Elections in Belarus: The Continuation of a New Model?
The parliamentary election campaign has begun in Belarus.
There was little protest during the 2015 presidential elections. Elections are not elections as such, but became more a self-appointment of Lukashenka through an electoral façade. Yet the elections were peaceful and the opposition called for concord during the elections.
Peaceful elections and a democratic façade allowed the EU to maintain the fiction that the Belarusian regime was changing. This coupled with the Ukraine situation allowed the EU to tolerate and work with the authorities. Will the 2016 parliamentary elections, on 11 September, continue this trend?
The Economy Continues to Fall
The collapse of the oil price has caused significant repercussions in the Belarusian economy, creating a situation where the regime cannot maintain its social contract with the populace. Belstat showed that the economy is decreasing as exports fell by 20 percent in January 2016 compared with January 2015.
This belt tightening brought on by the limping economy saw a seven percent reduction in government spending. An Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) poll emphasised public displeasure with the regime with 60 percent seeing Belarus as going in the wrong direction, 15 percent doubting that the situation will change and 47 percent blaming Lukashenka for the failure.
Opposition United…or not?
The economic situation remains a reason why the Parliamentary elections could maintain the same changes as the 2015 Presidential elections. Another aspect concerns the opposition.
In early January 2016 centre-right parties and associations, such as the United Civil Party, Belarusian Christian Democracy and the For Freedom movement formed a coalition. This signifies a new phenomenon, namely that a part of the opposition has united on an ideological basis. Former presidential hopefull Mikola Statkievič has begun to organise an opposition congress too.
On 21 June opposition groups, such as the Belarusian Social Democratic Party – Hramada and the United Civil Party, from across the political spectrum agreed to coordinate some efforts. Under the agreement, signatures will be collected together; candidates nominated and the parties will work together at the electoral commissions to prevent fraud. 300 candidates will be put forward for elections.
Yet, Tacciana Karatkievič and her ‘Tell the Truth’ organisation are still ostracised by most of the opposition due to their alleged cosy relationship with the regime. The Belarusian Conservative Christian Party and its exiled leader Zianon Pazniak has not joined the alliance. It rejects engaging with the regime.
Hugging the West at Arm’s Length
With the Ukraine crisis and the decline of the Russian economy, the Belarusian authorities have been on the hunt for new allies. The regime has promoted Belarusian national identity to distance itself from Russia. The Belarusian authorities have looked to the European Union (EU) due to Ukraine and a weakening Russian economy. The EU has also welcomed a chance to isolate Russia.
This has led to a strange game of cat and mouse. The EU having ended sanctions on the Belarusian regime cannot enforce them again without losing face. At the same time the Belarusian regime cannot be seen to be making baby steps towards democratisation for fear of having sanctions reapplied and so has to provide a façade of democratisation. Both sides cannot afford to blink first.
Both sides decided that the nascent relationship is worth maintaining. While the Belarusian regime will not engage in a significant evolution towards EU values, both sides know that any affiliation is better than the nonentity that existed after 2010. The EU was less vocal in 2015 than in the past on electoral falsifications and potentially it could continue this approach in 2016.
The authorities have been preparing for the elections, using them to maintain the democratic disguise, while preserving total control over the outcome. Two months is a long time and the opposition often fall out with one another. Mutual suspicion and competition for access to limited resources could end any unity.
Many predictions have been made that the Belarusian economy will collapse bringing about Lukashenka’s fall. Lukashenka knows this, and as the juggler par excellence, has survived such scenarios before. Having won the Presidential election the regime is probably safe, but with a falling economy maintaining the social contract and using coercion becomes that much harder to pay for. This weakens the regime.
The authorities have given themselves time to enhance tactics for maintaining the electoral miasma. Read more
The authorities have given themselves time to enhance tactics for maintaining the electoral miasma. Currently, parliamentary candidates are registering. This will last until July 7. However, the central electoral commission has until August 10 to approve candidates. Enough time to weed out candidates too independent for the regime.
