Belarus and the OSCE: Peacekeeping and Elections Critisism
By the end of August, 40 long-term observers of the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will arrive in Belarus to keep an eye on the Presidential elections.
Since 1991 Belarus has been a member of this organisation and a constant target of criticism. This year the observers will probably not call the elections free and fair, but the Belarusian authorities hope that at least they will admit to improvements in the election campaign.
The Belarusian authorities also want to reform the organisation and call for moving its focus from elections and human rights to security.
From Love to Hate
Since Belarus is the only country in Europe outside of the Council of Europe, it has no choice but to take the OSCE seriously as it remains the largest European forum where Belarus can advance its own international initiatives and cooperate with the West without gaining Russia's jealousy.
The Vienna-based organisation includes 57 participating countries from Europe as well as Asia and Northern America. The Belarusian authorities appreciate that the decision-making process is based on the consensus of all states.
OSCE Minsk Group that facilitated negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh Read more
In early the 1990s, the relationship between Belarus and the OSCE developed well. Belarus quickly reduced its military capacity that remained in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, including nuclear weapons.
In 1992, Belarus initiated the creation of the OSCE Minsk Group that facilitated negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Like in the case of the negotiations with Ukraine, Belarus received respect from the international community for the peace initiative and contribution to European security.
The relationship between Belarus and the OSCE deteriorated with Aliaksandr Lukashenka's 1996 referendum and the dissolution of the Belarusian Parliament. Belarus, depending on the West's willingness to have a dialogue prevaricated on keeping open or closing the OSCE Office in Belarus. The biggest scandal related to the activities of Hans-Georg Wieck, who headed the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk from 1998 to 2001.
Wieck worked closely with the Belarusian opposition and five days before the Presidential elections in 2001 published an article in which he accused the authorities of involvement in the disappearances of Belarusian politicians. Then Lukashenka promised "to hurl out" Wieck from Belarus after the election and actually did it.
What Belarus Wants From the OSCE
Belarusian authorities traditionally intensify relations with the OSCE on the eve of the election, although Belarus remains one of the biggest critics of the organisation. On 21 July, Lukashenka received in Minsk OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Serbia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic. The next day, Belarus’ MFA Uladzimir Makiej stated that “Unfortunately, today the main principle of the organisation is to lodge claims and lay mutual accusations at each other”.
According to the website of the Belarusian MFA, Belarus "positions itself as one of the most active and consistent supporters of a comprehensive reform of the OSCE". In short, the Belarusian authorities want two things. Firstly, they want the OSCE to reduce election observation, as according to Lukashenka, "the OSCE is sometimes like a stick in someone’s hands in the run-up to the elections". On the background of the war in Ukraine, Belarus's authorities emphasise the need for the OSCE to engage in security, not democracy and human rights.
Secondly, the authorities want western members of the organisation to stop using sanctions against eastern ones. In 2013, Uladzimir Makiej stated that the OSCE has a crisis of confidence because of "the excessive politicisation of human rights issues, exaggerated attention to some issues to the detriment of others, continued geographical bias with respect to the countries to the east".
Why Belarus Welcomes OSCE Observes This Year
By late August 40 OSCE long-term observers will come to Belarus and another 400 will arrive just before the election in October. Approximately the same number of observers came to Belarus during the presidential elections of 2010 and 2006. This shows that the number of observers does not depend on the political context. It rather reflects the willingness of the authorities to show their own people that Belarusian elections are open for the international community.
Also, the authorities expect that the OSCE will note improvements. During the presidential elections in 2006 and 2010, the government conducted itself brutally in the post-election period. On 19 December 2010, according to the OSCE, "just before midnight, hundreds of OMON personnel (police) violently dispersed the demonstration." As it remains unlikely, that the opposition will hold mass protests this year, the authorities will not need to repress them.
This year, the government will use more transparent ballot boxes at polling stations and for the first time PACE observers will arrive in Belarus. So far, the collection of signatures has taken place without major obstacles from the authorities. Belarus Today, Lukashenka’s main propaganda newspaper, even positively writes about the collection of signatures of Tacciana Karatkievich, who is an opposition candidate.
If the authorities free Statkievich, the only major problems will be the transparency of vote counting and access by the opposition to television Read more
This can be perceived as steps to meet the OSCE Commitments on elections and the 1990 Copenhagen Document that outlines commitments in the field of elections and human rights. According to these commitments the OSCE actually assesses "the extent to which elections respect fundamental freedoms".
Still, these steps are not enough. For instance, the authorities retain several political prisoners, recognised by the West, including Mikalaj Statkievich, the presidential candidate for the 2010 elections. However, on 4 August, Lukashenka admitted that “question of Statkievich’s liberation can be solved in the near future”.
If the authorities free Statkievich, the only major problems will be the transparency of vote counting and access by the opposition to television. According to the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report from 2010, “the vote count was flawed and lacked transparency, which raised serious doubts on whether votes were counted and reported honestly”.
It seems unlikely that Belarusian authorities will change the procedure and that the whole election campaign will meet the OSCE Commitments for free elections. But even with lack of transparency the authorities will may hear what they want – that the OSCE has seen some improvements, and noted that gradual changes are taking place in Belarus. That may change relations not only with the OSCE, but the West as a whole.
What Stands behind Another “Liberalisation” in Belarus?
