Political Parties in Belarus Consider Elections Tactics
Opposition political groupings in Belarus are stepping up preparations for the parliamentary elections, scheduled for 23 September 2012.
An IRI opinion poll figure from February shows that 43 per cent of people believe that in order to solve the economic situation in the country, new people are needed in government. 47 per cent believe that political reform is necessary to achieve this. Meanwhile, 32 per cent say they would vote for the "change candidate" or one not put forward by the state.
These figures underline the tremendous potential opportunity for outreach that the election presents for the opposition, particularly if they can communicate with voters the link between the painful economic situation in the country and the need for increased citizen control over the authorities. The wider public currently sees no alternative to the current regime and is not well informed or supportive of the opposition.
81 per cent of the Belarusian population opposes the idea of a boycott of elections, and 74 per cent plan to vote in the election. These polls have facilitated a small shift in approach from some opposition groupings, and a common recognition that the elections should be used to communicate with voters as the best way to build up support for the future.
However, tensions, distrust, and in particular differences in electoral tactics, remain, with some groups set on boycotting or planning to withdraw candidates before election-day.
Coalition of the six
Within the Coalition of the Six, politicians from six major political groupings have taken small steps to work together, including creating a common team for election observation, agreeing to develop common campaign messages for use by all groups, and understanding the need to avoid pointless mutual criticism.
Each of the political parties has different internal dynamics, with different electoral strategies and priorities based on the current focus of their membership and their ability to run innovative campaigns
Just World of Sergei Kalyakin is the only party currently committed to run throughout the parliamentary election campaign, rather than proposing to withdraw or boycott. They recognise that not running a candidate in the presidential elections and re-branding from their former Communist Party banner has reduced significantly their name recognition amongst the Belarusian population. As a result, they wish to avoid making the same mistake again. In coalition discussions, they have therefore argued against any common agreement that all opposition candidates would withdraw together at a designated time.
The Tell the Truth campaign is hindered as some key leaders (such as former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev and movement coordinator Andrei Dmitriev) are currently ineligible to be candidates due to their post-detention status. While the movement appears to currently be the most dynamic and seemingly best funded opposition political force in the country, this limitation has contributed to the movement’s decision not to run candidates nationally under a Tell the Truth banner. In spite of this they plan to support candidates affiliated with the movement using a common Tell the Truth message. This is designed to reinforce the idea of citizen control over the authorities' decisions, and would be utilised by activists even in districts where candidates are not running.
This message would build on recent issue-based campaigns around a "citizens’ control" theme. An example is their guiding support of the civic campaign to pressure the government into revising plans for the construction of a large Chinese industrial park in Minsk. This particular campaign has already had an impact, with regional authorities entering into a dialogue with the protestors on the construction plans. Critics suggest that while Tell the Truth is good at creating noise in the media by launching a new campaign almost every fortnight, the actual results of their campaigns are not as impressive as they claim.
The Belarusian Popular Front is planning to nominate as many members as possible for registration as candidates for the election, and is also working on a campaign to change the electoral code. Their election strategy is likely to include withdrawal in the last days of the campaign to protest against the unfair conditions.
For Freedom is planning to support parliamentary candidates who share their values. It is still undecided whether the organisation’s leader Aliaksander Milinkevich will run in the election, but if he does, it will probably be in a Minsk district.
The United Civic Party have argued that all opposition candidates should withdraw before the beginning of the five-day early voting period. The party intends to follow a strategy where a candidate should pledge in writing that he or she will withdraw from the race five days before the end and will not use state funds to finance the campaign. This strategy is led by Anatoly Lebedko who was re-elected as party chair in a tense meeting in March.
The Belarusian Christian Democrats (BCD) are taking the hardest line view amongst the coalition, following an internal vote for a boycott. With their co-chair Paval Seviarynets in jail alongside an angry and principled membership, they have launched a boycott campaign, as their earlier conditions of the release of political prisoners, amendments to the electoral law, and registration of the BCD were not fulfilled. The latest and fourth attempt to register the party was rejected by the Ministry of Justice in February 2012 on spurious and clearly politically motivated grounds.
