) candidates focused on foreign affairs and international economic issues, emphasizing the value of the country’s independence. For instance, BPF Chair Alexey Yanukevich proposed changing the direction of Belarusian exports from Russia to the West. In addition, he suggested “open borders” with the European Union and the U.S. and establishing “controls” over the Belarus-Russia border to counter illegal migration and prevent the inflow of criminals and drugs.

Other BPF candidates primarily focused on domestic issues. For instance, former presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich raised the problem of Belarus’ unfavourable business environment. Yuri Meleshkevich focused on economic issues, particularly on the need build a market economy in Belarus. Dmitriy Kasperovich in his speech, challenged the parliamentary elections, stating in Belarus “parliamentarians are appointed by the presidential administration.”

Podgol delivered his speech dressed in a bulletproof vest

One of the most media-referenced candidate appeals was delivered by BPF’s Vladimir Podgol. He delivered his speech dressed in a bulletproof vest. Other props included a brick, tanker helmet, decorative shells, and his book “Bullet to Lukashenka.” The same title was written on his vest. Padgol explained he wanted be unusual and catch people’s attention. Analysts from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty described the appeal as “post-modern.” Considering the number of references, he received in the media, and the 43,000 views on YouTube, it would seem Podgol succeeded in attracting attention.

In the majority of “Tell the Truth” (TtT) appeals reviewed, candidates were communicating a common theme to become a “voice of the people” in parliament and bring about “peaceful changes.” These themes were introduced during the 2015 presidential campaign of Tatsiana Karatkevich. Some TtT candidates went further and delivered a similarly structured explanation as to what “peaceful changes” mean: “the authorities who respect citizens and consult with them,” “economy which creates opportunities to work and earn decently,” and “government which ensures social protection for each.”

TtT candidates tended to raise socio-economic issues, such as the need for pension system reform, high unemployment and jobs, and an improved business environment and the crisis in the industrial sector.They also touched on the housing affordability issues, underdevelopment of regions, and infrastructure problems.

“It is possible to steal the vote, but nobody will steal your support from me”

TtT campaign Co-Chair Karatkevich emphasised the government’s implementation of ideas she advocated for in her presidential program, such as refraining from building new foreign military bases, improving relations with neighboring countries, and increasing unemployment benefits. TtT emphasised the importance of voting in elections and not being indifferent. Addressing possible election fraud, TtT Co-Chair Andrey Dmitriev stated, “It is possible to steal the vote, but nobody will steal your support from me.”

“Belarusian Christian Democracy” (BCD) candidates were consistently critical of the authorities’ policies and their lack of accountability. BCD candidates tend to challenge the transparency of public spending and accountability of the authorities, claiming they are accountable “only to President and officials.” Commonly repeated phrases included: “there is no state money; there is only people’s money,” and “government for the people, not people for the government.”

BCD’s Co-Chair Vitaliy Rymashevskiy, participating in state TV debates as a proxy, proposed that newly elected MPs initiate Lukashenka’s impeachment. This was reiterated by BCD youth leader Marina Homich in her speech. BCD speakers raised a range of issues, such as the problem of low salaries and high prices, administrative reforms, economic development, healthcare, and anti-alcohol policies. Tatiana Severinets addressed unpopular laws approved by the parliament, such as the imposition of a tax on unemployed people.

BCD speakers emphasized their party’s social values and called for the return of kindheartedness, justice, solidarity, hope for change, and strong families in Belarus. “Electoral fraud” was highlighted by BCD candidates and proxies, some of whom urged voters to join BCD or participate as observers (BCD is a part of “Right to Choose-2016” joint observation initiative).

During their speeches, “For Freedom” (FF) candidates addressed issues related to the pension system, unemployment and low salaries, parliamentary accountability poor governance and affordable housing. “Reforms, Wellbeing, and Peace” was a slogan voiced by the movement’s Deputy Chair Yuri Gubarevich. Additionally, FF candidates often referenced their “Narodnaya Programa” (People’s Program), a program of political and economic reforms that could solve the problems in the country.

