Belarus’s 2019 parliamentary election: consequential or not?
On 17 November 2019 Belarus chooses a new parliament. The last parliamentary elections, held in September 2016, brought two non-loyalist candidates into the lower chamber for the first time in more than a decade.
Although the role of the parliament is relatively insignificant in the Belarusian political system, the outcome of the poll later this month will send an important signal about Belarus’s domestic trajectory. Moreover, the international response could determine the direction of travel for Belarus’s relations with Russia and Western states as it moves towards presidential elections in August 2020.
2016: A confidence trick?
Elections in Belarus usually provide few surprises and critics fairly dismiss parliamentary ballots as inconsequential affairs. In the earlier part of his rule, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka replaced the unicameral parliament he inherited with a pliant bicameral National Assembly. The president also liberally uses presidential decrees to bypass the parliament.
Despite the parliament’s minuscule powers in domestic politics, the September 2016 poll did capture foreign analysts’ interests. The election of Hanna Kanapatskaya, a member of the oppositional United Civic Party, and Alena Anisim, the head of the Belarusian Language Society, occurred against a backdrop of warming relations between Belarus and Western states that have long criticised Belarus for its undemocratic political system.
In 2016’s tense ‘post-Crimea’ international environment Western officials hoped relations with Belarus would continue to thaw. They keenly wondered whether prominent opposition candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich, who had been defeated in the presidential elections a year earlier, would be ‘allowed’ into the parliament as a concession to Western actors’ calls for greater democracy.
In the end Kanapatskaya, who stood in the same electoral district as Karatkevich, found herself a parliamentary deputy instead. Someone memorably told me that observing those elections recalled a ‘Find the Lady’ card trick played on a street corner. Observers thought that they were following the ‘card’ (Karatkevich) in the electoral district, only to realise that they were following the wrong card.
Prospective sticking points
The 2016 elections succeeded in keeping Belarus’s relations with Western states on an even keel. The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission’s final report contained criticisms, but less overtly than in the analogous report for the 2011 elections. The 2016 report found the elections ‘efficiently organised’ and spoke of democratic improvements, albeit referring to ‘long-standing systemic shortcomings’ and ‘procedural deficiencies, inconsistencies and irregularities.’
An argument can be made that Belarus’s relations with Western states continue to improve. Dialogue with the US has intensified and an agreement for the exchange of ambassadors has been reached. In respect of the EU, the Belarusian president will visit Austria a few days before the vote in what constitutes his first visit to an EU member state since the lifting of a travel ban and other sanctions in early 2016.
However, one could plausibly argue that the rapprochement with the EU has stalled as the latter focuses increasingly on affairs within the bloc. The issue of an enhanced visa regime for Belarusian citizens visiting the EU has dragged on and still not-quite-finalised. Within the EU there remains a long-running dilemma about inter-parliamentary relations with Belarus representing de facto recognition of the National Assembly, the legitimacy of which some MEPs with long memories dispute.
The Belarusian authorities could use a pretence of democracy in the parliamentary elections in the hope of coaxing further concessions from the EU. Early signs in this regard haven’t all been positive. On 17 October the Central Electoral Commission denied registration to both Anisim and Kanapatskaya, among other candidates, citing irregularities with the requisite signature collection. Furthermore, candidates from the United Civic Party and European Belarus have complained about the blocking of campaign television broadcasts.
In the past, the authorities have routinely resorted to measures involving candidate registration and restricting media access to disrupt oppositional political campaigns. Above all, it reminds domestic actors that the authorities retain effective control.
The use of these techniques during the election campaign period gives observers an early indication of the Belarusian authorities’ beliefs when it comes to their Western partners. Belarus has an obvious interest in keeping relations on a good footing as it strives to maintain leverage with Russia.
The Belarusian authorities may calculate that they are doing enough to satisfy Western states. Lukashenka has spoken publicly about reforms to the political party system and could argue that this will supply the means to address ‘systemic shortcomings’ – though one suspects such proclamations of reforms will come to nothing.
As well, the authorities have registered over 150 candidates from recognised opposition parties for the forthcoming elections. Admittedly that is significantly fewer than the number who stood in the 2016 elections with the United Civic Party successfully registering 47 candidates for this year’s ballot, compared to 57 in 2016, and the Belarusian Popular Front registering 31 candidates (49 last time round). What outside actors will really notice, of course, is the composition of the parliament after 17 November.
Alternatively, the authorities may have calculated that Western governments will not change their policy towards Belarus regardless of the conduct or outcome of the elections. They may have concluded that geopolitical security now takes precedence over democratic values for the West, and that the costs of rowing back on improved relations with Belarus would prove too high, especially as Russian influence grows in eastern Europe and elsewhere.
In the complicated geopolitical environment since 2014 Russia has been keen to consolidate its grip over its neighbour and there have been persistent frictions between the two states. Belarus has resisted Russian pressures to deepen integration and cooperation on terms the Belarusian side deems unfavourable, but Belarus’s leverage with Russia depends of having credible alternatives to deeper integration. Some analysts argue that Russia sees further concessions from Belarus as the price of its tacit support for Lukashenka in next year’s presidential election.
Accordingly, whether the number of deputies loyal to Lukashenka rises or falls as a result of the 17 November vote, the broader international reaction to the elections matters. It will play a role in determining the tenor of Belarus’s international relations in the coming year. Injudicious actions by either Belarus or Western actors could presage a renewed deterioration in their relations.
