Renaissance of Political Parties, Eurasian Currency, Palanez Rocket Launchers – State Press Digest

Political parties see a renaissance during the ongoing parliamentary campaign, as 64% of all candidates are party affiliated. However, society still has only a vague understanding of the role parties play in the Belarusian political system.

The Polish vice speaker emphasises a need for closer cooperation between Belarus and Poland in order to maintain security at the EU border. The Belarusian army receives the newest Belarus-produced multiple rocket launch system, Palanez, capable of simultaneously striking up to eight targets at a distance of 50 to 200 kilometres.

Experts at the Eurasian Development Bank: Belarus would benefit the most from a single currency. This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.

Parliamentary elections 2016

Political parties see revival in the parliamentary election campaign. The electoral commission registered 521 candidate for September parliamentary elections, reports Belarus Segodnia. They will compete for 110 seats in the House of Representatives. 93 were denied registration and 16 cancelled their applications.

Political parties saw a renaissance, with 64% of all candidates party affiliated, and 176 candidates representing oppositional political parties: United Civil Party, Belarusian Popular Front, Green Party, Belarusian Left Party, and Social Democrats. Candidates can now fund campaigns out of their own pocket and accept donations from individuals and companies.

Political parties will get more seats in the new parliament. Zviazda publishes an interview with political expert Piotra Piatroŭski on political parties' activity in the ongoing parliamentary campaign. This year the number of candidates running exceeds last year's by 136 people. This is due to changes in electoral law, which allowed political parties more opportunities to nominate candidates. Civil associations now also have the right to nominate candidates.

However, society still has only a vague understanding of the role of parties in the Belarusian political system. Parties suffer from personnel shortages and sometimes cannot even complete necessary documents. Piatroŭski accuses oppositional political parties supported by western governments of radicalism and inability to produce sound programmes. He predicts that the number of political parties in the new parliament will increase, yet not significantly.

Foreign policy

Poland deepens cooperation with Belarus. Vice-speaker of the Polish Parliament Ryszard Terlecki gave an interview to Belarus Segodnia.

Poland has decided to strengthen relations with Belarus under the auspices of the EU general policy of engagement. This became possible after the visit of Polish foreign minister to Minsk in March 2016.

As a country located at the EU’s eastern border, it is in Poland's interests to cooperate with the EU's neighbours in order to maintain security.

The EU is interested in Belarus’ participation in resolving the Ukraine crisis and the migration crisis, although the latter is less relevant to Eastern Europe.

Currently, Poland and other EU countries are acting as observers of Belarus's parliamentary election; they expect them to be transparent and fair.

Eurasian Union seeks partnership with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This June, for the first time, a high level delegation from Belarus participated in the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as an observer. Lukashenka then emphasised that cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union should become a priority for the SCO and a new continental partnership may emerge. Souyznoe Veche provides the thoughts of a number of Russian experts on the issue.

The Chinese project New Silk Road, which will go through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus, will bring vast investments in the transport and construction sectors. However, while Russia seeks to replace damaged links with the EU and US with China, the latter shows no interest in helping and primarily focuses on the western agenda and its own interests.

Security, economy and society

Belarus arms itself with home-produced multiple rocket launchers Palanez. The Belarusian army has never boasted such modern and powerful weapons, writes Belarus Segodnia.

After 1,5 years of tests, it received the newest Belarus-produced multiple rocket launch system, capable of simultaneously striking up to eight targets at a distance of 50 to 200 kilometres. The six Palanez launchers are now in the hand of the 336th Asipovičy reactive artillery brigade.

According to First Deputy Minister of Defence Alieh Bielakonieŭ, the manufacture of the new weapons is an element of strategic deterrence. To develop its armed forces, a country can either increase their size or change their composition by strengthening them with unique weapons such as Palanez. Belarus chose the second option, which makes creation of local armed groups around Belarus’s borders impossible.

Belarus would benefit most from a single currency in the EEU. Experts at the Eurasian Development Bank announced that according to their estimates, Belarus would receive the greatest benefit in the Eurasian Economic Union if a single currency is introduced. In the long term, membership in the currency union could lead to additional GDP growth of 15% for Armenia, 30% for Belarus, and 10% for Kyrgyzstan, writes Souyz.

The political decision to establish a monetary union has not been taken, as integration is not obligatory for the countries without the necessary macroeconomic and structural conditions. Currently, the economies of the union are insufficiently integrated, with the exception of Belarus and Russia. Another constraint for the currency union is the high dollarisation of their economies as a result of high inflation. Preparing for transition to a single currency could take from 7 to 10 years if the countries abide by their commitments.