While the BCD was the party which took the last local elections most seriously and also ran a party candidate in the presidential election, their internal vote means that they are not prepared to run on this occasion – even though some leaders recognise that this may stall the party’s momentum. To mitigate this, they plan to recruit district coordinators to campaign about the elections not being genuine and also to promote their party.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties are united in a For Fair Elections election observation campaign. Led by Sergei Kalyakin and Viktor Karnienko, it aims to be a common effort involving all the active political parties and groupings, building on the achievements and experience of the 2010 presidential elections.
Formally outside the Coalition of the Six, the Social Democrat Hramada of Iryna Veshtard is also regaining activity as an opposition party with a number of more dynamic young members, especially women. They plan to submit candidates for the election although it is unclear if they will remain in the race through to the end. They are having problems registering their current leadership with the authorities. A third party congress in the last two years was held in March, as the conclusions of the previous congresses that elected Veshtard as their leader were not recognised by the Ministry of Justice.
A boycott campaign was launched on 14 January by the unregistered Belarusian Movement of Viktar Ivashkevich, the organisers of the (generally unsuccessful) Narodny Skhod (People’s Assembly) rallies held at the end of 2010. The boycott is primarily supported by Team Sannikov, such as the Charter 97 website and the civil initiative European Belarus, as well as the independent trade union of the radio-electronic industry workers. It is not directly linked to the BCD campaign.
They argue that the only way to express distrust in the system is to boycott the election (as there is no party of power as in Russia to vote against) and are set to take the position than anyone who has not voted, has voted against. No figures have been specified, though, about what level of turnout they would consider a successful boycott. Indeed the strategy is very similar to that of Sannikov and Charter 97 before the 2008 parliamentary elections. Critics of the boycott campaign, including from members of the Coalition of the Six, see it as a harmful attempt to divide the Belarusian democratic forces into supporters and opponents of the "election".
Other groupings include the opposition-minded Party of Freedom and Progress of Uladimir Navasiad (a member of parliament from 2000-04) which has indicated its intention to run. Meanwhile the pseudo-opposition Liberal Democratic Party of Siarhei Haidukevich declared in January that they will nominate 245 members as candidates, ensuring representation in all 110 electoral districts for the forthcoming elections.
Candidates supporting the authorities will likely run as independents as in previous elections. However, there remains strong pressure from public officials of various levels to create a party of power based on the Belaya Rus movement, to defend their interests. As a step towards this, its chairman, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Alexander Radkov, has said they will support ‘like-minded’ candidates along with candidates affiliated with the movement.
With over 100,000 members, Belaya Rus has plans to appoint members to election commissions, establish an election campaign HQ as well as carry out campaigning – although the scale of this will depend on a signal from Lukashenka. While support of these officials is vital to Lukashenka during election time, he has consistently rejected their proposals to create a political party, seeking to limit their influence.
Targets Achievable by the Opposition
Ultimately the elected candidates – as on previous occasions – will almost certainly be drawn from a list prepared by the authorities. Given this reality and the hurdles that the opposition will inevitably face during the campaign, they should find other ways to measure success.
A positive outcome to the electoral campaign for the opposition would include higher levels of support for the democratic cause, a positive impression being registered in society by opposition candidates, higher levels of recognition of opposition leaders and parties, and also a demonstration that the opposition has the ability and capacity to plan and implement a successful campaign.
Dr Alastair Rabagliati
Belarus’ Magic Oil Economy
The Belarusian Statistics Agency reported about a fantastic growth of exports in January-February 2012. Compared to the same period last year, the country’s exports grew by impressive 62,5%.
The official propaganda trumpeted that Belarus has successfully overcome all the economic troubles that hit the country in 2011.
However, the reality looks less euphoric. The breakthrough in foreign trade is not a result of a particularly wise economic policy or an overarching reform strategy. Securing cheap Russian oil supplies and selling oil products to the West remains the backbone of the Belarusian economy. Exports of other goods remain unimpressive.
The Origins of the Belarusian Oil Offshore
Belarus inherited two large oil refineries from the the Soviet Union. Naftan refinery in the north of the country was established in 1963 and Mozyr Oil Refinary in the south started to work in 1975.
Both companies were intended primarily for exports to the West. They processed crude oil from Soviet Russia and then exported processed products such as fuels, gasoline and bitumen.
After the collapse of the USSR these two oil refineries were among the most advanced enterprises that the newly-established Republic of Belarus had. And at the beginning of the 2000s the Belarusian government discovered a way to maximise the use of these assets.
