Observing presidential elections in Belarus Republic

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Igor Botan / September 17, 2001
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Monitoring democratic and electoral processes in the Republic of Moldova, Central Europe and CIS is the main mission of the Association for the Development of Participatory Democracy “ADEPT”. This was the reason why I accepted to be a member of the short term OSCE observation mission which was to observe September 9 presidential elections in the Republic of Belarus.

OSCE Observation mission has already officially commented on the conduct of elections. In addition, the delegation of Moldovan MPs also expressed its point of view. Multiple viewpoints give a better picture of the conduct of elections; this is why I decided to present my own impressions as well. OSCE mission is not responsible for the contents of this material.

Personal impressions on discussions with locals

At the briefing organized by OSCE, international observers were instructed that Mensc is a safe city and they could easily walk on the streets until late at night.

This and many other positive impressions contrasted with the way Belarus is portrayed by foreign press, especially the Russian one. This contrast motivated me to better understand economic, social and political aspects of the Belarus Republic. Of great help in this respect were discussions with locals representing different social strata.

It’s not easy to understand what’s going on in Belarus by reading newspapers. One should get up early to buy newspapers that reflect other than official points of view. On the one hand opposition press is not prohibited, on the other general public has a limited access to it due to the low turnout and higher price than to the official press. Although not very original, this is a very efficient way of having total control of the media in a country. Formally there are no grounds for accusing state authorities of limiting citizens’ access to information, although it is clear: those who control money flow control media as well. Whenever state authorities feel under threat, they do not hesitate to confiscate the entire edition right from the printing house, cases like this were registered during the previous electoral campaigns.

Ordinary people sincerely support the President, his main merit being his ability to speak the same language as ordinary people. Even the most simple posters representing Lukashenka holding in his arms a small girl are accompanied by text for the easier understanding of the message: I hold in my strong arms this … child — our Belarus as a tender and fragile girl — our blue-eyed Belarus. Thus, people see Lukashenka as the man of the Belarus nation, man from the people and close to people for better or for worse (even if he is the cause of the problems ordinary citizens are facing). Obviously the above message is very appealing to the people crazy about soap operas. And there are a lot of those people in the former soviet space. Lukashenka’s propaganda doesn’t rely exclusively on exploiting peoples emotions. Ordinary people are informed that according to the United Nations’ report on human development Belarus rating is higher than that of other CIS countries, even Russia. The propaganda explains the high rating by the fact that Lukashenko stopped illegal privatization, kept workplaces, managed to provide citizens with a minimum social security and won the race for peace. I was surprised that many people ended the discussion with the phrase — if only there wasn’t a war, we would survive anything.

As for the intellectuals, as is the case of the entire post-communist space they understand perfectly well what is going on and why, but they fail to unite their efforts to impose their point of view and provide a viable alternative to the great majority of the population.

X-ray of a political carrier

Belarus intellectuals use all the means they can to show that the greatest of Lukashenka’s talents is to make a political career. During the Perestroika he joined Belarus Peoples Front so as to be promoted as an ardent fighter for national ideals. Those who promoted him as the head of the Parliament Commission for Fighting Corruption in the hope that he would fail had greatly underestimated his political talent. It wasn’t meant for their hopes to come true. The work in the commission was for Lukashenko a take off for the presidential seat. Once in the presidential seat, Lukashenko proved his political talent especially with regard to concentrating all the power in his hands. For him the results justified the means. He breached the agreements with the Parliament and Constitutional Court. Later followed a referendum on the modification of the Constitution, dissolution of the Parliament, elimination of political opponents and former allies — all of those for one single purpose, i.e. concentration of power in his hands. His political intuition told him that he would need an external ally. That is why the nationalist slogans were changed for the ones expressing infinite love for Russia and desire to reunite with the motherland. A perfect move, aimed to sooth the guilt of the Russian President, Boris Eltin, for disintegrating the USSR, and the revenge syndrome of the Russian political elite willing to see Russia as a superpower. As a reward for his integration efforts, Lukashenko got the support of the Russian political elite, which allowed him to consolidate his power. Now very few remember the Russian political elite (Chernomirdin, Stroiev, Selezniev) landing to Mensk in November 1996. They convinced the Parliament and Constitutional Court to stop the impeachment of Lukashenko. This allowed the latter to take over the initiative and turn the developments to his favor.

As for the economy, he established some privileged relations with Russia. Easy access of the Belarus products to the Russian market, low prices for the imported oil, gas, and other raw materials from Russia — are the main pillars of the centralized Belarus economy. Every time Russian officials tried to discuss Russia — Belarus economic relations outside the context of the preferential friendship ties, Lukashenko would present Belarus as the only security guarantee for Russia at its western border, especially in the context of NATO enlargement. Obviously, Russia would have to pay for this privilege. Once exploited to his own benefit, Lukashenko rapidly forgot the Russia — Belarus union ideals. Thus in his electoral platform for September 9, 2001 the focus was on: Belarus sovereignty and independence may not be questioned, our children and grandchildren will live in a sovereign country, Belarus people will determine themselves their future, Belarus foreign policy will be multidimensional, partnership with Russia is a priority of the Belarus foreign policy — not a single world about Russia — Belarus Union. As for the strategic partnership with Russia, this is obviously a priority as Russia is the largest market for Belarus products. In addition, Russia is the greatest supplier of gas, oil, and other raw materials.