Belarusian youth discuss politics through BRSM projects. Andrej Beliakoŭ, head of the pro-government Belarusian Republican Youth Union, spoke on the recent activity of the organisation and modern youth for Znamia Yunosti. The Open Dialogue project started as a site where young people of varying political persuasions could present their ideas to decision makers through discussion and dialogue. Within two years it became immensely popular and is now seen as a form of upbringing for youth.

The organisation has also been developing volunteer movements and has implemented many patriotic projects. Contrary to popular belief, BRSM polls show that the majority of youth demonstrate an interest in politics. Beliakoŭ claims that young Belarusians are pragmatic and would rather work to achieve results than wait for benefits from others.

The State Press Digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.

Nomination and Registration of Candidates – Digest of the 2016 Parliament Elections

On August 11, the registration of candidates for the September 11 parliamentary elections ended. District Election Commissions (DECs) reviewed registration documents for 630 potential candidates. Below is a summary of nomination and registration of candidates followed by a detailed report. 

As of August 12, 521 candidates were registered, 93 were denied registration, and 16 withdrew their nomination. Political parties nominated 63.5 percent of all registered candidates, labour collectives 24 percent, and citizens (through signature collection) 38.2 percent.

Opposition candidates constitute more than one-third of all registered candidates. Based on the Central Election Commission (CEC) and party reports, registered candidates include 16 from “Tell the Truth” (TtT), 49 from Belarus Popular Front (BPF), 67 from the Centre-Right coalition (“For Freedom” (FF), United Civil Party (UCP), “Belarusian Christian Democracy” (BCD)), 27 from Belarusian Social-Democratic Party – Gramada (BSDP-G), 38 from “Fair World” (FW), and five from the “Greens.”

One hundred fifty-six of 180 nominated candidates from pro-governmental political parties were registered. All 28 nominated incumbent MPs and 43 of 51 nominated local counselors were registered.

Candidates used different means, including the collection of nomination signatures, to apply for registration. The Centre-Right coalition reported that they collected over 50,000 signatures, and TtT reported 38,000. Two pro-governmental candidates submitted over 15,000 nomination signatures each, though the validity and collection methods of these signatures were challenged by independent observers.

Many contenders from opposition forces were denied registration due to alleged mistakes or omissions in their nomination papers. Some democratic candidates were rejected by DECs claiming their nomination signatures failed verification.

Belarusian election observers published reports noting “unequal signature collection conditions.” They stressed the “untransparent manner” of signature verification in DECs. Earlier, domestic observers condemned the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) formation process, stressing the low rate of opposition inclusion (10.31 percent of nominated opposition PEC commissioners were approved). – in partnership with the “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” (HRD), “Right to Choose-2016” (R2C), and Election Observation Theory and Practice (EOTP) – launched a new version of the mobile application Vochy,” which informs citizens about their electoral rights and allows them to quickly send recorded election violations from their phone.

As of August 10, observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) constituted 243 out of 303 accredited international observers. Fifty-one accredited observers are from OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), two from OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and seven from Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Candidate Nomination and Registration Processes

Elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus, the lower house of the parliament, are scheduled for September 11. Early voting will take place between September 6 and 10. There were three ways for parliamentary hopefuls to be nominated and registered as candidates: (1) by collecting 1,000 signatures in their district, (2) party nomination at a congress, or (3) through the nomination of labour collectives. In total DECs reviewed documents of 630 potential candidates. Over 100 utilised more than one of the methods listed above.

Between August 2 and 11, commissions in 110 parliamentary districts held candidate registration meetings. According to CEC data, as of August 12, 521 candidates were registered (82.7 percent of applicants), 93 were denied registration (14.8 percent), and 16 withdrew their candidacies (2.5 percent). Political parties nominated 63.5 percent of all registered candidates, labor collectives 24 percent, and citizens 38.2 percent. A table below summarises the share of registered candidates from political parties.

Approximately 200 out of 521 registered candidates represent opposition forces. Over 40 opposition candidates were not registered (see a note under the above chart). The number of opposition candidates nominated and registered is higher in 2016 than other parliamentary elections going back to at least 2004.

One hundred fifty-six of 180 nominated candidates from pro-governmental political parties were registered. All 28 nominated incumbent MPs and 43 of 51 nominated local counselors were registered.

A chart below summarises some of the demographic and occupational characteristics of registered candidates.