Paul is an associate analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre and an associate fellow with the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.
Trump’s advisor in Minsk: why should we care?
Last week US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Minsk and met the Belarusian president. The visit shows how greatly Belarus’s stock has risen in international relations over the past five years. It also adds to suggestions of ‘normalising’ diplomatic ties between Belarus and the United States, with President Aliaksandr Lukashenka insisting that he has long wanted ‘to start a new page’ in relations. But how much substance really backs up such talk and how far could any ‘normalisation’ proceed?
Bolton’s visit came as part of a tour of eastern Europe. The National Security Advisor’s trip follows a change of administration in Ukraine and the demise of the INF Treaty. His itinerary included two full days in Ukraine, but no one should doubt the significance and symbolism of Bolton’s presence in Minsk. Ahead of his arrival he promised ‘frank’ discussion on human rights issues alongside talk about sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In the current climate it has become de rigueur to interpret Western officials’ references to ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ in the region in the light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Ongoing strains in the Belarus-Russia relationship make such an interpretation especially compelling. However, the visit proved still more significant given the dire state of Belarus-US relations in the past and, I would submit, it’s worthwhile to view the occasion in the context of improving bilateral relations.
A new normal in Belarus-US relations
The US has long been an ardent critic of Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In 2004 Congress passed the Belarus Democracy Act that pledged to support opposition to Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule. The following year US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labelled Belarus an ‘outpost of tyranny’ alongside North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Iran among others. The US soon imposed sanctions on the oil refiner Belneftekhim and its subsidiaries.
The Belarusians reacted by demanding that the US reduced its diplomatic staff at the US Embassy to five and the US Ambassador left Minsk under threat of formal expulsion. Belarusian diplomatic presence in the US was reciprocally downsized and bilateral relations were in freefall. The situation changed with the conflict in Ukraine as Belarus – once described as ‘a piece that fell of the chessboard’ – saw its strategic value climb.
In recent years bilateral relations have improved noticeably. Earlier this year the Belarusian authorities lifted the cap on the number of diplomatic staff it permitted the US to have in the country. Bolton’s presence in Minsk last week came on the heels of visits in October 2018 by A. Wess Mitchell, at the time the US Assistant Secretary of State, and in March this year by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.
Bolton represented the most senior US official to go to Belarus since at least March 2001 when the Bush Administration sent a delegation. There have also been additional, less conspicuous US delegations in Minsk over the past two years with law enforcement and security agencies strengthening their cooperation.
Talk of normalising diplomatic relations has gathered momentum and the frequency of US official visits indicates both sides’ commitment to the goal. With high level officials in both states talking it up, it looks like the return of ambassadors will happen in the medium term. In the round, problems persist in the relationship and Bolton acknowledged that his meeting with Lukashenka ‘didn’t resolve any issues.’
Belarus would like to see US sanctions lifted entirely, but late last year the US prolonged those still in place. Secondly, Belarus would like to buy US oil as a substitute for dependence on Russian oil imports, although geography calls into question whether this is a realistic prospect. A third goal may be that thawed relations will increase US investment in Belarus – though the elimination of sanctions would be crucial here.
Some trade potential undeniably exists, primarily for exports of Belarusian oil products (already the major export). However, the level of bilateral trade before sanctions was modest and there’s little evidence to suggest that this could change much because it’s not obvious where significant increases would come from. Trade volume between the two states has been consistently low; fluctuations in the data around the timing of new sanctions reflect the relatively small numbers to begin with rather than any drastic changes in trade volume.
Human rights issues remain another obstacle even if, unlike the EU, the US does not outright object to the continued use of the death penalty. Speaking after his meeting with the Belarusian head of state, Bolton acknowledged differences over human rights. The remark sounded like little more than a sop to the human rights lobby and, while one might argue that human rights fall outside of Bolton’s job description, it’s fair to conclude that he soft-pedalled on those issues for now.
Bolton sure to have irked the Kremlin
And the biggest obstacle of all is Russia, which will be nervous about its ally increasing ties to the US. The Kremlin’s credibility would be severely dented if Russian citizens thought that they risked ‘losing Belarus’ – however unlikely in reality.
Yet the Russia relationship remains by far the most important one to Belarus, which accordingly acts in its international relations with Russian onlookers in mind. Belarus has sought social capital from its role in the Ukraine peace talks and official sources confirm that the Ukraine conflict featured prominently in the Bolton-Lukashenka talks.
One can assume that Belarusian officials, having afforded Bolton a meeting with the head of state, will make a compensatory gesture towards Russia. Polish media speculated about Lukashenka’s absence from a ceremony in Warsaw on Sunday in this regard: Belarusian officials have joined their Russian colleagues in arguing against Poland’s calls for a US military base on its territory (another issue that will surely have been discussed by Lukashenka and Bolton).
Last week also saw Lukashenka’s 65th birthday. Bolton’s visit proved something of a birthday gift for the Belarusian leader in so far as it bolsters Belarusian efforts to demonstrate to Russia that it has foreign policy options. Then again, in an interview with Radio Free Europe’s Current Time, Bolton was asked about alleged Russian desires for Belarusian-Russian unification. The US official remarked that sovereignty was a matter for the ‘Belarusian people’ – as opposed, presumably, to the president and his inner circle. The Kremlin, confident it finds favour among Belarusians, might not mind that so much.
Paul is an associate analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre and an associate fellow with the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.