West Inspects Belarus’ Borders, Lukashenka Adjusts His Stance on Crimea – Western Press Digest
Belarus’ economy is showing its first signs of vulnerability due to its ties with Russia as its dollar bonds began to drop in value.
Lukashenka’s initial critical stance on Russia’s invasion of Crimea develops into an admission that there is nothing the world can do about it, a message that concerns the West.
The head of an opposition party is imprisoned for 15 days after taking place in a demonstration with political prisoner shirts. The opposition says it was campaigning for 23 March local elections when they were arrested.
Meanwhile, local police stage a fake bicycle accident on the side of a busy road to attract the attention of drivers, but see only modest success.
Belarusian poet Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu receives a prestigious literary award from the Swedish PEN organisation, though only after two years of not being able to leave Belarus and claim it. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Western Inspectors Fly Over Belarusian and Russian Borders – The International Business Times reports that the United States and Germany are going be making observational flights over the borders of Belarus and Russia. The flights are being made in response to reports that there are Russian military forces gathering there. These inspections will be done in cooperation with both Belarusian and Russian representatives who will also be on the flights. Observational flights are possible as all countries involved are members of the Open Skies international treaty, which they all signed in 1992.
Lukashenka Critical of Crimean Land Grab, Then Endorses It – Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka has publicly spoken on the ongoing crisis in Ukrainian, voicing his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. While critical of the way in which the Yanukovych regime was deposed of, he is now more concerned about the dangerous precedent set by Russia’s invasion of Kyiv. Despite his misgivings, Lukashenka stated that whatever people may wish to believe, Crimea is now de facto a part of the Russian Federation and the question of official recognition of this fact is not at all important.
Belarus Bonds Drop Due to Ties with Russia – The intertwined economies of Belarus and Russia received attention from Western markets, as Belarus experiences rising yields on its dollar bonds. With concerns that Russia might invade eastern Ukraine, Russian markets, investors are weary of buying up Belarus’ dollar bonds as EU and US political, financial and economic pressure is mounting against Russia for its invasion of Crimea.
Opposition Party Head Jailed for 15 days For Campaigning – Anatol Lyabedzka, head of the United Civic Party, and several activists were arrested while attending a rally in a central Minsk marketplace. They gathered there to campaign for open seats in the 23 March local elections. Authorities soon took notice of the gathering, where many of the protestors were donning shirts with pictures about political prisoners, and soon broke up what they would later all an “unlawful gathering”. Anatol Lyabedzka was sentenced to a 15 day jail sentence for his alleged violations.
Belarusian Journalist and ex-Political Critical of West Inaction – In a recent interview with France 24, Natallia Radzina, a journalist, former political prisoner noted that while she was hopeful that Maidan would spread like a virus throughout the region, realistically it was not likely. Such a movement in Belarus would not be possible, given the strict control the authorities exert over any form of public demonstration.
The journalist, who fled Belarus in 2010 after being persecuted by the authorities, said that while the West has taken action against the Belarusian leadership for its human rights violations, these measures have been half-hearted and ineffective. While introducing sanctions against people in Russia and Ukraine could hit their pocketbooks, the West using financial sanctions against the Belarusian authorities has little effect since they have no Bank accounts in the West.
Uralkali Interested in Renewing Ties with Belaruskali – the Financial Times reports that Russia’s potash giant Uralkali has not lost interest in cooperating with old partner Belaruskali and hopes to work together again in the near future. Two of the shareholders who are pushing for a renewed partnership, Uralchem and Onexim (both Russian companies), each acquired their roughly 20% shares in Uralkali last year after the Russian government ousted former shareholder and billionaire Suleiman Kerimov.
Belarusian officials previously stated that they would only consider a renewed partnership if the reformed joint Belarus-Russian project was headquartered in Belarus, an unattractive prospect for Russian business given Belarus’ previous detention of Uralkali’s CEO. Financial times re-quoted a non-executive Director, who stated that it would be very difficult to bring the two sides back together again.
Belarusian Poet Receives Swedish PEN Award Two Years Later – RFERL reports that after a long wait, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu was able to accept his Swedish PEN organisation’s Kurt Tucholsky Award. The Kurt Tucholsky award is named after a German-Jewish author and journalist who persecuted by the Nazis and saw his work banned in Germany.
Nyaklyaeu, a famous Belarusian poet, declared the winner in November 2011, but could not claim his award due to a ban on his leaving the country set by the Belarusian authorities. Nyaklyaeu received the award not only for his prowess as a poet, but also for his work in advocating freedom of speech.
Apparent PR Stunt by Police Warns of Dangers of Bicycling – The BBC is reporting that that the Belarusian police placed a dummy beside a downed bicycle on the side of a busy highway to make it appear as if a person had been hit. This PR stunt is part of the larger Don’t Look the Other Way! Campaign in an attempt by the authorities to reduce the number of incidents on roadways. Of the 186 cars reported to have driven by the staged accident, only five stopped.
Local Elections in Belarus: A Complete Farce or More than That?
On 23 March, Belarus held elections for its local councils.
During Lukashenka's rule the local elections have turned into little more than a procedural administrative task for the authorities and a minor holiday with alcohol and music for voters.
The nation's legislative bodies do not pretend to be genuinely self-governing in Belarus. The typically undemocratic practises that get MPs elected to office brings the institutions' legitimacy into question. They are often viewed as being little more than decorative institutions that exist solely to prop up a portrait of democracy in Belarus.
However, a study of local regional councils by the Institute of Political Studies ‘Political Sphere’ conducted proves this is not the case. Councils actually bring together de-facto regional elite representatives who manage regional affairs together with the state executive body.
