Belarus held its latest in a series of troubled elections under the leadership of President Alyaksandr Lukashenko last month, resulting in a second straight Opposition-free parliament. Leading opposition parties had called for a boycott and removed their candidates from the ballot, but the government in Minsk barred political parties from rallying or distributing literature relating to the boycott. Despite the call, the government claimed that turnout in the disputed polls reached 66 percent of eligible voters, above the threshold of 50 percent needed for the results to be considered legitimate.
The results have sparked a row between Europe and Russia, which maintains a tight grip on events in Minsk. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the election, “not competitive from the start,” noting that many OSCE requirements were not respected. The leaders of OSCE’s observer missions in Belarus expressed concern over the conduct of the election commission and restrictions on campaign activities.
“A free election depends on people being free to speak, organize and run for office, and we didn’t see that in this campaign. The lack of neutrality and impartiality on the part of election commissions severely undermines public confidence in the process. Citizens should feel confident that their votes are counted as cast, but the lack of proper counting procedures or ways for observers to verify the results raises serious concerns,” they said.
Moscow had a different view. Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the results, citing its own international monitors. “The monitoring was conducted by numerous observers from the Russian Federation and various international structures, in particular, the Commonwealth of Independent States…find[s] the elections to be free, open, and conducted in a subdued atmosphere with high voter turnout. Unfortunately, as it usually happens in such situations, the ‘special’ attention of the OSCE, whose tentative conclusions are again dominated by a politicized approach, creates dissonance,” the ministry said.
The political opposition in Belarus has been crippled in recent years in the wake of protests following Lukashenko’s election to a fourth consecutive term in 2010. The protests were met with a police crackdown resulting in the imprisonment of some 700 opposition figures and activists, including rival presidential candidates. Since the arrests, the opposition has been unable to mount any serious challenge to Lukashenko.
One independent Belarusian observer laments that the political opposition is all but dead in the former Soviet republic. “Even if the authorities loosened the screws, I doubt that the opposition people left would be anything more than social outsiders,” Alexander Klaskovsky told Reuters. “There are no bright, strong personalities capable of triumphing. The opposition is virtually broken. It has few resources and there is no real program.”
After the 2010 crackdown, the European Union imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko and about 100 senior members of his government. Those restrictions are due to be reviewed after this parliamentary election, and are likely to be retained. With Moscow’s support, Lukashenko can continue to suppress political opposition and the rights of the Belarusian people with near impunity. Belarus may be approaching lost cause status.
It will take nothing short of a popular uprising like those seen in Georgia and Ukraine to loosen Lukashenko’s grip on power. In the meantime, the United States and Europe should impose stronger sanctions on Minsk, and step up public support for pro-democracy groups in the country in the hope of inspiring a few brave Belarusians to stand for their democratic rights.
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