Is there Meaning in Belarus’s Parliamentary Elections?
In about a month, Belarusians will vote in parliamentary elections.
Although parliamentary elections have become a mere formality since the late 1990s, each time they arise the Belarusian opposition actively discusses whether it makes sense to participate in them. The Belarusian opposition has tried both options. The outcome was the same: massive falsification and no opposition presence in the parliament.
Two years ago, the authorities changed the electoral legislation. For the first time, candidates will participate in short debates broadcast in state-owned media and are officially allowed to use more funds for their campaigns. Otherwise, the course of the campaign promises a deja-vu.
Lukashenka likes to underline his understanding of the elections' significance: “We have learnt to hold elections as a festival for the Belarusian people.” Last month the United Civic Party proposed abolishing the anyway fake elections and appointing deputies. Does it makes sense to participate in the September 2012 elections in a dictatorship?
Who Will (Not) Count the Votes?
Very few representatives of the opposition and civil society have managed to enter the election commissions. The authorities particularly strictly control the formation of commissions of the first level – where the votes are actually being stolen. Out of 233 candidates proposed by the Party of Belarusian People's Front (PBNF) to join such ground-level commissions, only 13 have been included. The situation is the same with other opposition parties and organisations.
the authorities got rid of the commission chairmen from previous elections who found themselves on the EU black list Read more
On the other hand, the authorities have got rid of the commission chairmen from previous elections who found themselves on the EU black list. The regime demonstrated a more relaxed approach in formation of the higher, second-level commissions which are not engaged in vote counting. Yet even in these toothless commissions, representatives of the opposition make up less than 1 per cent.
Old stooges fill the commissions – the majority make up the delegates of the regime's party Belaya Rus', state-affiliated trade unions and the Red Cross Society. The Belarusian ruler has not hidden his control over the election results and has publicly demanded that a third of deputies in the new parliament should be MPs from the previous one.
Disunity Among Opposition
The opposition in not united in its stance towards the elections. The PBNF and Milinkevich's For Freedom movement are going to participate in the process. Other opposition politicians – like the still-unregistered Christian Democrats – have chosen to boycott the elections because they see them as a show staged by the authorities which should not be legitimised by opposition participation.
Of course, even those who want to participate have declared that their main aim is not to be elected. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the 2006 presidential candidate and the leader of the For the Freedom movement, stated: “The main goal is to remind Alexander Lukashenka that there are no honest elections. We have set a task to show the people that there is a positive alternative [proposed by opposition].”
Imprisoned former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich also urged participation in the elections. In May 2011 the regime sentenced the Social Democrat politician to six years of imprisonment. He remains the only 2010 presidential candidate still in prison.
According to Statkevich, "The task of the participation of the democratic forces in the parliamentary election shall be use of the legal opportunities for a national outreach campaign, holding coordinated protests throughout the country in the form of meeting with voters and collection of proof of falsification. Lack of participation of the opposition in the elections is not grounds for their non-acceptance by the international community, nor is participation grounds for their acceptance.”
The leader of the United Civic Party Anatol Lyabedzka talking recently to the Radio of Liberty emphasised that the opposition should prepare for the 2015 presidential elections.
The opposition parties use the election campaign to meet voters or collect signatures for petitions to release political prisoners. Following their registration, the candidates will have access to state-controlled media – something rare in Belarusian politics since the late 1990s. They get five minutes on TV and radio to participate in short debates, as well as an opportunity to publish their programmes in national and regional newspapers. For the first time the candidates may legally use their own funds to finance the campaign.
Of course, the role of these elections is limited also because of the parliament's function. It is a rubber-stamp institution. As political scientist Andrei Yahorau notes, over the last four years the parliament has initiated and drafted only one law: On Protection of Animals.
Lukashenka Cares about the Elections Illusion
Despite numerous cases of fraud and falsifications most Belarusians still participate in elections Read more
Despite numerous cases of fraud and falsification, most Belarusians still participate in elections. According to the NISEPI June survey, more than a half of Belarusians are willing to vote, about 20 per cent declare that they will not participate, and just 14 per cent support the boycott proposed by the radical opposition. Perhaps they see it at one of very few ways to somehow participate in political decision-making. Facing rigged electoral procedures, people see the regime's lie.
Lukashenka cares about the forthcoming elections. He often mentions them and urges state officials to pay attention to this event. History shows that even in authoritarian regimes, rigged elections may provoke people's rage simply through their scale. As political analyst Valery Karbalevich noted, “any elections are a challenge to the authorities, as in a certain way they create a legitimacy crisis”.
The regime refers to the level of participation in elections as a proof of its legitimacy. Officially, in 2004, 90.14 per cent of eligible voters voted in the parliamentary elections; in 2008, 76.7 per cent. The authorities used pressure to get these figures, forcing vulnerable groups to vote, such as students in dormitories or people employed in state organisations. One of the most efficient pressure mechanism was pre-election day voting, which enables the regime both to control participation and stuff the boxes with falsified ballots. In the five days before the actual election date in 2008, 26.3 per cent of voters cast their ballots.
Opposition as Carnival
Opposition politicians should go to the local level and systematically work with people's grievances. That means showing people how their problems are linked to the dictatorship and which solutions the democratic opposition proposes. A good example is the campaign organised by the Tell the Truth movement against the Chinese industrial park.
At the same time, only the hardcore opposition supporters will be attracted by unrealistic calls and campaigns such as For Fair Elections Without Lukashenka. The United Civic Party organised this two weeks ago in Barysau. The authorities punished the organisers and created a picture of persecution. The action, however, hardly had any effect on mobilising Belarusians against dictatorship.
