A Test of Opportunity for Ukraine and Belarus: Elections in 2012
The two largest states on the EU’s eastern borders, Ukraine and Belarus, will be holding parliamentary elections this autumn. They are being held at a particularly low point in relations with the EU.
Few are optimistic about the outcome. Nonetheless, the elections present an opportunity for governments, opposition groups and EU actors to re-engage positively. EU policymakers have long puzzled over how best to deal with these eastern neighbours. Policy has been constrained by not wanting to upset Russia and the inability to offer the incentive of EU membership that transformed Central Europe. The countries in question have themselves often proven unreliable partners and unable to adhere to basic democratic standards.
Just two years ago, however, there seemed reason to be cautiously optimistic.
In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka softened his isolationism with a period of reengagement with the EU, leading to a more open election campaign (by Belarusian standards) in 2010. That same year, the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was cautiously welcomed as a more pragmatic and stable partner. He made Brussels his first international visit, suggesting a commitment to a European path of development.
Both presidents then went out of their way to prove their critics right. In Belarus, opposition candidates were detained and allegedly tortured, demonstrations forcefully dispersed and activists jailed. The EU responded with visa bans on over 100 officials.
The Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, have been jailing opposition leaders, attacking independent media and making unilateral constitutional changes in their favour. As a result, the long-negotiated Association Agreement with the EU remains unsigned. The clampdowns seem irrational in countries where the opposition was already weak and it is hard to see what benefits have been gained.
The EU has been alienated while Russia has increased its economic dominance, particularly over energy assets. In the process, the delicate balance that Minsk and Kiev have tried to maintain between East and West since independence has been upset.
This autumn, Belarusians and Ukrainians will vote in parliamentary elections. They will be the first elections in either countries since the Arab Spring and last autumn’s return of real political activity to Russia.
Recent Belarusian and Ukrainian elections have traditionally had the ability to mobilise voters to campaign, debate and demonstrate on the streets. For the EU, elections are concrete measurables of the democratic reforms and norms it seeks to promote in its neighbourhood and it is expected to monitor both closely. There is good cause to be sceptical about this year's polls.
the Belarusian parliament has little say on policy; in Ukraine many MP's have taken bribes to change positions, in both power really lies with the president Read more
The opposition groups appear weak and parliamentary elections in any case do not receive the same amount of attention as the presidentials: the Belarusian parliament has little say on policy; in Ukraine many MPs have taken bribes to change positions, in both power really lies with the president. And new confidence in their economies make the governments less likely to want to seek compromise.
Following a catastrophic year in 2011 for Belarus, economists now predict slight growth and few problems in discharging liabilities for servicing external debt (thanks to Russian support). In Ukraine there are government plans to increase pensions, even though the IMF has frozen its assistance package. If there was a reason to worry, it seems to have passed these presidents by.
Nonetheless, despite the difficulties imposed on them, the elections present a real opportunity for opposition groups to present themselves as credible alternatives to the wider population. In Belarus, independent polling has found Lukashenka's support to be half what it was a year ago.
This has not, however, translated into support for the opposition. Similarly, Ukrainian support for Yanukovych and his party has plummeted since his inauguration, but again without a corresponding increase in support for the main opposition.
The opposition must end its internal squabbles and widen its focus from the issue of political persecution so as also to address the issues that matter most to the wider population Read more
There is clearly a need for a political alternative which the current opposition is failing to meet. The opposition must end its internal squabbles and widen its focus from the issue of political persecution so as to also address the issues that matter most to the wider population. Political prisoners cannot and must not be forgotten, of course. But their release will not improve falling living standards or increasing corruption.
More substantial debate on domestic policy is the only way to make opposition groups credible. Engaging in every outreach opportunity the election campaigns will provide is the only option: a threatened boycott in Belarus can achieve nothing but invisibility, and opposition leaders need to be seen to be believed.
Although many forecast Belarus and Ukraine defaulting to Russian dominance, among their populations there is clear popular support for closer ties with the EU. In Belarus, as many support integration with the EU as with Russia (39-41 per cent). In Ukraine, considerably more now favour integration with the EU over integration with Russia.
However, for all the debate on the effectiveness of Europe’s response to the political tension in Belarus and Ukraine, there remains a need for a clearer, more proactive and more consistent approach. It is often misunderstood what the EU can offer as well as what changes it actually requires: both messages must be better prepared by the EU and better conveyed to all groups in society.
the EU can offer many tangible benefits, be it the eventual introduction of visa-free travel or far greater trade and business opportunities Read more
Although at present unable to offer a membership perspective, the EU can offer many tangible benefits, be it the eventual introduction of visa-free travel or far greater trade and business opportunities. Meanwhile many do not understand the reasons for appearing on a visa ban list, which in any case is hardly consistent in its implementation, or why the Association Agreement has been effectively shelved for now, for what Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov called "far-fetched reasons".
EU foreign ministers have called the Ukrainian elections a 'litmus test' that will determine the future of association with the EU. For the test to be effective in either country the EU must be unambiguous in its message, and pro-active in getting it across.
Governments in Minsk and Kiev remain acutely aware of the ultimate need for better relations with the rest of Europe so they may yet come to see this as their opportunity; meanwhile, opposition groups could yet benefit by taking advantage of the political space to begin looking like an alternative. This autumn’s parliamentary elections are an opportunity not to be wasted, like so many before.