Belaya Rus’ has been mobilised for its main task of collecting signatures for pro-government candidates. With the help of administrative resources it will likely return 10 times the number of signatures required, so as to emphasise public support for regime applicants. Other GONGOS like the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU), the Federation of Labour-Unions of Belarus (FPB) and the unions of women and veterans have been mobilised to increase regime control.
In the 2015 presidential elections, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies calculated that Lukashenka’s actual winning vote margin was 50.8 percent, somewhat different than the official 83.5 percent.
With a collapsing economy, the authorities will find it harder to maintain elite support. With lower rents from the economy the authorities may find it harder to pay security services personnel and give other elites access to rents. However, even such obvious fraud is unlikely to lead to possible protests and violence because people in Belarus are scared of the repeat of the Ukraine post-revolution scenario.
with the shrinking Russian economy, the regime will find it harder to maintain power and elite support Read more
The regime has looked for associations with other states and international organisations away from Russia fearing a possible Crimean scenario. While unlikely any encroachment on Lukashenka’s power is treated with suspicion.
However closer affiliation with the EU will mean that Belarus cannot support its economy as the EU cannot subsidise Belarus. The authorities are left with dependence on Russia. But if it stays with the shrinking Russian economy, the regime will find it harder to maintain power and elite support.
Early voting among state workers and students will be invoked. This will allow the authorities to falsify these votes ensuring the authorities of victory before the elections. However these elections are interesting for two reasons.
Firstly, to see if any opposition politicians get elected to Parliament, although such a scenario remains unlikely and secondly, to see how the regime squares the circle of maintaining proximity to Russia, while softening its stance with the EU. The juggler has yet another act to perform.
Stephen is a PhD candidate at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London.
Progress on the Western front – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Working-level contacts between Belarus and the European Union are thriving. However, this has been the case for a few years now. Brussels apparently expects much more from Minsk in order to proceed to the highest-level of dialogue with Belarus.
In the eight months since the initial suspension and subsequent removal of EU sanctions, no European head of state has visited Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka’s only trip was to Italy, but its purpose remains obscure. Only a handful of visits from foreign ministers have taken place so far.
Level of dialogue between Europe and Belarus remains modest
In June, Belarus welcomed another foreign minister from an EU country after an eighty-day hiatus. On 29-30 June, Lubomir Zaorálek, the Czech foreign minister, held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. He also met the chairwoman of the Belarusian Central Election Commission, Lidzija Jarmoshyna, as well as representatives of the democratic opposition.
Zaorálek spoke about the opening of a new chapter in Belarusian – Czech relations both at his meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka and during the inauguration ceremony for the new Czech embassy building in Minsk.
The minister was accompanied by a group of Czech business executives. According to Makei, Belarus and the Czech Republic are assessing opportunities to implement investment projects in Belarus amounting to $500m. Zaorálek mentioned the interest of Metrostav, a Czech construction giant, in taking part in the expansion of the Minsk metro system.
Dialogue with Europe dominated the Belarusian foreign ministry’s activities in June. Deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna paid working visits to Hungary, Slovenia and Finland and co-chaired a meeting in Minsk of the commission of economic cooperation with Bulgaria .
On 6-7 July, Vladimir Makei travelled to Latvia on a working visit. In Riga, he met his counterpart Edgars Rinkēvičs and was received by the country's president and prime minister. Trade, investment and transit infrastructure projects, as well as regional security concerns, dominated their discussions.
Edgars Rinkēvičs supported Belarus' aspiration to develop a basic agreement with the European Union. So far, EU countries remain divided on the issue.
Human rights dialogue put on hold
Kupchyna also led the Belarusian inter-agency delegation at another round of the human rights dialogue with the EU. On 7 June in Minsk, the parties focused on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association; electoral rights; the death penalty and the fight against torture and ill treatment; the rights of people with disabilities and the fight against domestic violence.