Elections as Ritual and Holiday
On election day last week, the authorities, as is their tradition, deployed a number of makeshift cafeterias where voters could celebrate their local elections with drink and music. For most people elections are a kind of holiday when they can drink and have a little fun.
the authorities introduced a few innovations and decided to hand out presents to various categories of voters Read more
During the most recent local elections the authorities introduced a few innovations and decided to hand out presents to various categories of voters. For example, those who voted first time in their life received different gifts, including chocolate, candy, clocks and some even reported getting sausages for voting.
Electoral practises remain highly discriminatory against opposition candidates – the authorities control and manage the whole procedure of getting registered, the formation of electoral commissions and election observations. This level of control, combined with pressure on opposition parties and civil society organisations, led to a ritual that is called "elections" in Belarus.
As usual, state institutions carried out a programme of widespread pre-election day voting. The authorities typically make any voters affiliated with them vote before the elections actually took place and thus facilitate higher voter turnout rates which helps them manipulate the results.
In total, the electoral commission reports, 37% of voters utilised the early voting option. Due to the absence of any real political competition, the elections often appear stale and lack any potential alternative candidates – this time around in 88% of the constituencies only one candidate ran for office. Read more
Authorities also employ their administrative resources to leverage and facilitate a sufficient level of voter turnout. This is crucial for them, as the only thing they truly need is the physical presence of voters since all other variables can be dealt with behind closed doors.
A mass boycott could go a long way in destroying this state supported scheme, so the regime offers all kinds of gifts and enticements to attract voters that they are unable to force to commit to voting early. This time around nationwide turnout was 77%, but in Minsk only around 60% of eligibles voters came to the polls.
Meanwhile, observers reported numerous violations, but the prosecutor's office seems reluctant to give any consideration to them – the administrative machine cannot accept that any violations might take place.
Is There Any Self-Governance in Belarus?
According to Belarusian law, local government in Belarus constitutes a part of the state administrative apparatus and works in the interests of both the government and the interests of the population of that they represent. Lower levels of government are, naturally, directly subordinate to higher ones. The system of local self-government consists of the local councils and executive committees.
The councils serve as representative bodies and are elected through general elections. Most experts in Belarus see the councils as artificial institutions, which are completely subordinate to local executive committees, a part of the centralised state system.
Taking into account Belarus' electoral practises, the local councils may indeed appear to be merely a facade which the authorities use to support the fact that there is democracy in Belarus. In reality, the political power of the councils is routinely underestimated. The people who enter the councils represent the regional elite from the public sector, who, together with the executive state vertical structure, run local affairs.
Their leading positions in large government institutions alone means that they have considerable influence on the way things are run. In other words, the functions of the councils are not merely decorative, but rather play an important role in local affairs. A study of the composition of regional councils by the Institute of Political Studies ‘Political Sphere’ made in 2012-2013 proves this very fact.
Regional Councils – the Seat of State Oligarchy
In the study, researchers statistically analysed the composition of the local councils by a number of criteria. In particular, it looked at the six regional councils elected during the local elections in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2010.
The composition of the councils by place of declared residence demonstrates that regional centres dominate the governing bodies with 40-60% of the seats, while representatives of smaller cities holding about 40% of the regional council and villages fairing less well, with only 5-15% of the overall seats.
This distribution of seats clearly does not match the proportions of population that resides in these regions. When considering age, researchers found that individuals who were between 50-60 years old hold the most seats, while the system almost completely excludes young people from local government.
When taking a look at the predominant sector of employment of deputies, the state sector steadily held across the board with about 95% of seats in the councils. Business was only able to muster a small percentage of seats. Representatives who have worked in NGOs are notably completely absent, while a few representatives of GONGOs (Government Organised Non-Governmental Organisations) like the youth organisation BRSM and several official trade unions in attempt by officials to show that civil society is adequately represented.
Economically inactive categories of the population, like pensioners, the unemployed and students are never among those found in the councils' ranks. This fact indicates that the authorities form the councils with people who already have status and influence in the regions. In other words, only people from the establishment with connections to the executive are able to make their way into the councils.
The analysis conducted by the Institute of Political Studies ‘Political Sphere’ also took a look at the positions which the elected deputies held in their previous/current organisation(s). The three primary categories were: heads of organisations, heads of units or simple workers. Heads of organisations completely dominate, and in 2010 they were between 75-90% of all the representatives elected. Deputy heads of organisations made up 8-18% of all deputies in 2010, while workers claimed only one or two seats or, often enough, no seats at all.
Deputies' previous fields of employment and their occupations were also the subject of analysis by the Institute's researchers. Representatives from public administration decreased in all councils after 2010, while managers from industry and construction has seen an increased presence in the councils since 2007.
These two trends show that the economic elite are acquiring more power at the regional level, as economic issues clearly become more important for the authorities.
Not surprisingly, males dominate all councils throughout the period assessed. There are, however, some interesting developments that the report took note of. In 1999 females held only about 8% of the seats, but in the following elections in 2003 they secured nearly 25% of the seats in the councils. Jumps in the number of women in the representative bodies prove that the authorities tried to manipulate the councils' composition to create the impression that all groups of society were represented in the councils. This very practise was widely employed in the USSR to give it more legitimacy.
The study proves that local councils in Belarus, despite their being unable to truly govern themselves, are not simply superficial institutions that serve as a facade for the regime, but rather they have a real role in regional politics and public administration.
As the heads of main regional organisations, deputies work closely with the executive committees in their areas of expertise. For the authorities these established institutional structures are beneficial as councils help in the government's efforts to promote Belarus as a democratic society, but do not actually depend on citizens' voices. For Belarusians though, the elections of so-called representatives to local councils remain an occasion to go out and have a little fun once every four years.