In 2016, 136 more candidates applied and 158 more were registered than during the 2012 parliamentary elections. The registration denial rate in the 2016 elections is 10 percent lower than in 2012. CEC Chair Lidzija Jarmošyna described the registration process being “more liberal” than four years ago.

Campaign Period

Registered candidates began campaigning the moment of their registration. The campaigning period will last until September 10 (no campaigning is allowed on Election Day, September 11). Candidates may not spend more than 21,000 Belarusian rubles ($10,000) on their campaign expenses. The fund may be formed exclusively from the candidate’s own money.

Each candidate is eligible to have one five-minute radio and television speech. Speeches will be broadcast on regional state-owned channels between August 15 and September 2. Debates will be held on state TV if at least two candidates express a willingness to debate. CEC Chair Jarmošyna​ stressed she is against “forced” participation in debates. Debates will be held in all parliamentary districts of Minsk.

Candidates began submitting their election platforms to be published in state newspapers. Candidates can publish their program in only one approved state newspaper in order to avoid multiple publications. The CEC updates a list of candidates, who have already submitted their programmes for publishing.

Some of the opposition politicians, particularly former presidential candidate and political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič, call for post-election protests to demand “real elections.” A peaceful protest rally is one of the scenarios supported by the Centre-Right coalition forces. CEC Chair Jarmošyna responded to protest plans stating “participants of 2010 events did not learn anything even in prison.” She also remarked that protests are the “biggest threat” for parliamentary elections.

Candidate Registration Incidents

There were several widely covered incidents of registration denial in the non-state media. One of the mostly discussed cases relates to Alieś Lahviniec, a “For Freedom” (FF) contender in Minsk. He attracted significant media attention by holding a combined signature collection picket and concert featuring opposition-minded artist Liavon Volski. The media estimated more than 1,500 people attended the event.

Officially, Lahviniec’s candidacy was rejected due to two official warnings he received. One alleges he distributed campaign materials and the second accused him of “bribing voters.” Lahviniec​ found the person who allegedly filed one of the complaints against him, but the supposed claimant said she had not done so. As a result, Lahviniec then appealed his non-registration and requested the police investigate the alleged “document falsification.”

Several other opposition candidates were denied registration due to alleged omissions in their filing paperwork. For instance, a prospective United Civil Party (UCP) contender Mikalaj Kazloŭ, who is well known for attempts to prevent electoral fraud in previous elections, was not registered because he “allegedly incorrectly filled out an income and tax declaration.”

At a press-conference on August 15, UCP claimed Kazloŭ’s denial of registration was “politically motivated.” Kazloŭ’s appeal of his denial was rejected by both the territorial election commission (TEC) and the court. Similar incidents occurred to BPF, FF, TtT, and FW hopefuls in Brest, Viciebsk, Orša, Žodzina, Baranavičy and other settlements.

A number of non-registration incidents were related to DEC challenges to the the validity of collected nomination signatures. For example, human rights observers reported that in Maladečna, the DEC #73 did not register “Belarusian Christian Democracy” (BCD) contender Paviel Prakapovič, who allegedly submitted 999 nomination signatures instead of 1,000 required.

In addition, observers noticed that the list or registered candidates had been already published on the local executive committee website prior to the DEC registration meeting. The “Tell the Truth” (TtT) contender Uladzimir Ščarbatych was not registered on the basis that a significant part of his signatures were collected in another constituency.

According to human rights observers, as of August 13, TECs had received 17 appeals concerning denial of registrations.

Signature Collection Outcomes

After signature collection, Centre-Right coalition forces, BCD, UCP, and FF, organised a press conference to present their assessment of the first stage of the campaign. They announced that coalition’s initiative groups collected over 50,000 nomination signatures. However, only 10 FF contenders, who collected 15,700 signatures, applied through signature collection. UCP and BCD contenders applied for registration under the auspices of UCP rather than submitting signatures. Sixty-seven out of 81 coalition’s candidates who applied for registration were approved. BCD separately reported that eight out of 32 BCD nominees were rejected.

On August 2, TtT campaign organised a press conference in the first stage of their campaign. TtT reported that their candidates collected 38,000 nomination signatures. Twenty-five of 29 prospective candidates submitted signatures to DECs. Sixteen out of TtT 25 candidates were registered by DECs, including the leadership Andrej Dzmitryjeŭ and Tacciana Karatkievič.