Civil society involvement in the discussion of political rights remains impossible Read more
Belarus allowed civil society activists to participate in the debate on the two latter issues. This is consistent with Minsk’s policy of emphasising social and economic rights while downplaying the importance of civil and political freedom. Civil society involvement in the discussion of political rights remains impossible.
On 11 September, Belarus will hold parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that electoral rights remain one of the biggest sore spots in the human rights situation in Belarus, the next round of dialogue will take place only in 2017.
CEI: a great PR opportunity for Belarus
On 16 June, Vladimir Makei travelled to Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina to attend the annual meeting of the foreign ministers of the Central European Initiative (CEI).
A year ago, Belarus snubbed a similar meeting of this regional organisation in Macedonia by sending the Belarusian ambassador in Belgrade to represent the foreign minister.
However, Vladimir Makei could not afford to miss the ministerial event this year as the CEI’s rotating presidency for 2017 was awarded to Belarus. This decision means that Minsk will host a meeting of foreign ministers of 18 member states of the CEI in June next year and a meeting of these countries’ prime ministers at some time in autumn. There is no doubt that official propaganda will exploit these events to the fullest.
As the Initiative’s president, Belarus will be better positioned to influence the organisation’s agenda. In his statement in Banja Luka, Makei vouched for more attention to economic development and strengthening cooperation between regional organisations and integration projects in Europe and Eurasia.
Belarus’ independence remains the pillar of its relations with the US
On 6 July, Alexander Lukashenka received Scott M. Rauland, chargé d’affaires a.i. of the United States in Belarus. Rauland has completed his two-year mission in Minsk and will return to his home country on 8 July.
It is customary for the head of state to accept farewell visits of foreign ambassadors. However, chargés d’affaires a.i., due to their place in the diplomatic hierarchy, cannot expect the same privilege. Lukashenka’s meeting with Rauland demonstrate the importance the Belarusian leader attaches to relations with the United States.
Some recent measures taken by the US government against Belarus failed to affect Lukashenka’s decision to receive the American diplomat.
Most importantly, on 10 June, Barack Obama decided to extend the sanctions against Belarus by one year. Sanctions were introduced by President George Bush in his Executive Order 13405 on 16 June 2006 against a number of Belarusian officials including Lukashenka himself.
On 22 June, the US government introduced sanctions against Belvneshpromservice, a major Belarusian arms exporter, under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-proliferation Act sanctions.
Finally, on 30 June, the US State Department released the 2016 edition of the Trafficking in Persons report. This report placed Belarus, which considers itself an international champion in fighting human trafficking, among the worst offenders, one of the “countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”.
The Belarusian foreign ministry’s spokesperson labelled the report an “opus … a far cry from objectivity”. She said that cooperation between Belarus and the US in this domain was still in the interests of the international community, even if the countries continue to disagree on methodology and priorities.
John Kerry: My government fully backs Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity Read more
On a positive note, on 3 July, Secretary John Kerry released a statement congratulating the people of Belarus on the anniversary of Belarus’ declaration of independence from the Soviet Union and on the officially observed Independence Day.
Kerry reiterate the United States’ appreciation of “Belarus’ leadership in supporting a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine”. The top US diplomat reassured Belarusians that the American “government fully back[ed] Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Rauland also brought up this subject at his meeting with Lukashenka. The American diplomat communicated that Washington “[is] ready to cooperate with Belarus for the sake of a good future. Most important is that the territorial sovereignty and independence of Belarus remained at the highest and strongest level”.
Lukashenka reassured Rauland that Belarus would never agree to become an unsovereign, dependent state. The Belarusian leader noted noticeable progress in bilateral relations and expressed a strong desire for “normalisation of relations with the US on mutually beneficial terms”.
The recent developments in Belarus’ relations with the West have demonstrated that the country’s distancing from Russia’s assertive behaviour in the region may be sufficient for maintaining good working contacts with the democratic world and preventing a backslide into the logic of confrontation.
However, the West expects much more progress within Belarus on human rights, democratic development and economic reform to make grounds for a significant upgrade of bilateral ties. The Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to adopt this path, still hoping for softer terms.