Belarus's election paradox

Natalia Leshchenko
2 October 2008

Many people who wished for a better future for Belarus held their breath during the parliamentary election on 28 September 2008 - and groaned with frustration as the results were announced. The fact that not a single member of the opposition managed to get elected to parliament was bad enough; it was no consolation at all that the electoral process was still far from observing democratic norms - the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) registered unreliable counting in 48% of the cases observed, and 35% of their attempts to gain access to counts were refused. Both the outcome and the international observers' verdict suggest that the principal conditions set by the European Union to improve its relations with Belarus have not been met.

The frustrated opposition immediately accused president Lukashenka of vote-rigging. But the election's real story may have been very different: forthe result was arguably the outcome of the cowardly Belarusian bureaucracy covering their backs. 

Natalia Leshchenko is an expert on politics and business in Russia and Belarus           

Also by Natalia Leshchenko in openDemocracy:
"Belarus: the shackles of sovereignty" (3 April 2007)

This election-day was one of the most important such events for Belarus's longstanding president, Alexander Lukashenka. True, he has succeeded in many previous rounds of voting: in 1990, when he was elected as an MP in the first post-independence Belarusian parliament; in 1994, when he became Belarus's first president; in 1996, when he changed the constitution to snatch political power from the legislature and the judiciary; in 2004, when he implemented yet another constitutional change to make it possible for him to be president for life; and in 2006, when he won a third term.

But this was different: for finally there came a voting-day where Lukashenka's primary goal was to prove that Belarus is a democratic state - an unlikely and hardly imaginable task only a couple of years ago. Lukashenka's extraordinary instinct and feel for power made him sure that he had to court Europe. Russia, the long-term ally he had nurtured though assurances of unwavering loyalty, was no longer footing the country's energy bills; the produce of Russia's revived industries were flooding Belarus; the non-competitive output of Minsk's dilapidated state enterprises was filling the country's warehouses. It was time to look west.

Also on Belarusian politics in openDemocracy:

Margot Letain, "Denim and democracy: what Belarusians need" (15 March 2006)

Amy de Wit, " Belarus on the eve" (15 March 2006)

Amy de Wit, " Belarus's contested landslide" (20 March 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, " Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

Margot Letain, " The 'denim revolution': a glass half full" (11 April 2006)

The ice breaks

The roots of the shift lie in early 2007. Russia was busy in pursuit of its own agenda: its businesses seeking to stampede Belarusian industrial assets, the Kremlin expecting good behaviour on its own terms. Lukashenka had come to think that his domestic authority was being circumvented, and that he urgently needed to find a counterbalance to Russia's weight. When the Kremlin punished the Belarusian government for its unwillingness to accept higher oil tariffs with a direct oil cut-off, Lukashenka put out feelers to the European Union. Europe, with its own reasons for being fearful of Russia, proved receptive. The result was a thaw.

The EU demanded an office in Minsk - and received it; it requested too the release of political prisoners - which Lukashenka also obliged with. If the next parliamentary elections proved democratic, the EU promised to lift sanctions against Belarusian officials, paving the way for resumption of inter-governmental cooperation and exchanges and signalling to its investors they could consider Belarus.

Lukashenka's championing of Europe was a bitter twist for the Belarusian opposition, whose members have dedicated their lives to the same cause - expending much harder effort for far less result. Lukashenka built his regime in Belarus on the basis of creating an authentic political system that was "native" to Belarus - both different from western liberal notions, and requiring defence against them (see "Belarus: the shackles of sovereignty", 3 April 2007). The opposition, many of whose figures lost their jobs and faced constant mockery from the state-owned media and the president, committed itself to bringing Belarus to Europe. For all their sincere effort, their achievement has been minute in hostile circumstances; the opposition has become a classical closed-circle of rebels fighting with each other over the minutiae of their cause and becoming ever more detached from the voters.

The dissidents may have received a hearing - and a supporting hand - in the west, but in 2008 as on previous occasions they have been unable to deliver any substantial change. They protested about the nature of the election campaign, noting that that the 7,000-strong counting commissions across the country contained only forty-eight representatives of their representatives. Yet, under pressure to participate in the election - if only to confirm their existence and claims to political representation - they joined in the charade.

Thirteen opposition organisations put forward forty-six out of 265 candidates for the 110-member parliament, to no avail. After this latest emotional roller-coaster, some may find a tiny solace in the fact that their credo - that the Belarusian regime is undemocratic - has again been proven right. Moreover, any potential opposition members of parliament would have been haunted by the questions as to how they managed to succeed, amid inevitable hints about  clandestine betrayal. Now, in the words of one opposition leader, the situation is purely black-and-white again, and a melancholy defeat is all that is left.

The power game

Some of the more perceptive Belarusian analysts argue that Alexander Lukashenka has done himself a major disservice. The absence of at least a few token opponents in the parliament (goes their analysis) undermines the president's claims to democratic legitimacy and erodes the basis for cooperation with Europe - thus strengthening the influence of Russia and undermining his own regime. The logic is sound, but the causes of the strange voting result may not be of Lukashenka's own volition.