Just as before the 2010 presidential elections the Belarusian authorities show certain signs of liberalisation. They do not use aggressive hostile propaganda on TV and have allowed the opposition to campaign without interference.
In addition, Alexander Lukashenka held a press-conference for three independent journalists, where he hinted on the possible release of the main political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich.
These and other steps reflect an attempt to normalise relations with the West. Naturally, Lukashenka will preserve his authoritarian system of governance and the practise of holding elections. But he plans to carry them through quietly without notable repression, after which OSCE observers may prepare a relatively positive report.
The geopolitical context – conflict in Ukraine and Belarus’ role in the peace process – can foster the unfreezing of contacts between Minsk and Brussels, both of whom seem ready for it.
Authorities Show Their Mild Face
First and foremost, the liberalisation trend concerns the presidential campaign. Lukashenka himself publicly invited everyone who wishes to monitor the election and ordered his power ministers “not to catch or drag anyone who stands in the wrong place”, which was interpreted as giving the opposition carte blanche to campaign.
Indeed, so far the authorities have allowed the opposition to campaign freely, travel across the country and even gather small rallies at markets, near plants and factories to collect 100,000 people’s signatures required for a candidate's registration.
One opposition leader Anatol’ Liabedz’ka went even further and transformed a couple of his pickets into fully fledged protests for releasing political prisoners and punishing those responsible for political kidnappings in 1999-2000. Formally speaking, this could be considered as violating the Electoral Code because pickets are supposed to serve merely for collecting signatures. However, no sanctions followed.
State TV and print media still praise the president, but, in general, speak more neutrally about the opposition. The most popular state TV channel ONT airs a weekly political talk-show, inviting independent experts and even moderate opposition politicians.
In the meantime, Alexander Lukashenka for the first time since he came to power held a press-conference only for three journalists from the independent media: informational portal TUT.BY, Euroradio and Radio Free Europe. The event lasted 4.5 hours instead of the 90 minutes it originally planned. Lukashenka guaranteed no invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian territory, supported the promotion of the Belarusian language and promised that journalists will have full access to voting process and ballot counting.
More importantly, Lukashenka admitted he was considering the release of the No1 political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich before the elections. Prior to the press-conference the standard response from Lukashenka was: “Statkevich is a criminal, is he asks for pardon, I will think about it”.
Reaching Out to the West Again
For those who have observed Belarusian politics for a while, this liberalisation trend may seem familiar. In 2010, after two years of improving ties between Belarus and the EU, the presidential campaign started in a surprisingly free atmosphere. However, this political honeymoon ended on election night, when 700 people were arrested after a brutal crackdown on a mass opposition rally in Minsk.
Since then Belarus-EU relations went through a deep crisis in 2011 followed by a very cautious reengagement. Parties negotiated a visa facilitation agreement and Belarus joined the pan-European Bologna process. The Ukrainian crisis also made its contribution: Minsk put on a hat of a reliable partner hosting peace talks and distancing itself from Russia.
The EU started curtailing sanctions: the latest revision took place on 30 July when two dozen Belarusian officials were crossed off the visa ban list. However, the existence of political prisoners in Belarus stands in the way of normalising relations.
After Russia intervened in Ukraine and fell under Western sanctions going into economic recession, it became a far less reliable donor and safe partner for Belarus. In these circumstances Lukashenka tries to improve ties with the West. He needs it to get some space for geopolitical maneuvering and maybe even assistance in receiving IMF loans or selling bonds on European stock markets. The unclear statement about Statkevich’s future may be seen as a trial balloon, an attempt to ask Europeans what they can give in return.
How Realistic are Lukashenka’s Plans?
It is rather obvious that Alexander Lukashenka cannot allow truly fair elections – it will bury the whole political system he depends on. The authorities will not let many opposition activists into electoral committees, or make the counting process more transparent. The state TV channels will not stop praising the president. Also, liberalisation will hardly cover areas Europeans pay less attention such as press freedom, freedom of associations or assembly. And for sure this liberalisation will end the moment its objectives are met or if it starts getting out of control.
However, overall political apathy in Belarusian society and the fear of any revolution after the Ukrainian crisis already caused lack of enthusiasim in traditional protests after the elections. The absence of protests in its turn will mean no need for government suppression.
As a result the OSCE may still call the elections unfair but notice some slight progress like more room for opposition agitation or no political arrests. It would be a repetition of 2010 (when everybody emphasised the liberal spirit of campaign before election night) but without the cruel disruption of protests and new political prisoners.
After the elections Lukashenka hopes to approach the EU holding a moderately positive OSCE report in one hand and peacekeeper image in the other. If in addition he will release Statkevich and some other political prisoners (all in all, six people by human rights activists' assessments), the road to lifting European sanctions seems open. Elections come right on time – at the end of October the EU Council annually reviews its sanctions against Belarus.
On the other hand, according to diplomatic sources, the EU has prepared an internal document, some sort of a road map, providing certain concrete steps the EU can undertake in relations with Belarus, if major political obstacles are removed. The document includes trade and investment facilitation measures, technical support in various fields.
The 2015 presidential elections have fully predictable results in terms of the winner. However, their implications on the relations between Belarus and the EU can be crucial. Smooth elections without repression and the release of key political prisoners may finally unfreeze the comprehensive relations with the West. Geopolitics played its part, now it’s time for Alexander Lukashenka to play his.