Some of the FF candidates addressed personal and local-level problems. For instance, Viktor Yanchurevich (who presented himself as an independent candidate) stressed Minsk issues: excessive construction and the destruction of green zones. Student candidate Alina Nagornaya emphasised problems in education. Maksim Tikhonov began his speech by challenging the transparency of elections held in Belarus and giving examples of electoral fraud. According to him, “free elections” is the starting point of all reforms in the country.

United Civil Party (UCP) candidates often criticised the authorities and raised issues such as the economic crisis and the inability of the authorities, particularly of parliament, to solve problems. Many UCP candidates held up a printed copy of the “One Million New Jobs” program, which was described as a solution to both the political and economic issues in the country. UCP Chair Anatoly Lebedko participated in debates as a proxy of party candidates. Lebedko focused on political processes and tended to emphasize the lack of rotation among the authorities and electoral fraud.hqdefault.jpg

UCP candidate Olga Mayorova focused on local issues and connected them to national problems. For example, she discussed the destruction of a local forest to highlight the lack of “independent courts, transparent budget, fair elections, and local governance.”

The previously mentioned Haschevatskiy focused his appeal on criticism of Lukashenka, the parliament, and electoral fraud. He claimed that the opposition is not weak, but people are weak because they do not support each other.

Haschevatskiy called for the return of “stolen free and fair elections.” UCP candidate Pavel Stefanovich, who was not allowed to publish his program and whose TV appeal was not broadcast due to his open advocacy for “marijuana legalization,” took part in state TV debates. There Stefanovich said he wants to implement “different drug policy,” fight for gender equality, and solve the problem of domestic violence.

Belarusian Social-Democratic Party Gramada (BSDP-G) candidate appeals addressed social justice issues corresponding to their party ideology. Anna Kanyus used her TV appeal to urge citizens not to support pro-government candidates, who failed to oppose the pension age increase or the tax on the unemployed. Additionally, she advocated for establishing a legal basis to ensure secure future for investors, business, and citizens in order to develop the new economic policy.

The BSDP-G candidate in Slutsk, Anatoly Yurevich, emphasised the need to improve Belarus’ “image abroad,” abolition of the contractual system, and increased public control over local and central budgets in order to increase investments and ensure decent wages. Additionally, Yurevich called upon PEC commissioners to count votes fairly. Natalya Shkadun, BSDP-G candidate from Magilev, began her speech by claiming that “parliamentarians are appointed” and they do not perform their duties. As a doctor, she dedicated a large share of her speech to problems in healthcare.

One candidate raised concerns about the safety and economic reasonability of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant 

“Belarusian Party – The Greens” (or Green Party) ran five candidates. They focused on sustainable development in the country, particularly ecology issues, renewable energy and a green economy. For instance, Dmitriy Kuchuk focused on the construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). He raised concerns about the safety and economic reasonability of the plant. In the end of the appeal, Kuchuk put on a gas mask. Later, Kuchuk explained to TUT.BY that he intended to attract people’s attention as most of the people in his Ostrovets constituency do not watch “Belarus 3” TV channel. According to Kuchuk, this small performance helped him to get views on YouTube (over 8,000) and coverage on a number of mass media outlets.

“Fair World” (FW) candidate Mikhail Korotkevich emphasised their party’s program to “ensure the sustainable development of the country and increase people’s well-being.” The proposals are intended to optimize public expenses, increase investments, abolish paid education, subsidize pharmaceuticals and grow wages and pensions.

Candidates loyal to the authorities (whether independent or in a political party) tended to support the direction of the country’s development. The chair of the “Belarusian Patriotic Party,” former presidential candidate, Nikolay Ulakhovich addressed patriotism and the importance of peace.

The leader of the Republican Party of Labor and Justice (RPLJ) Vasiliy Senitskiy outlined the need for reforms, in the economy and social field. He also suggested introducing a mixed parliamentary election system but refrained from emphasising any of existing problems in the country. One of 28 incumbent MPs running for reelection Valeriy Baradzenya said in his introductory statement during the debates there should be “fewer laws, they should become more understandable, and we should be proud of our achievements.”