Janek Lasocki is an Advocacy Coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relation (ECFR) and a Research Fellow at the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI).
This piece originally appeared in conference materials for the GLOBSEC Conference in Bratislava in April 2012. The text appears in Belarus Digest with kind permission of the author.
“I’m From a Village”, China Industrial Park, Byalyatski – Politics & Civil Society Digest
A propaganda-style music video "I'm From a Village" by a 13-year old girl was the breaking news of the week in online media. Other notable development include public debate on the proposed China Industrial Park in Belarus and the EU's new initiative "European Dialogue on Modernization of Belarus". At the same time Belarus was denied entering the Bologna process.
Patriotic rap song "I'm From a Village" ‘blew up’ internet. Ksenia Dziahelka, a 13-year-old Belarusian schoolgirl and member of a pioneer organisation from the town of Oktyabrsky (Gomel oblast) sings, in a propaganda style, about the stability and prosperity of Belarus. Amateur video of this rap song has attracted significant attention and sharp reactions from Internet users.
The video gathered more than 450,000 views on YouTube in less than a week and generated over 3,000 comments. The views grew significantly after a program praising the girl "talent" on state TV on April 19th. To compare: Belarusian history animation video of the Budzma campaign has about 360,000 YouTube views from the end of May 2011.
Officials agree with public on China Industrial Park. On April 16, the talk show "Open format" on the state TV channel ONT was devoted to private property and discussion of building of a China-Belarusian industrial park. During the talk-show officials agreed with the arguments of the campaign "Tell the Truth" and residents of Smolevichi area and acknowledged that the authorities should hold open public hearings, if the question is intimately related to the well-being of citizens.
Minsk city executive committee gave permission for Chernobyl Way-2012. The march will be held on April 26 from the Academy of Sciences to the park Friendship of Nations. This year the organizing committee consists of BPF, the Movement "For Freedom", UCP, campaign "Tell the truth", Young Front, the party "Fair World", European Belarus, NGO Ecodom.
Byalyatski ordered to pay more. A judge of the Pershamayski District Court in Minsk has ordered imprisoned human rights defender Ales Byalyatski to pay a late charge of Br140.3 million ($17,500) and Br7.1 million ($890) in litigation costs.
Lukashenka postponed address to the nation. Alexander Lukashenka postponed his annual address to the National Assembly and the Belarusian people, which was originally scheduled for April 19, ordering speechwriters to rewrite parts of the text that focused on privatization and foreign policy.
Ignore-2012. Eight youth organizations launched the joint campaign "Ignore-2012" to boycott the parliamentary elections. Young Front, Young Democrats, Young Hramada, European Belarus, the initiative Zmena and the Young Christian Democrats call on older politicians to join forces against Lukashenka's dictatorship like young CSOs.
Nobel Committee registers Ales Byalyatski’s nomination for Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee has admitted the nomination of Viasna leader Ales Byalyatski for the 2012 Peace Prize. Byalyatski’s nomination was submitted by a number of Polish MPs and later signed by several members of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.
Round table on European dialogue. On April 20, Minsk hosted a round table "European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarus: Challenges and Prospects", organized in the framework of the National Platform of EP’s Civil Society Platform. The event was attended by around 30 representatives of Belarusian think tanks and CSOs. The participants discussed current challenges and prospects for the new initiative of the EU for Belarus, including the organization of the dialogue, its format and content.
Journalists tried to find common ground with the police. Belarusian independent journalists visited three Minsk police departments to meet with their heads. Journalists prepared a special appeal and leaflets reminding about journalists' rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the law on mass media.
Fundraising campaign for new children's hospice. On April 17, NGO "Belarusian Children's Hospice" organised a press conference devoted to the construction of a new building of a children's hospice in Borovlyany (Minsk region). The NGO launches new projects to raise funds for the construction, including a new website with appropriate information – about the process of collecting the money, etc. Also, the campaign "400 thousand of caring" will offer to people to purchase "bricks" and thus contribute to the construction of the building.
Makey warns EU over ambassadors' return. The ambassadors of European Union member states will be allowed to return to Belarus after the 27-nation bloc displays its readiness to lift its sanctions on the country's individuals and economic entities, Uladzimir Makey, head of the Presidential Administration, told a group of hand-picked reporters in Minsk on April 17.
Belarus to loosen EU border control. Belarus plans to loosen control over travelers and goods crossing the country's border into the European Union in response to the 27-nation bloc's sanctions. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official from the State Border Committee warned that the Belarusian border control service would give priority to control over people and goods traveling to Belarus from the EU.
Belarus banned from Bologna process for three years. Belarus is banned from the Bologna process for at least another three years. The question of accession is completely removed from the agenda of the Summit of Ministers of Education of the European Higher Education Area, which will be held on April 26-27. Belarus will get a chance to join the Bologna process again only in 2015.
Belarus and U.S. mutually raised cost of visas. On April 13, U.S. raised the size of the consular fees for the issuance of nonimmigrant visas for Belarusian citizens. In response, the Belarusian authorities have increased the cost of visas for the U.S. citizens.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.