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A stalemate in Belarus

Two new opposition candidates prepare to take their seats after rigged parliamentary elections in Belarus. As ever, the real losers are ordinary citizens.

A voter at Minsk’s polling station 509, 11 September 2016. (c) Viktor Tolochko / Visual RIAN. All rights reserved.On Sunday, Belarus went to the polls, returning two nominal opposition candidates to the parliament. Indeed, the ruling elite of “Europe’s last dictatorship” were likely pleased to see international headlines focused on something positive for a change. While completely aware that they had enacted no democratic reforms of substance since the last parliamentary elections in 2012 (instead promoting the current system’s further calcification), Belarus’ elite successfully avoided a new round of confrontation with both the EU and the United States.

The usual post-Soviet toolkit of egregious voting falsification was deliberately employed. The warm welcome extended to international observers did not shame the Belarusian authorities into developing more sophisticated techniques to achieve their desired outcome. Reports of ballot box stuffing, non-transparent vote counting, carouseling (the practice of shuffling voters from one precinct to another to vote again and again) were rolled out much as they have been over the past two decades.

The tepid response from the west has been discouraging, though not for want of informed observation and documentation of the numerous standing obstacles to free and fair elections taking place in Belarus. When commenting on the elections, the initial press release from OSCE could muster only two positive statements which noted that the elections were “efficiently organised” and “the election administration exhibited a welcoming approach towards international observers”.

Like the full preliminary report that followed shortly after, the rest of the press release documented a long list of items of serious concern — the absence of a central voter register, selective candidate registration procedures and inadequate campaign financing limitations, among many others.

There has been virtually no opposition represented in Belarus’ parliament since 2004

In carefully wrought diplomatese, the OSCE all but denounced the elections by reporting that the Belarusian government had done virtually nothing to satisfy their 30 or so recommendations on the necessary reforms to ensure truly democratic elections.

The authorities, meanwhile, are likely rather pleased with themselves. They have successfully maintained Minsk’s long-standing vision of managed democracy. By giving lip service to electoral reforms before the elections and simply disregarding their actual implementation, the regime can easily blame factors ostensibly out of their control, be it a lack of experience with the proposed reforms, poorly trained administrators or financial constraints.

A parliament in name alone

The Republic of Belarus has a bicameral parliament, with both an upper and lower house. Of the upper house’s 64 representatives, officially known as senators, 56 are awarded seats by oblast (regional) councils, with the final eight representatives left to be selected by the president. Essentially, the upper house is designed to serve as a legislative check to the lower house’s legislation.

In reality, however, both the upper and lower houses of parliament, and all of the country’s substantive representative bodies, are under the control of the authorities. There has been virtually no opposition represented in Belarus’ parliament since 2004. 

Since 2012, the 110 members of the lower house of parliament have put forth just three pieces of legislation of their own, preferring instead to pass bills drafted by the presidential administration.

Belarus has been ruled by Aleksandr Lukashenka since 1994. He was re-elected in 2015 in elections widely regarded as fraudulent. CC: Okras / Wikimedia Commons.

Given its real versus its constitutionally outlined powers, the lower chamber can hardly be called a true democratic representative body.

This position leaves little room for even a “symbolic” role for legislators under the current regime, much less space for genuinely dynamic politics. It should come as no surprise, then, that elections to the lower house are a carefully managed affair.

By not allowing equal air time for opposition and pro-government candidates, running a severely restricted press, piling on legal and bureaucratic filters to limit the types of political parties or individuals who can run, and the recent cessation of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies’ polling activities in Belarus following a state campaign against the organisation, the sole Belarusian independent sociological institution of its kind, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand precisely what parliament represents other than Lukashenka and his inner circle’s wishful thinking.

A token opposition

The opposition, which continues to be disjointed and severely marginalised, won two seats in Sunday’s election. For some quarters, the election of the first opposition candidates to parliament in 12 years may seem like a minor victory, but a win nonetheless for civil society and the Belarusian public.

Unfortunately, it is hard to see how either MP-elect will be able to have their voice, or the voice of their constituents, heard in the rubber stamp pseudo-legislative body. Indeed, this knowledge kept most of the opposition from running in the first place.

Neither Hanna Kanapatskaya, the former head of the Minsk affiliate of the United Civic Party (which can be safely classified as a real opposition group), or Alena Anisim, deputy chairperson of the Belarusian Language Society, are political firebrands or well known to the Belarusian public. Their respective political leanings, which do not appear to have much concrete overlap beyond their promotion of a distinct Belarusian identity, are similarly unpopular with the general public.

Of the two, Anisim, whose official biography positions her as a strong proponent of Belarusian language and identity, is the least visibly politically volatile. Her position in the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society is as respected by intellectuals as it is unknown to the broader public. Besides Anisim’s desire to promote Belarusian identity and preserve the country’s sovereignty, there is little to be found about her actual political views, though she stated in 2014 that while she is a member of civil society, she did not consider herself in the opposition.

According to Anisim’s official biography which has been passed around in the Belarusian media, she was also once a member of an “informal underground youth organisation” that promoted the Belarusian language and cultural traditions during the Soviet era.

Opposition candidate Hanna Kanapatskaya gives an interview on 13 September, after her election to parliament. CC: BelSat TV / YouTube. Some rights reserved. Belarus watchers will also be struck by Anisim’s close association with a number of state institutions, however benign. A graduate of Belarusian State University’s philological faculty, she has been an instructor at a single state-run institution of higher education since 1991, and more recently served as the host of the “Belarusian Language” program on state-owned TV channel ONT.

As a candidate of the the United Civic Party, Hanna Kanapatskaya is somewhat more interesting. In addition to beating Alexandr Drozhzha, the pro-government candidate and director of the Minsk railway station, Kanapatskaya also beat Tatsiana Karatkevich, opposition candidate in last year’s presidential election. Karatkevich listed her support following the elections, though in what capacity is not entirely clear.