Democratic Candidates Aim to Reach Voters Through Campaigning Pickets and Meetings

On September 5, the CEC announced that candidates for parliament informed them of their plans to organize 180,355 pickets and 3,459 meetings with voters (obviously, not all declared events were really held). Most were traditional events, but a few were covered more in the media because of issues raised or how they were organized.

Recently, the Center-Right coalition (BCD, UCP, and FF) candidates and activists marched to the “Belteleradiocompany” building in Minsk, where they criticised the state television and delivered an appeal demanding opposition receive a regular access to airtime on state TV. They also called for the establishment of the independent public television station. On August 25, Center-Right coalition forces organized a picket to mark the anniversary of the State Sovereignty Declaration.

UCP held several pickets to engage the public. In mid-August, Lebedko and his deputy Nikolay Kozlov together with registered candidate Denis Tihonenko held pickets in front of Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) and Minsk Automobile Works (MAZ) to distribute literature which covered their “One Million New Jobs” program. Lebedko and Kozlov also held rallies for “Police Against Falsifications” in front of Minsk police departments to distribute “Narodnaya Volya” newspaper, which included an article “on falsifications during elections,” to police officers.

BPF also organised a Minsk picket on August 25, “Independence Day.” BPF’s candidates Vladimir Podgol and Ales Talstyko organised several public artistic performances that satirically criticize the authorities and their policies. The media widely covered a picket of the BPF candidate Vadim Saranchukov, who campaigns in Hrodna for eliminating cross-border restrictions for people living on the border of Belarus and neighbouring Poland or Lithuania.

On August 16, several TtT candidates and the campaign leadership held a joint picket in Minsk to mark the beginning of the campaigning period. The picket was held under the slogan “Peaceful Changes – Wellbeing in Every Home.” On September 4, three TtT candidates on the occasion of “Minsk Marathon” organised a picket called “Marathon for Peaceful Changes.”

“Green” party candidates raised ecology issues. “Green” candidates were seen campaigning in Svetlogorsk against construction of a chemical enterprise, urging people to vote for their candidate. On August 25, in a joint picket with UCP and BSDP-G in Grodno, “Green” candidate Tatyana Novikova addressed safety concerns related to the construction of Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Ostrovets. Another picket against the Belarusian NPP construction, Novikova and Kuchuk held in Ostrovets.

The pickets by BSDP-G candidates, which were covered by media, suggest that the party candidates focused on social problems. On August 23 and 28, in Brest, Igor Maslovskiy and Anna Kanyus organised pickets called “For Construction of Kindergartens and Schools in the Region.” In Mogilev, BSDP-G together with UCP, BPF, and BCD held a joint campaigning picket for “restoring the social justice.”

Domestic observers, “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” (HRD) and “Right to Choose-2016” (R2C), reported a number of incidents related to violations of equal conditions for all candidates, such as restriction on mass meetings or attempts of officials to disrupt candidate pickets or meetings with voters, and violations by non-democratic candidates related to production of campaigning materials.

“pro-government candidates actively participate in socially-significant events” and “use administrative resources”

In addition, HRD noted in their recent report that “pro-government candidates actively participate in socially-significant events” and “use administrative resources.” R2C, in their report on the campaigning period, stressed “censorship” of democratic candidates, some of which are referenced above and condemned the Electoral Code changes made in 2013, which deprived candidates of state funding.

Election Observation Efforts

Domestic observers are trying to engage as many citizens as possible to monitor the campaign period and elections., in partnership with the HRD, R2C, and Election Observation Theory and Practice (EOTP), has been collecting reports of electoral violations through the mobile application “Vochy.” In addition, HRD announced they are opening a hotline to report electoral violations.

As of September 5, 32,015 domestic observers have been accredited by election commissions. The majority of accredited observers are from pro-govenrment public associations – 23,619, including “Belaya Rus’” (4,261), Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) (6,170), Federation of Labor Unions of Belarus (5,040).

