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Elections in Belarus. Five reasons to pay attention

July 17, 2012 - Katerina Barushka - Bez kategorii

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With parliamentary elections in Belarus due to take place in September, Belarusian journalist, Katerina Barushka, stresses the importance of the elections and the reasons why the international community shouldn't become indifferent to them.

Why should the international community be interested in Belarus and its upcoming parliamentary elections which are due to take place on September 23rd 2012? After all, Belarus is a country which hasn't amused the international audience with too many surprises recently. There have been no scandals and the parliamentary system is not that different from the representative institutions of other Eastern European countries.

There are some quirky peculiarities, however. There is not a single fracture or party majority in the Belarusian parliament, and not a single politician is opposed to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. By and large, the Belarusian parliament hasn't been recognised by the international community since 1996, the year in which Lukashenko reorganised the post-Soviet parliamentary structure, the Supreme Council, into its current form. Instead of holding general elections, however, he simply appointed all the representatives of the lower chamber from amongst his most loyal associates in the Supreme Council. Simplicity and straightforwardness has always been the key to effective governing in Belarus.

So why should one be interested in the upcoming elections when there has been so little progress since then? Just as in previous elections, the last parliamentary elections in 2008 were characterised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as ultimately falling short of commitments to democratic elections. And the regime surpassed itself during the last presidential elections in 2010: seven out of the nine independent candidates ended up in prison along with dozens of other prominent democratic activists. As a result, relations with the West have deteriorated significantly and they have never been this bad for such a long period of time.

On the other hand, improved relations with Russia suggest that the Belarusian regime will have the resources to conduct the elections in its old-fashioned way. Moscow, under Dmitry Medvedev, concerned with its international image, would once in a while call for more democracy in Minsk, at least on the surface. But with its newly-elected old president, Russia will most likely stand by Lukashenko in his righteous wish to protect Belarus from opposition hooligans and troublemakers. Thus, no democratic breakthroughs are expected.

Moreover, there is no unity or strategy among the opposition with some calling for boycott, some hoping for liberalisation, but with all having one thing in common: little contact with the people. And the people, trapped in economic problems, couldn't really care less. They have their reasons. Firstly, there are hardly any disputes or disagreements during parliamentary sessions, which have become the quiet, harmonious work of implementing the state's plans. And secondly, the most important function of parliament, which legislative, doesn't really mean very much anyway: presidential decrees do not need any parliamentary ratification, but have the power of a law.

Despite the fact that the work and elections of Belarus's parliament are perceived by Belarusians as being a boring inconsequential mess, however, this indifference must not be allowed to spread to the international community. The attention that these elections will bring is extremely important for Belarus. And with Belarus's geographical position at the edge of the European Union, between the EU and Russia, these upcoming parliamentary elections are also important for the international community. The political situation in Belarus has direct implications for a number of issues including the reliability of its gas/oil routes and the transfer of these resources from Russia to the West, the effectiveness of the EU's counteraction to illegal immigrants and drug trafficking, and military stability on the Baltic Sea, due to the fact that Russia communicates with its submarines stationed there from the territory of Belarus. However, there are also less obvious reasons, although nonetheless vital in the long-term, why the upcoming elections do matter at the international level. Here are some of them:

1. Nobody can get there, unless everybody gets there. Democracy should not be selective and forgetful – half of the European countries have experienced dictatorship and none of them got rid of it on their own. International solidarity and support are crucial in inspiring the changes and making the process of transition smoother. Thirteen people are still behind bars in Belarusian prisons for their beliefs. And since there has never been an election in Belarus in which Lukashenko didn't care for international opinion, a political prisoner or two is the price he would pay to please the West. Two people might not sound like a lot, but behind every name on the list there is a promising and bright life which is being wasted. If international attention can speed up the process of their release, it is a worthy cause.

2. Don't ask, don't tell. Although some political forces declare they will boycott the elections, the larger group will use this opportunity to campaign and talk to people. After all, the elections are about society, what it needs and whom it sees as its representatives. And if we don't ask, the Belarusian society won't tell. International attention is an additional incentive for the opposition to be active. Belarusian society lives in completely different, much more modest and unstable conditions compared to the times of the presidential elections in 2010. How far does tolerance and flexibility of a country in transition go? We will find out in September.

3. Monkey see, monkey do. A parliament is an important democratic structure and people need to recognise its importance so that once there are changes in a country, they will turn to this instrument of people's control over their lives and make it count. Although parliament doesn't mean much in Belarus at the moment, this is not a sufficient reason to give up on it altogether. And this is where the educational aspect of international relations comes in. If the countries around Belarus pay attention, at some point Belarusians are bound to get the idea.

4. Count as if no one is watching. This is exactly what Lukashenko wants: to falsify the results while no one is there to witness them and spread the word afterwards. Although Lukashenko normally invites international observers, it is only to accuse them of breaching his trust, abusing his hospitality and generally following double standards, when their negative assessment of the elections is out. And despite the international presence, the regime still goes in for full-scale falsifications. But why make Lukashenko's life that much easier and lift up the necessity to at least pretend that the voices are counted? Why give him grounds to conveniently say that this time the West knew the elections would be conducted in such an impeccable manner and there would be no room to criticise our great country, so they haven't even needed to use our kind invitation. We need credible internationally recognisable grounds to assess these elections. We need foreign witnesses and international press attention. If the international audience also neglects the parliamentary elections in Belarus, it means that the dictatorship wins.

5. All for one? Russia had its presidential election in March and the world saw the birth of a middle class moral revolution movement, which is still active. And just like Belarus, Ukraine will also choose the representatives of its people this autumn. Will these two nations follow the example of their Russian colleagues? Will they, perhaps, be more successful? And after the Arab Spring, will we see a Slavic Autumn?

This last point might sound a little bit too optimistic, and in reality the passiveness of Belarusian voters, the lack of any credible alternative, the firm grip of Lukashenko on the electoral system, and the assistance of his Russian colleagues are not the perfect settings for a happy ending. But if one looks at the September parliamentary elections in Belarus as one of the processes of developing a relatively new country, one has to admit that there are few cases like this left to observe.

Even if these elections are conducted in the most boring and predictable way, our grandchildren, living in some harmonious peaceful union in the future, will most likely consider them turbulent and mysterious. Do pay attention to these elections and collect the stories to tell them.

Katerina Barushka works for the independent Belarusian TV channel, Belsat, covering political and social issues in Belarus. She has also been working in the Belarusian NGO sector for the past ten years, dealing with human rights, international affairs and youth activism in Belarus.

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