Distinguishing observers

President Lukashenko’s administration paid a great deal of attention to the way electoral campaign is unfolding. Everything was properly calculated and arranged. Even international observers were invited. Though, it should be mentioned that international observers were treated differently. OSCE long-term mission was hindered to timely perfecting the visas to enter the Belarus Republic. Their arrival was delayed until everything had been arranged. Relations with the OSCE mission remained tensed until the end of the observation mission. On the contrary, short-term observers representing CIS Parliaments enjoyed the best treatment, fact reflected in their observation reports. All of them unanimously declared that presidential elections in Belarus were free and fair. Even domestic observers were treated differently. Those representing opposition political parties and NGOs were discriminated and humiliated. Although they had upon them accreditation, observers were declined the right to enter the polling stations especially during anticipated voting. To enter the polling stations they used to ask OSCE observers to go along with them. On the contrary domestic observers representing workers’ unions were omnipresent, serving as a democratic shield to the elections. To have an understanding of the workers’ unions impartiality, it should be mentioned that in Belarus President Lukashenko appoints heads of local public administration, who in their turn appoint directors of the economic entities and chiefs of election bodies in the relevant region. As a result directors of the economic and administrative units served in the election commission, whereas their employees (workers’ unions) as observers of the electoral process.

As for the OSCE observers — we enjoyed a “very special treatment”. Sometimes poll workers openly expressed their hostility towards us. For instance to the question — How many observers are registered at the poling station? — they would reply — We do not answer such kind of questions? When observers tried to convince them that it is the right of an observer to ask questions and get an answer, that this is a common practice for OSCE observers to monitor electoral process in the countries of Europe and North America members of the OSCE, they would reply — How would you like your country to observed in such a manner? Certainly people were instructed to reply in such a manner. One could get no information at all, not to speak about number of early voting. On the contrary directors of the schools where polling stations were opened were all politeness. They met us at the entrance and invited us to see the chemistry, physics, or other classes. We learned from domestic observers about this tactics of the poll workers to distract observers from monitoring the electoral process.

Election observation

It was very important for the observers to monitor early voting. In compliance with the Belarus law citizens may start voting five days prior to elections. The entire history of elections experience A century experience of elections indicates the need of conducting elections in such a manner as to ensure maximum transparency and avoid any kind of manipulations. Belarus, though, neglected this experience on the under the pretext of care for the simple citizen who on the Election Day might be somewhere at the “datcha”. After elections we learned that as much as 15% of the electorate voted before elections. What might have happened with the ballot boxes in the five days preceding the elections, when during daytime only 2 poll workers guarded them and during the night two policemen — only God knows. Especially as the ballots were printed on ordinary paper and apparently at an ordinary Printing House. One could make copies of the ballots without any poll worker to notice the difference.

The election process seemed well organized. Poll stations were equipped almost exemplarily and voters voted quietly. During the five days of early voting, poll workers took and posted outside the polling place Lukashenko’s electoral posters. There was a joke that Sidorov Sidor Sidorovici will win the elections. The thing is that in each of the booth a poster was posted explaining the voting procedure. The sample ballot represented on the poster included the name of Ivanov, Petrov, and Sidorov. It so happened that on the sample ballot voters’ choice was indicated against Sidorov, which is exactly were Lukashenko name was listed on the real ballot. A minor fact but who knows how many voters it influenced?

Later on we realized that everything was staged so as to avoid any kind of surprises. At the polling station where I observed vote counting, all the observers were forbidden to approach the table where the ballots were counted closer than 15 meters. As the commission members surrounded the table it was impossible to see anything. After the votes were counted we were refused the right to inspect the ballots. The only thing that was offered to us was a protocol on the election results. There was no way to verify the authenticity of the results. Other observers reported the same thing.

The program for the election day included a visit to the regional electoral commission where protocols with the precinct election results were submitted. We were surprised that policemen didn’t allow us to enter the premises where we were invited several days earlier. Policemen told us that we would be invited in due time. So we waited for 3 hours. We were still waiting when the Belarus Television broadcast live from the CEC election results per country. My colleague from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said then — all this is part of the big scenario to humiliate us after they had invited us to observe their elections!

The only way to protest to such a treatment was to give up the meeting with the territorial commission. Later we learned that all the 17 teams, which observed elections in Gomel region, had the same fate. The last straw was the disconnection off all the telephones in the mission.

I asked the domestic observers why Lukashenko administration relied on such methods, when he could have won in the first round only by using his propaganda. The reply was — Lukashenko’s goal was not only to win elections but also to demoralize opposition for a long time. If they treated international observers this way, then how did they treated domestic observers?

For me to better understand the hopelessness of the situation, our Belarus colleagues told us a joke about the serene Belarus people as compared to the neighborhood countries. A Polish, Ukrainian and a Belarus attend a conference. They sit together on three chairs all of them due to someone’s ill will have nails. The Poll feeling the nail stands up and makes a polite remark to the organizers. The Ukrainian revolts violently takes the nail and throws in into the organizers. The Belarus feeling uncomfortable because of the nail, stays still thinking that if the nail is there it is there for a reason…

  A new electoral system for Moldova!