There were cases in which independent election observers openly questioned the validity of signatures, as well as collection methods, of candidates referred to as “officials.” For instance, Mahilioŭ Centralny DEC #85 announced that the Chief Doctor of Mahilioŭ Central Hospital Aliaksandr Staravojtaŭ collected over 15,000 signatures to get registered as a parliamentary candidate in the constituency with approximately 65,000 voters.

An election observer Aliaksej Kolčyn questioned the validity of signatures and claimed that the DEC did not allow him to see the submitted by Staravojtaŭ signatures. Furthermore, an observer from “Belarusian Helsinki Committee” Siarhej Niaroŭny reported that in neighbouring Kryčaŭ district #83, the DEC did not find any invalid signatures within the 15,000 submitted by Tacciana Maračkova, the Chair of Kryčaŭ​ district executive committee. The observer also said that civic activists reported the “use of administrative resources” during signature collection for Maračkova​.

Domestic Election Observation Efforts

Both domestic election observation initiatives “Right to Choose-2016” (R2C) and “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” (HRD) published reports on the formation of PECs and stressed the low rate of opposition inclusion (10.31 percent of nominated opposition PEC commissioners were approved). After the candidate nomination period, observers published another report noting “unequal signature collection conditions” and stressed “untransparent manner” of signature verification procedures. HRD stressed its observers were not allowed to observe signature verification in 36 of 49 observed DECs.

On August 15, HRD observers held a press conference on candidate registration, during which they stated that the authorities made “formal changes” but “[…] in reality the hard administrative control remains the same over the election commissions. In fact, election commissions serve the local administrations that supervise their work.”

R2C, HRD, and EOTP launched a new version of a mobile application Vochy,” with updates to the version that was used in the 2015 presidential election. The application informs citizens about their electoral rights and allows them to quickly send recorded election violations from their phones. Reported incidents are received by independent observers and appear on the online map. The application is available for Android devices at the Google Play store.

On August 10, representatives of nine political parties and organisations gathered within a framework of the campaign “Women against Falsifications!” to discuss strategy for the 2016 parliamentary campaign. The initiative aims at “urging members of election commissions to overcome a fear and dependence on the authorities in order to make a choice in favor of democratic elections without falsifications and fraud.” The meeting was also attended by “For Fair Elections” and R2C representatives.

The Chair of “Belarusian Association of Journalists” (BAJ) Andrej Bastuniec was included on the Supervisory Council, formed by the CEC and Information Ministry, to monitor the compliance of pre-election campaigning to mass media rules.

International Organisations Launch Observation Missions

On August 2, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) officially opened an election observation mission for the Belarus’ 2016 parliamentary elections. The OSCE/ODIHR mission, headed by Tana de Zulueta, plans to deploy ten core experts, 38 long-term observers and 400 short-term observers from 24 countries.

The same day, the mission leadership held a press conference in Minsk and discussed the ongoing parliamentary campaign during a meeting with the Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Aliena Kupčyna and CEC Chair Jarmošyna. Additionally, there are reports that OSCE/ODIHR leadership met with “Belaya Rus’” representatives and human rights observers, and in an interview to BelaPAN they disclosed that they planned to meet court representatives to observe the process of hearing complaints. Long-term observers started their work on August 11.

On August 8-9, the observation mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) led by Gisela Wurm conducted a pre-electoral visit to Belarus to “assess the election campaign and political climate.” During the visit, the PACE held meetings with representatives of the Belarusian political opposition, experts, civic activists, the CEC, and “Belteleradiocompany” leadership. After the visit to Minsk, PACE concluded that Belarus’ recent amendments to their electoral legislation “fail to address some of the key recommendations of international organisations, including those of the Council of Europe Venice Commission.”

The media reported that in connection to parliamentary elections, the Deputy Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Kent Harstedt is on official visit to Belarus on August 14-16. He is expected to meet with Belarusian officials as well as participants of the election campaign. On the first day of his visit, Harstedt held a meeting with opposition politicians to discuss the ongoing campaign. He also gave an interview to TUT.BY, stressing the importance of these elections in terms of the “image of Belarus in the eyes of OSCE.”

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observation mission reported “candidates enjoyed equal conditions” thus far. In addition, the head of CIS mission Sergey Lebedev suggested Western observers develop a “common election assessment approach.” As of August 10, CIS observers constituted 243 out of 303 accredited international observers. Fifty-one accredited observers are from OSCE/ODIHR, two from OSCE PA, and seven from PACE.

Michael P. Murphy & Juljan Jachovic

National Democratic Institute

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.

Regime Preparations

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.

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.

Important Elections?

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

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 Hall

Stephen is a PhD candidate at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies​ in London.