The CEC has accredited 821 foreign observers as of September 2. Three hundred and thirty-one are from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), 341 from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), 19 from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), 39 from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), 65 from diplomatic corps, three from the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB), nine from Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and 14 from election bodies of foreign countries.

Not all international observation groups could come to observe the Belarusian elections

Not all international observation groups could come to observe the Belarusian elections. The European Network of Election Monitoring Organisations (ENEMO) mission, which sent request for observation in June, has not yet received “any reply” from the Belarusian authorities (as of the end of August). ENEMO observers did not receive an invitation to observe the 2015 election either.

The OSCE/ODIHR and CIS election missions published interim observation reports. OSCE/ODIHR noted that a “significant number of prior OSCE/ODIHR recommendations are yet to be addressed.” Meanwhile, the CIS mission concluded that “in general, the electoral campaign is held in a calm atmosphere, in the spirit of open competition and at the high organizational level.”

Recently Alexander Lukashenka had a meeting with Kent Harstedt, Coordinator of the short-term OSCE observation mission and Cayetana De Zulueta Owtram, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR mission. During the meeting, Lukashenka stated that he would like to see “true professionals,” regardless of their political views, in a new parliament.

Michael P. Murphy & Juljan Jachovic

National Democratic Institute (NDI)

Mysteries of the first Belarusian nuclear power plant

On 26 August 2016, a 43-year old worker was injured and killed as a result of the explosion of an oxygen gas tank at the Astraviec nuclear power plant (NPP) construction site.

This death was the latest in a series of accidents which have already started to raise nuclear safety concerns, both domestically and internationally.

In July 2016, the Belarusian media reported another dangerous incident which occurred during the installation of a reactor. It also turned out that the NPP's management had been concealing this news for more than two weeks. This lack of transparency is reminiscent of the suppressed news of the Chernobyl catastrophe back in 1986.

As a result, NPP construction has come under closer scrutiny and even the state-run media picked up the topic of nuclear security. However, all these events have not led to massive anti-nuclear protests in Belarus.

A series of unfortunate events

Reports of incidents at the Astraviec construction site have been piling up in 2016, bringing more and more attention to the first Belarusian nuclear project. For instance, in April 2016, Poland-based TV channel Belsat reported the collapse of a supporting structure in one of the maintenance buildings on the site.

Despite the fact that an employee tipped off journalists, the NPP management responded by denying that the accident had even taken place and referred to the news as “absolute nonsense.” Later, the Belarusian Ministry of Energy nevertheless confirmed the accident, trying to downplay its severity.

Less than two months ago, authorities tried to conceal another, more serious accident which interrupted the installation of the nuclear reactor. On 10 July 2016, the reactor casing, weighing over 330 tonnes, reportedly fell to the ground from a height of 2 to 4 metres.

However, the wider public became aware of this disaster only on 25 July. Local anti-nuclear activist and United Civil Party member Mikalai Ulasevich reported that more than ten anonymous insider sources could confirm that something went wrong during the test lifting procedure.

“We have to live with this nuclear power plant”

The Belarusian media immediately tried to obtain confirmation, but did not receive a response either from the NPP management or the Ministry of Energy. The latter released a statement only in the late afternoon of 26 July. It merely confirmed the accident, assuring the public that it would prioritise the “absolute safety”of the NPP.

Rosatom, the primary contractor, offered another vague explanation. Its first deputy manager, Aleksandr Lokshin, stated that his company ran tests on the reactor casing and these did not reveal any damage. However, Rosatom agreed to replace the notorious casing in order to “mitigate rumours and panic among the population.”

By that time, even the Belarusian state-run media started to question nuclear safety, asking the Ministry of Energy inconvenient questions. For instance, a major official Belarusian TV channel inquired if the ministry had planned to inform the public of accidents at the NPP at all, or if they only admitted to problems because of the leaks and whistleblowers. Journalists also doubted Rosatom's credibility, implying that an outside contractor was more interested in doing business than dealing with the NPP in the long term.