The above argument suggests also that the image of Alexander Lukashenka as the primary decision-maker behind any process, development or event in Belarus is taken for granted and never disputed - by supporters and opponents alike. Hence the prevailing assumption - echoed by most commentators in the west - that it was Lukashenka himself who again ordered an opposition-free parliament, either from the desire to make a fool of Europe or from fear that his own authority in the country might slip.

This explanation is questionable on the grounds that Lukashenka has staked an unusually high amount on pleasing Europe, and went to his greatest efforts yet to do that - beyond even the call of duty. This involved letting in international observers, ordering the police to keep away from some 1,000 opposition protesters in Minsk on election eve, and risking the release of his only potential challenger, Alexander Kozulin, from prison to satisfy a European Union demand. In addition, Lukashenka is reportedly paying a hefty bill to a London-based PR agency to improve his image in the west. He has placed enough of a  stake and made too many uncomfortable steps to turn back on the west now - when he hopes to reap the much-needed reward of seeing European Union  sanctions lifted so that he could play off Russia off against Europe in Belarus and further prolong his rule.

In anay case, the existence of a nominal opposition in parliament would be no threat to Lukashenka's authority. It would be at best a powerless minority in a body whose authority is constitutionally limited to rubber-stamping.

The machine mind

A different explanation of the surprisingly harsh and one-sided outcome of the parliamentary vote is more persuasive, if counterintuitive. This is that it was driven not by Lukashenka's order, but by the inertia of the years of his rule: ,both among the population, but more crucially among the very administrative bureaucracy Lukashenka has nurtured.

Over more than a decade, the president overhauled the country's administrative elite in a way that loyalty to the president, rather than professionalism, has become the principal factor in bureaucrats keeping their jobs and moving up the administrative ladder. This has had the effect of injecting a major dose of conservatism into the state administration; disabling the bureaucrats' inclinations for flexibility, initiative, or indeed independent decision-making; and turning them into human cogs unable to affect the processes they are part of.

Now, it seems that such inertia has done the president a huge disservice. The mechanism of conducting elections in a way that kept the opposition out has been tried and tested in at least five national ballots since 1996, and is exacerbated by the personal fear on the part of the heads of electoral commissions about confirming the victory of any opposition members to the electoral commission headquarters. This mentality has now taken on a life of its own - proving more resilient than the president's decree that the elections should be democratic, especially given that the president had always proclaimed the democratic character of any public vote.

It is hardly a result of the president's order, for example, that the local police would try to pull the opposition's electoral leaflets from people's postboxes (as reported from one small town) or that the counting commissions would not want the opposition observers close to voting tables. It is the rigid mentality and fear of the loyal bureaucrats themselves that drives such behaviour. Lukashenka, used to the loyalty of the bureaucracy, most likely did not see the need to deliver a special order that they should support his pro-European effort. But even if Lukashenka has changed his tune, the huge state machine he has created has proved inflexible and static at the very crossing where he wanted it to turn.

The most graceful - and easy - resolution of the current predicament is for the Belarusian authorities to recognise vote-recount appeals submitted by the opposition in thirty-five electoral districts, and eventually let at least some of the opposition members into the parliament. This would be doubly beneficial to the authorities: demonstrating their allegiance to democratic procedural norms and making parliament more legitimate (at least in the eyes of the EU). In fact, the parliament would have been more inclusive if the government had sent an approved list of deputies to the local commissions, instead of letting them operate at their own volition. Now the Belarusian leader has a chance to correct the mistakes of his apparatus by operating in a sincerely democratic way.  

The next step

Until that happens, the European Union's top figures will have to exert themselves to deal with the opposition-free parliament in Minsk. They will certainly feel bitter about a dubious result that potentially leaves them open to criticism about engaging with an autocratic regime. Yet they would be well-advised to take the risk, even if it plays into the hands of an idiosyncratic leader and potentially helps him extend his rule.

After all, Belarus is not just Alexander Lukashenka. It is a country of nearly 10 million people as well: a potential market and investment destination in the European mainland worthy of note, and a nation badly in need of fresh ideas. The implication is that if Europe wants to cooperate with Belarus, and there are good reasons for that, it should engage not with Lukashenka only, but with Belarusians in general. This means at the popular level - creating an interest, a need, and incentives to live the European way, with democracy and a market economy. The result would be that one day, the president will not have to order a staged democratic election, for it would come organically and naturally.

To work at the popular level is a long process, and hard in the face of governmental obstruction. Now that Lukashenka is listening, even if half-heartedly, the European Union is best advised to seize the moment and push for engagement, on as much of its own terms as possible. Belarus has failed to make good on its democratic façade; but the European Union could better help it lay a proper democratic foundation. 

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