This article is part of the serie “Eastern neighborhood: the silent consolidation of authoritarianism”. Pieces on elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Russia can be found here.
It is no news that elections in Belarus follow a well-written scenario designed by President Aleksander Lukashenko’s administration. In a state completely submitted to the ruling power, with the two main opposing parties boycotting the race, the September parliamentary elections were anything but competitive from the start. As usually in Belarus, it is not just the lack of competition that led the OSCE/ODIHR and other international observers to qualify the recent elections as contrary to many fundamental democratic standards.
The electoral farce
The newly elected parliament is filled with Lukashenko's supporters, just like all the previous parliamentary bodies since 2004. All the candidates were independent, which means that they declared not to belong to any political party. Unsurprisingly, their electoral victory was the result of their unconditional loyalty to Lukashenko and his dictatorial rule. Despite the opposition’s withdrawal of candidates from the race, the turnout for the elections was almost as high as in 2008 - 74% of the citizens have officially expressed their vote and, therefore, validated the ballot.
Parliamentary elections have become such a routine that the campaign and its media coverage were barely visible. The candidates who boycotted the elections were censored or banned from media coverage, thus removing any possibility for making their motives public. As for the remaining opponents to Lukashenko, they were prevented from running in the first place.
Far from Europe, still devoted to Russia
Aleksander Lukashenko remains the last head of state to be banned from travelling in the European Union (EU) and the United States, and his country is known to be the “last dictatorship in Europe” (Condoleezza Rice, 2006). Unfortunately, there is no sign that Belarus is moving towards a freer regime.
After the September parliamentary elections, the EU prolonged the duration of its restrictions until 2013, but it failed to add more persons and entities to the existing list. Since the repressed 2010 elections, the EU’s sanction list has now reached 32 asset freezes of companies known for benefiting or supporting the regime as well as 243 individual visa bans and asset freezes for persons, mainly members of the judicial and security apparatus, responsible for human rights violations and repression of civil society and opposition. However, the EU remains cautious at the moment, and any additional sanctions are reciprocated by the regime, as witnessed by the expulsion of EU ambassadors earlier this year. It is also safe to say that, although part of its immediate neighborhood and area of strategic interest, Belarus does not figure prominently on EU’s foreign policy agenda.
Meanwhile, Belarus is a fully-fledged member of the Eurasian Customs Union, together with Russia and Kazakhstan, and receives funding from Russia, as well as preferential gas prices. In exchange, Russia maintains control over Beltransgaz, the Belarusian natural gas pipeline operator and over its geographical sphere of influence, more and more threatened by the European presence. The question is how much economic and political independence the regime would be ready to sacrifice for Moscow in the future.
What future for Belarus?
Experts say that Belarus’ balance between the East and the West is part of Lukashenko's positioning strategy. When its relationship with Russia gets colder, Belarus turns to the EU; when it’s the other way around, it tries to tighten its link with Russia. As a matter of fact, Russia has more influence on Belarus than the EU has. As some analysts put it, if external pressures were to make Lukashenko give up power, they would most likely come from Russia and not from the EU.
The smart sanctions and the pressures applied by the EU have rarely had an echo in Minsk. EU’s double track approach of restrictive measures and engagement with Belarusian civil society has so far not had the desired effect. And with the civil society’s funding under the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) reduced due to budget cuts, progress in EU-Belarus relations is even less foreseeable.