It literally created an offshore oil zone for Russian companies that wanted to provide crude oil for processing at Naftan and Mozyr Oil Refinery. Thanks to the Union State of Russia and Belarus established in 1996 Russian companies did not have to pay export duties on crude oil on the border between the two countries.
It became more economically sensible for Russian oil companies to process their crude in Belarus rather than in Russia Read more
To make Belarusian refineries more attractive than their Russian competitors Belarus set export duties on oil products to other countries at a level lower than in Russia. Thus, it became more economically sensible for Russian oil companies to process their crude in Belarus rather than in Russia.
It became highly profitable for the Belarusian government and firms to buy oil in Russia, process it at home and then export to foreign countries – primarily the EU member states and Ukraine. That made up up to 40% of all exports in some periods of time. It also generated the lion’s share of hard currency revenues for Belarus.
This foreign trade scheme established a strong correlation between Belarusian imports of crude oil from Russia and the overall exports of the country.
Politics of the Belarusian Offshore Oil Zone
The oil offshore satisfied the interests not only of the Belarusian authorities, refineries and certain businessmen but also of an influential group of Russian businessmen. Russian oligarchs earned fortunes thanks to the Belarusian scheme. As a result, they became leading lobbyists of the Union State and opponents of export duties on oil on the border between Russia and Belarus.
Russian oligarchs earned fortunes thanks to the Belarusian scheme Read more
However, even these powerful lobbyists were unable to prevent politics from interfering with the oil scheme. Already in the mid-2000s Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly raised the issue of this offshore oil zone. But he hoped that the privileged treatment of the Belarusian oil processing sector would accelerate economic and political integration between the two states.
In 2009 it became obvious that Putin's hopes failed. The Union State’s ambitious goals (for example, a common currency) were not achieved. Moreover, Belarus failed to support its ally in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war and refused to recognise the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenka even started to improve relations with the European Union and the United States.
In response, the Kremlin decided to do away with the offshore oil scheme in Belarus. After a series of public rows, it introduced export duties on crude oil on the border with Belarus. It became no longer profitable for both Russian oligarchs and Belarusian authorities to process oil at Naftan and Mozyr Oil Refinery and then export to third countries.
In 2010 Belarusian refineries did not have enough crude oil to process. Belarusian exports dropped and the country lost its main source of export revenues. It became one of the triggers of the economic crisis in 2011.
The Belarusian authorities decided to look for alternative sources of crude oil to substitute the Russian providers. They signed contracts with Venezuela and later with Azerbaijan. But oil transportation costs in those contracts were very high. Economically, it did not make much sense. But politically, it became an additional irritant for the Kremlin.
The Belarusian Oil Offshore 2.0
The Russian authorities reintroduced the oil offshore in Belarus only after the latter signed a package of documents on the Customs Union at the end of 2010. The Kremlin agreed to withdraw export duties on crude oil on the Russian-Belarusian border. However, it demanded that Belarus returned all export duties on oil products produced from Russian crude to the Russian budget.
The Russian authorities reintroduced the oil offshore zone in Belarus only after the latter signed a package of documents on the Customs Union at the end of 2010 Read more
This is, of course, a less profitable scheme than the one before. But it is still highly attractive for both Belarus and Russian oligarchs. They profit from the difference between export duties on crude oil and oil products. The latter are only 66% of the former. Thus, the Belarusian refineries can now earn roughly 30% more than in 2010.
The resulting Belarusian foreign trade in 2011 and the beginning of 2012 demonstrate that the offshore oil again worked its magic. Belarus spent more than USD 9 billion on crude oil but earned more than USD 12 billion from its exports of oil products. The European Union (primarily, the Netherlands and Latvia) and Ukraine were the main consumers.
Additionally, Germany and Poland started to buy Belarusian-owned crude oil. Belarusian exports to the EU in 2011 grew nearly two times – even despite the deepening political conflict with the West.
However, the current situation may not last forever. Following an oil transit dispute between Russia and Belarus in January 2007, the Russian government constructed a new pipeline bypassing Belarus and other former Soviet States (Baltic Pipeline System-II).
Vladimir Putin launched the new pipeline on 23 March 2012. As a result, the volume of oil transportation through Belarus might be significantly reduced. This can also impact the Belarusian oil processing sector.
But for the time being oil and oil products make up two thirds of all exports to the EU. Cheap Russian crude oil and consumers of Belarusian oil products among the EU member states are the real saviours of the Belarusian economy.