Lithuania also expressed its concerns. On 23 August, president Dalia Grybauskaite referred to the Belarusian NPP as an instrument which could potentially be used in an unconventional manner against the Baltic states. In her opinion, the Belarusian NPP potentially represented “an energy, military, health, and territorial security problem, if used by a hostile country.”

What about Belarusian environmentalists?

Belarusian environmentalists had already adopted a clear anti-nuclear position by 2005, when officials started mentioning plans for an NPP. In 2006, the Belarusian NGO Ecodom, backed by the opposition parties, pioneered an organised anti-nuclear movement. By 2008, major anti-nuclear initiatives united within the Belarusian Anti-Nuclear Campaign.

However, Belarusian authorities did everything possible to neutralise the dissenting green movement. For instance, during the so-called public debates on the NPP construction in October 2009, only a few anti-nuclear activists were allowed to attend. The event ended with the arrest of anti-nuclear expert Andrei Ozharovskii.

Moreover, the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences produced surveys indicating a surprising turn in public opinion towards acceptance of nuclear energy. While reportedly only 28 per cent of Belarusians supported the construction of the NPP in 2005, in 2016 this figure grew to 50.3 per cent. At the same time, the number of opponents decreased from 50 to 17.3 per cent.

Environmentalists criticised these surveys as unreliable and biassed, as apparently researchers from the Institute of Sociology put pressure on the respondents to answer "correctly." Survey participants were not anonymous and faced psychological pressure, as they had to disclose all personal information in questionnaires.

Finally, authorities used the “divide and conquer” tactic against environmentalists by supporting loyal NGOs with a clear pro-nuclear agenda. For instance, Ecological Initiative has been actively cooperating with the authorities and promoting nuclear energy. In September 2012, this NGO acted as one of the founders of the Public Information Centre to monitor environmental safety at the Astraviec NPP.

What's more, Ecological Initiative's chair, Yury Salaueu, used to hold a top management position with the pro-regime Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth. Moreover, the experts of this NGO happen to work for the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the National Academy of Science of Belarus, one of the institutions immediately involved in the NPP construction.

Even though in 2016 the anti-nuclear movement has captured more attention, environmentalists fear that Belarusian society is dangerously naive when it comes to NPP construction. According to the coordinator of the Green Network association, Yaraslau Bekish, this explains why even serious accidents in Astraviec have not catalysed significant public protests.

So far, Belarusian authorities have succeeded in protecting their pet project in Astraviec. Neither Belarusian independent anti-nuclear activists nor the EU have the leverage to interfere in these plans. However, there is a chance that their voice could be heard if such emergencies and accidents continue in the future.

A Final Blow to Independent Sociology in Belarus?

On 31 July 2016, Belarusian TV broadcast a “special report,” accusing the IISEPS (Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies) of fraud and fabrication of results.

Soon thereafter, the founder of IISEPS, Aleh Manaeŭ​, stated that his organisation would cease conducting sociological surveys in Belarus.

On the eve of the 2016 parliamentary elections, the Belarusian authorities decided to tighten control over opinion polls to secure a smooth electoral campaign. IISEPS, known as one of the few independent pollsters in Belarus, was an easy target, as it had already been struggling for existence for years.

The termination of IISEPS' activities impacts the availability of independently-collected quantitative data on Belarusian society. Experts fear that this attack on IISEPS marks an end to independent sociology in Belarus.

Between a rock and a hard place

Established in 1992 by a group of academics and public figures, the IISEPS had been regularly providing public opinion polls and surveys of the socio-political situation in Belarus.

It has remained one of the few independent sources of information for social scientists on Belarus both within the country and abroad. According to IISEPS, by 2015, the number of media references to the Institute had reached 3,200, in contrast to a mere 25 in 1992.

Ironically, independent opinion polls presented an inconvenience both for the authorities and the opposition.