Anastasiya Boiko, a reporter for popular media outlet TUT.BY, did note some irregularities in the final reporting of the vote. These irregularities include a sharp increase in the total number of individuals who voted early from the original tally seen that morning, and another discrepancy between the number of people counted who came to vote and the number of people she counted throughout the course of the day. Even more interesting was that, according to the final tally Boiko saw, the most votes received went not to Kanapatskaya, but “against all candidates”, the traditional favourite of political cynics.

The fact of the matter is that neither Kanapatskaja nor Anisim are prominent enough to enact any real change, which is precisely their value to the authorities

Kanapatsaya’s platform primarily revolves around raising salaries and creating more opportunities for business, the obstacles to which she claims to know well as the owner of a small legal consulting firm that does business with both a local and international clientele. One of the United Civic Party’s main platforms since 2010 has been promoting job creation through economic liberalisation, a nominally uncontroversial, yet highly unappealing political narrative for a Belarusian populace allied closely with the post-Soviet (and post-1990s) political slogan: “stability”.

While some of the tenets the party promotes are indeed essential for Belarus’s economic diversification, and Kanapatskaya’s pro-small and medium size enterprise campaign message appears to have won her some additional support locally, it is nonetheless an extremely localised message to one of the rarest breeds of Belarusian society: the independent entrepreneur. It will not be enough to galvanise a nation, nor push through comprehensive economic reform without substantial support from the forces that have worked against it over the past two decades.

The fact of the matter is, though, neither Kanapatskaya nor Anisim are prominent enough to enact any real change, which is precisely their value to the authorities.

Calling the west’s bluff

The clear losers in these elections are, undoubtedly, Belarusian citizens. The distortions that their economy continues to face as a result of misguided state policies promoted by an unaccountable government will continue to limit their general welfare and prosperity. The cynical construct that is the Belarusian political system, which is both decidedly undemocratic and highly restrictive, no longer appears to be the target of western democracies’ avowed disapproval.

The EU and United States have officially referred to the OSCE’s statement on the shortcomings of the recent elections, which states that the elections were neither free nor fair. The US Department of State took a stronger line, issuing a statement that specifically lists the opaque vote counting practices employed, highly restrictive media environment, the questionable composition of the election commissions and the repressive legal system that determines how elections are conducted as key issues needing to be addressed.

The EU offered no direct criticism, but simply referred to the OSCE/ODIHR and Council of Europe Venice Commission’s long list of recommendations.

The muted tone coming out of the EU is not a result of miscommunication or misunderstanding — the Lukashenka regime has made no secret of its desire to stall reforms

The muted tone coming out of the EU is not a result of miscommunication or misunderstanding — the Lukashenka regime has made no secret of its desire to stall reforms. For example, Lidziya Yarmoshyna, chairperson of the Central Election Commission since 1996, stated publicly back in April 2016 that only those recommendations by the OSCE that did not require substantial changes to the current electoral system would be considered: the other recommendations would require changes too radical to implement immediately.

Yarmoshyna’s logic would be compelling if not for the fact that many of the recommendations, such as a creating single central voter registry to stop individuals from voting repeatedly in different locations, had not been made a decade or more ago.

These comparatively stifled reactions coming out of the west reflect, at least in part, the realities the region is currently contending with — namely, a hypersensitive Kremlin that continues to openly defy international law in its ongoing limited undeclared war with Ukraine and the ongoing economic downturn in Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.

“Kvitney, Belarus!” (Belarusian: prosper, Belarus!), reads this monument in Mahilyow Region. CC: Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This muted reaction also reflects the United States’ distance from Belarus and the European Union’s perceived limitations as it sorts through its own internal issues and the societal upheavals accompanying them. The EU has only just begun a process of rapprochement with Lukashenka’s Belarus, one that has arguably shown at least some tangible benefits through working with Minsk as an intermediary between Ukraine, Russia, and the EU. It is unlikely that the latter is interested in sacrificing one of its major diplomatic breakthroughs.

The EU is even less likely to spend diplomatic capital by confronting a non-threatening authoritarian regime on its doorstep with harsh political rhetoric about democratisation, an issue that is central to many of the issues the EU is facing, be it internal detractors to the union or its own emerging illiberal democracies.

The most familiar path forward, one that entices Minsk to enact democratic reforms in exchange for loans on favourable conditions, would simply embolden Lukashenka to engage in yet another round of temporary or superficial reforms without real consequence to the authoritarian structures that he has championed since 1994. The pointed, but limited criticism from western democracies surrounding Belarus’ recent presidential and parliamentary elections suggest a newly emerging permissiveness. Save the collapse of the Belarusian economy, and the refusal of an economically weakened Russia to prop it up again, the traditional financial tools at the west’s disposal will be only minimally effective, if at all.

The election of one, perhaps two, opposition candidates to the lower house of parliament do not signify a political thaw, but demonstrate that Lukashenka and his ilk have called the west’s bluff and are keen to play another hand, well aware of their improved standing.

The fragmented, unpopular opposition forces that do put out their message still go through the now familiar motions of contesting modern Belarusian politics — be it boycotting elections, limiting the “political” aspects of their programs as to not receive an outright ban by the authorities, listing the innumerable barriers to democracy which have been erected since independence (and before it), or simply crying foul at the authorities’ habitual rights abuses.

Here, in its most genuine form, is Lukashenka’s token of appreciation for the west’s willingness to reengage Minsk and to do so on his terms. A token opposition is but a token, after all.

About the author

Devin Ackles is an independent analyst of Belarusian and Ukrainian affairs, and an editor for Krytyka. Follow him on Twitter at @DevinAckles

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