Minsk’s “Election” Message to the West
Belarusian authorities do not allow even a minimal level of electoral competition and openly censor opposition candidates in the ongoing parliamentary election campaign. The campaign looks like a staged show in which the incumbent regime only needs to make sure that not even the slightest destabilisation occurs. On 15 September two major Belarusian opposition parties – the United Civic Party and the Belarusian Popular Front Party – decided to withdraw their candidates from the race.
Last Friday the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) Election Observation Mission published its initial overview of the ongoing parliamentary campaign in Belarus. The report mentions various violations but does not state the obvious – that the OSCE will not recognise the election results as legitimate. The Belarusian authorities simply do not leave any hope for a different conclusion but still hope to normalise relations with the West.
The authorities are trying to convey the following message to the West: we are gradually moving towards systemic modernization but all attempts to pressure us are counterproductive, therefore, you’d better appreciate our progress. Minsk wants such a notification of progress in order to have a chance for a rapprochement with the EU ahead of a new wave of crises which is likely to hit the Belarusian economy soon.
Appointed MPs and Censorship
According to several credible government sources, all the 110 future parliamentary deputies were “appointed” by the Presidential Administration several months ago. And now the authorities only have to dress these appointments as the will of the voters.
However, in the era of information technologies it is impossible to hide such massive-scale rigging from the public eye. The OSCE Interim Report does not make any judgments on the campaign so far but lists the most egregious examples of irregularities.
For instance, a large number of candidates were denied registration on the grounds of minor inaccuracies in their income statement or invalidation of signatures. The official signature verification process was completely non-transparent. In some cases the Central Election Commission and the Supreme Court resorted to strange arguments when denying registration to nominee candidates.
The most ridiculous example was when the authorities refused to register non-partisan Alexander Solop on the grounds of morality: because such a person “should not be a lawmaker”. The head of the Central Election Commission Lidzia Yarmoshyna publicly admitted that Mr. Solop had an expunged conviction and, therefore, had the legal right to run, but she emphasised that the Central Election Commission decided to make a political decision in his case.
The Central Election Commission openly introduced the censorship of candidates’ appearances in the state-owned media. Candidates who use unwanted words like “boycott” or “for fair elections without Lukashenka” in the majority of cases are denied the right to address their electorate.
The composition of precinct and district election commissions is another area of concern. Out of all the members of the district commissions only 3.5% represent opposition parties. Precinct commissions include only 0.09% opposition representatives.
Why Invite OSCE Observers?
The OSCE Interim report of 14 September also notes a number of other irregularities. And it is already quite obvious that the election will not be recognised as free and fair according to the Copenhagen criteria that the OSCE adheres to.
It is also clear that the other major international observation group – the Commonwealth of Independent States – will take an opposing view. Its observers will not notice any gross violations of the Belarusian Electoral Code.
A logical question arises: why invite OSCE observers if their negative conclusions can be predicted long in advance? Would it not be easier for the Belarusian government to invite only loyal observers from the CIS?
Two factors play in favour of still extending an invitation to the “hostile” OSCE. Most importantly, proper international observers are needed for domestic consumption. The authoritarian Belarusian state needs the majority of its own citizens to believe that the election is in full conformity with all laws and standards. By inviting "biased" international observers the government wants to demonstrate that it has nothing to hide from critics.
But it also feels like the authorities are looking beyond the parliamentary campaign. According to the National Bank’s chairwoman Nadzeya Yarmakova, in October Belarus plans to resume negotiations about a new loan with the IMF. She emphasised that the “political factor” remains the major obstacle in the negotiations.
This obstacle can only be removed if the EU and USA soften their hard positions on Belarus. Overall, the ongoing parliamentary campaign is so rigged that it cannot be conducive to a thaw with the West. However, if the OSCE observers mention some progress in how the election is organised the Belarusian government will be in a better negotiating position in October. And if the authorities additionally release political prisoners at the end of the year they can have a real chance for a new IMF loan.
Promise of Gradual Change
This explains why the authorities are being so nice and cooperative with the OSCE mission.
In order to get observers on their side the authorities employ a simple argument: the Belarusian political system will definitely transform, but gradually. They stress that the civil society and political parties have failed to keep pace with the modernization of the state. That is why, they say, it will take time to consolidate a working party system. But this transformation, they assure, is in progress.
To show progress, they point to the newly acquired ability of political parties to nominate candidates in all constituencies regardless of whether they maintain regional structures in a given district. As a result in this election a significantly higher number of candidates were nominated by political parties than in 2008. It was 264 this year and in 2008 it was 58.
The authorities also hint that soon after the elections the Republican Public Association Belaya Rus will be transformed into a fully-fledged political party. Given that it now supports 70 pro-government candidates, who will most probably get into the House of Representatives, the new party will have an absolute majority there. This will, in the opinion of Belaya Rus representatives, create new opportunities for party politics in the country.