Unfortunately, in recent years the struggle against the regime has too often ended in some postmodernist performances – like the scandal action of Ukrainian FEMEN in Minsk and Swedish teddy-bears bombing. Opposition and international media enthusiastically covered these artistic performances. But in reality such artistic undertakings may look exciting but will never topple any regime. They may easily become a justification to avoid working with ordinary people.
But in order to achieve change the people should see the link between their everyday problems – unemployment, rising prices – and the lack of freedom. This is where the opposition politicians should come into play and patiently explain their own solutions to the people of Belarus, not just to foreign journalists.
Beyond High Politics: German Organisations in Belarus
As a result of the Belarus-Sweden diplomatic conflict, many media stated once again that Belarus is now “even more isolated” than it was before. Last Tuesday, the Belarusian ambassador to Berlin, Andrei Giro, was ordered to come to the German Foreign Ministry as a reaction to the diplomatic conflict between Belarus and Sweden.
German authorities often criticise Belarus for disrespect of human rights. In return, the Belarusian president personally attacked the German foreign minister in March 2012 by saying "It is better to be a dictator than a gay".
While on the high political level relations have been badly strained, particularly after the 2010 presidential elections, at grassroots level Belarus does not look so desperately isolated.
Belarusians See Germany as the Most Attractive Country
Despite cold relations on the higher level, Germany is one of the most active countries in Belarus on a lower level. German expatriates constitute are one of the biggest communities of Western foreigners in Belarus. Several hundred German citizens officially live in Minsk. Moreover, a whole variety of German institutions work in Belarus.
The International Educational Centre Johannes Rau Minsk (known as IBB) is a German- Belarusian joint-venture and has been the embodiment of German- Belarusian relations since the very beginning of Belarusian independence. It is a joint-venture between a German association, the Belarusian city executive committee, the tourist agency Sputnik and Belarusbank.
Apart from a hotel and a conference-centre, the IBB has various fields of activity. In one of the few preserved buildings of the former Jewish ghetto in Minsk is now the History Workshop. Since 2003 it serves as a place for historical research with scholars and witnesses.
Another focus of the IBB is the Belarusian media landscape. In its Media Academy, the IBB offers seminars for Belarusian journalists- aiming at bringing together state and non-state journalists. In a country where training for journalists is provided by state universities only, using teaching methods dating back to Soviet times, this is a good opportunity for many journalists. The IBB hopes to make reporting more professional and enhance the number of investigative and well-researched articles in the Belarusian media.
Hundreds of Initiatives under the Belarus Support Program
The most important task for the IBB is, however, to implement the German government's Belarus Support Programme for Belarus. Since 2002, the government has supported small projects co- organised by German and Belarusian parties with a budget of over €13m. The aim of these projects — and overall the German support program — is to achieve the objectives of the "National strategy for sustainable socio- economic development of the Republic of Belarus" approved by the Ministry of Economy in 2003.
Through this programme, the IBB manages to bring together several hundred German and Belarusian initiatives. The impressive number of partnerships as well as the fact that most of them have been cooperating since the early 1990s shows that Belarus is by no means isolated at grass-roots level.
Moreover, the vast majority of initiatives financed by the Belarus Support Program are officially registered, as they do not aiming at political but social and economic change. For the IBB, which also hosts the renowned Minsk Forum Conference, it is crucial to prevent Belarus from becoming more insolated. The Minsk Forum has taken place since 1997 and assembles politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs in Minsk.
Apart from IBB, there are several other institutions working in Belarus. Among the most important of the German- Belarusian partnerships are two organisations working in the economic and social fields: The German- Belarusian Economic Club (Deutsch-Belarussischer Wirtschaftsclub) and the Representative Office of the German Economy in Belarus (Repräsentanz der deutschen Wirtschaft in Belarus).
The aim of these two organisations is to improve conditions for enterprises and to help firms that want to establish economic relations with Belarus. The German- Belarusian trade turnover was USD4.438bn in 2011, which constitutes 5.1 per cent of the overall external trade of Belarus.
Germany is in 6th place for direct foreign investment in Belarus. Despite the fact that working in Belarus is often difficult because of the economic situation and administrative barriers, about 350 German enterprises work in Belarus. Almost one hundred of them have a representative office in Belarus.
One example is the German waste management company Remondis that has been working in Minsk since 2010 as a joint venture with the City of Minsk. Well-known German companies such as Bosch and Henkel are present in Belarus, while others (such as Zeiss) have joint ventures with Belarusian firms.
Cultural Cooperation Projects
The last major area in which German institutions are active in Belarus is cultural cooperation. While the British Council and the US culture centre had to close their offices in Belarus, the Goethe Institute is very active. Not only does it offer German-language classes but also a big variety of projects for teachers, cultural managers and other people interested in German language and culture. Moreover, it has been organising cultural events since its opening in 1993.
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) also has an office in Belarus. Hardly any other institution would maintain a whole office in order to foster academic exchange with Belarus. The number of students going from Belarus to Germany with a DAAD scholarship is – not surprisingly- by far higher than the number of incoming German students.
Apart from the DAAD, there is also an office for German teachers working in Belarusian institutions, an office of the German Adult Education Association, fostering livelong learning in Belarus and cultural managers sent by German foundations that are working in different institutions all over the country.
This impressive list of activities shows that bilateral relations are much more than the statements and warnings issued by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Even if official bilateral relations seem to be bad, many initiatives at grass-roots level continue working. They ensure the people-to-people contact.
A possible answer to the question of why German organisations in particular are so active in Belarus is that Germany as a big country has a large network of organisations working abroad, both state and non-state institutions. Because of the relative closeness of Belarus to Germany, Germany feels that the country is its business more than does, say, France.
In any event, it is good to see that Belarus is by no means as isolated as one might think when reading various newspaper articles these days.