Ironically, independent opinion polls presented an inconvenience both for the authorities and the opposition. The latter was often unhappy with their results, which did not always conform with the wishful thinking of some of the regime's opponents. For instance, during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, IISEPS polls reflected growth in Lukashenka's approval ratings and unwillingness of Belarusians to support possible scenarios of violent power takeover.

During the 2015 presidential elections, IISEPS confirmed Lukashenka's victory, albeit by a much smaller margin than the Central Election Commission reported. IISEPS estimated that Lukashenka had won with 50.8 per cent of votes, while his closest contender, Tatsiana Karatkevich, received 22.3 per cent of votes. By contrast, official statistics assigned 83.5 per cent of votes to Lukashenka, and only 4.4 per cent to Karatkevich.

However, IISEPS still represents a much larger nuisance to the ruling regime than to the opposition. In 2005, persecution forced it out of the country, as the Supreme Court denied the Institute an official registration, thus making its activities in Belarus illegal. IISEPS relocated to Lithuania and has been operating from Vilnius. It will continue its work until August 2016, marking an end to independent opinion polls in Belarus.

Securing stage-managed elections?

By spring 2016, Belarusian state-run media started targeting IISEPS in an organised fashion, aiming to discredit the activities of its independent social researchers. Major Belarusian official media, including Belarus Segodnia and Belta, lamented that IISEPS research was biased and unreliable.

Other media allegations centred around the legal aspects of IISEPS activities, since it conducted surveys and disseminated their results without official approval. On 31 July 2016, the leading Belarusian TV channel delivered the final strike to IISEPS by broadcasting an entire film discrediting IISEPS activities and methodologies.

Based on information from anonymous informants, journalists claimed that IISEPS did not conduct real surveys and falsified its data. Moreover, the film deliberately disclosed a number of names and the personal information of IISEPS employees, thus placing them at risk of criminal charges for working without registration.

In response, Aleh Manaeŭ issued a statement denying all accusations against IISEPS in the media. He connected the attack on his Institute with the upcoming parliamentary elections and the fact that Belarusian authorities need to ensure they go off smoothly.

In his opinion, the regime needed an uncomplicated picture of elections in order to justify more dialogue and cooperation with the West, especially in light of the deteriorating social, economic, and geopolitical situation.

The end of independent opinion polls in Belarus?

On 9 August 2016, Aleh Manaeŭ declared that IISEPS would cease conducting sociological surveys in Belarus due to the heightened risk involved for its employees. Apparently, the media attacked the entire network of interviewers, forcing some of them to give public statements under threat of criminal charges.

Experts fear that the attack on IISEPS will complicate analysis of the parliamentary elections in Belarus this fall. Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski has noted that in the past IISEPS numbers often reflected electoral fraud. Thus, the elimination of IISEPS will serve to ensure that elections appear honest while depriving Western observers of an alternative sources of information.

According to the political scientist Siarhej Nikaliuk, the upcoming parliamentary elections might not be the only reason for the attack against the IISEPS. It could also have fallen prey to the Belarusian regime's need to secure control over the country in times of deepening economic crisis. Independent opinion polls and data thus turned into a liability, whereas elections just represented a tipping point.

The attack on IISEPS coincided not only with parliamentary elections and an economic crisis in Belarus, but also with decreasing levels of support for Lukashenka. Spring public opinion polls reflect that by March 2016, Lukashenka's popularity had dropped to 27.3 per cent, in contrast to 45.7 per cent in September 2015.

Valer Karbalevich has also suggested that the attack on IISEPS might be part of Lukashenka's usual tactic to gain leverage against the West. In this case, the Belarusian regime would traditionally start a “hostage trade” in exchange for recognition of the elections. Or, alternatively, it sensed that the West chose geopolitics over democracy promotion in Belarus and therefore would not interfere much in internal affairs.

As of now, it is clear that Belarusian authorities have successfully deprived its opponents, independent analysts, and election observers of alternative sources of information. It is likely that in the future it will ensure its monopoly over sociology and opinion polls in order to showcase an acceptable version of Belarusian reality to the world.