In fact, if such a transformation really takes place Belarus will get a new political system. The governing party will gradually dissolve the uniqueness of President Lukashenka in the country's political life. But it can only happen if Lukashenka himself agrees to the scenario.
Time will show how the West will respond to the election message from Belarusian authorities.
Yauheni is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk
Inside Belarusian Prisons
The Lukashenka regime often uses politically motivated administrative detentions for up to 15 days to fight against civil society and the opposition in Belarus.
In 2011 the author of this article organised the action of solidarity with two activists – Zmitser Dashkevich and Edward Lobau – during their trial near the courthouse. Unsurprisingly, Belarusian police officers arrested the author.
The next day under judge Matyl in the same courthouse punishment followed – 10 days of administrative arrest. This article lifts the veil on what hides behind the bars and shows the conditions which Belarusian activists undergo in detention. This article describes one particular detention centre located in Akrestsina Street in Minsk for three reasons.
First, most Belarusian civil activists are usually kept there. Second, the conditions in the centre can be regarded as average for Belarus. Conditions vary in every city and within each city. Some can even provide detainees with relatively clean linen, in others detainees will be sleeping on wooden shelves and use a bucket as a toilet. Finally, the author served his administrative arrest.
Akrestsina Dentention Centre Welcomes You
Standard cells in the Akrestsina facility are approximately 15 square metres, usually for five to six people. There also have a toilet and a sink in the cell (political activists often joke that the whole cell is actually a large closet). So each person has about two square metres of space.
Such high density is possible due to the fact that prisoners sleep together on a "stage" – the so-called improvised wooden bed that takes up most of the camera. Naturally, there is not enough space on the stage for everyone, so the residents have to sleep very tight. Quite often, people sleep so tightly that if one person on the "stage" wants to turn over, all the others have to turn over all together.
Heating and ventilation is such that it is cold in the cells in winter and hot in summer. In some cells, it is impossible to open the window, so in summer the temperature exceeds the limit. It is difficult to provide exact numbers as there are no thermometers in the cells, and the police do not give accurate information. People arrested for the first time always remember the toilet, which is just a hole in the floor.
Prisoners do not have watches, although “experienced” people can tell approximate time by the daily routine (wake up, breakfast, lunch, dinner) and by planes flying over Minsk. Generally, direct communication with the outside world is impossible – all electronic devices are taken away.
Prisoners can write letters using ordinary envelopes but police officers read letters and often do not send them to the addressees. Further, every seven days, a prisoner has a right to take a shower.
Apart from civil activists, most people who are detained there are petty thieves, drug addicts or homeless. From time to time, the police "throw" political activists into the cells with sick people on purpose.
Administrative detentions are especially hard to bear for women who are afraid of rats. Rats feel as calm as humans in the Akrestsina cells, they even move quite slowly.
Struggle For Human Conditions
Naturally, everything described above violates international standards, as well as Belarusian legislation. Political activists have long been struggling for better confinement conditions in the centre for isolation of law-breakers. Ivan Shyla, the Vice-Chairman of the Young Front youth political group, who served administrative detention in Akrestsina several times, says:
The struggle between the activists and the centre for isolation of offenders started long ago. I joined it only in 2010, when I got there for the first time. Frankly speaking, I could not imagine that the confinement conditions could be so poor before – low temperature, absence of any beds, let alone bed linen. On the whole, the cells are specially designed to humiliate a person’s dignity. In fact, there is nothing to do in Akrestsina. For example, there are a lot of people who are keen on reading, but it is impossible to read because there’s not enough light. Also, it is a shame that there’s no proper medical care. During the arrest, my allergy got worse and my skin literally started rotting.
After his release, Ivan Shyla filed numerous complaints and they gave the following result – the Republican Sanitary Epidemiological Station of the Interior Ministry conducted an inspection in the Akrestsina Street detention centre, and considered it inappropriate for serving administrative detentions.
Political activists were surprised by the inspection’s results, as usually it is not accepted in our country to admit that there are human rights violations. In the end, the detention centre administration promised to repair the building. But many are quite sceptical about it. Not only because administrative detentions in Belarus are aimed at humiliation and loss of dignity of democratic activists, but also because there’s not enough money in the state budget.
Families, colleagues and ordinary people always come to meet freshly released civil activists under the prison walls. However, sometimes it is impossible. For the last several years there is a very popular practise in Akrestsina – to drive the newly released prisoners to the industrial areas of the city and throw them out of the car there. Usually, activists call a taxi and go back to the detention centre to meet with the people who came to express their solidarity.
In neighbouring Lithuania the former KGB building houses a museum, where anyone can come and see how cells looked in the days of the Soviet Union. People who have personally visited this museum said that conditions in Belarus since then have improved, but not significantly. For the time being, Belarusian prison is a place to humiliate people. This is particularly noticeable when people are detained for their democratic views.