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Belarus: an autocracy quashing all opposition

Since 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko has effectively stifled all dissent in Belarus, and his ‘Belaya Rus’ party is de facto the only valid political force in Minsk writes Naja Bentzen. In the short term, the splintered political opposition is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to Lukashenko, who can expect to be re-elected in the presidential elections later this year, despite the country’s financial woes and a looming risk of political unrest.

Wedged in between the EU and Russia, Belarus is traditionally clearly pro-Kremlin and has never made substantial efforts to integrate with the West. Compared to the other Eastern Partnership countries, long- serving President Alexander Lukashenko’s political system performs poorly regarding relations with the EU and compliance with European standards. Criticism of the regime and the President is considered a criminal offence under Belarusian law, and freedom of expression in Belarus is de facto non-existent.

Minsk depends heavily on support from Moscow to sustain its repressed economy and exports 40% of its goods to Russia. Belarus is a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, which was launched on 1 January 2015. Despite these close ties and the facilitating role played by Lukashenko in hosting several rounds of Ukraine- Russia talks, the Ukraine crisis nevertheless seems to have created rifts between Minsk and Moscow. In opposition to Putin, Minsk immediately recognised the new, pro-EU government in Kyiv in 2014.

Belarus profited from EU-Russia sanctions by processing EU foodstuffs and exporting them to Russia, until Moscow banned certain Belarusian products from its market. In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Lukashenko stated that Russia had set a ‘bad precedent’ in Ukraine by violating the Budapest Memorandum. His recent steps to ‘de-Russify’ Belarusian schools, and adopt legislation stipulating that the arrival of armed foreign forces in Belarus, even if they are not regular troops, would be considered an ‘act of aggression’, seem to further widen the diplomatic gap between Minsk and Moscow.

Lukashenko, who has held his country’s presidency since 1994, was re-elected in 2010, officially with 80% of the votes on a turnout of more than 90%. These claims sparked accusations of electoral fraud both internationally and domestically, where riot police dispersed large-scale public protests. For more than 20 years, Lukashenko has systematically repressed all political dissent, earning his country the label ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, used frequently by international leaders and media.

Inspired by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, ‘true supporters’ of Lukashenko and his policies founded the Belaya Rus public association in 2007, to boost support for him. In the most recent parliamentary elections, held in 2012, Lukashenko loyalists, as always, won every single seat in Parliament. Out of a total of 110 seats in Parliament, 105 are occupied by Lukashenko’s bloc, three by the Communist Party of Belarus (KPB, founded in 1996 as the successor of the monolithic ruling Communist Party from the Soviet era), one by the Agrarian Party (founded in 1992) and one by the Republican Party of Labour and Justice (pro-Lukashenko, founded in 1993).

According to the OSCE, the 2012 elections did not respect ‘citizens’ rights to associate, to stand as candidates and to express themselves freely’. Lukashenko stated in 2012 that he might modernise the political system in the next four years, allow political parties to play a bigger role, and convert Belaya Rus into a ‘centrist party’, but it remains unclear how or if he intends to implement this.

In a marathon press conference in January 2015, Lukashenko, whose popularity has grown amid the Ukraine crisis, because he represents stability, assertively declared that he would run again in the presidential elections, expected to be held in November 2015.  Lack of visibility and unity further undermines the battered opposition Opposition parties are, in theory, permitted in Belarus. In practice, however, elections are a mere formality: Lukashenko’s tight grip on the media prevents his opponents from speaking up; clampdowns on opposition leaders have forced dissidents underground or abroad, further isolating the groups not only from one another, but also from the risk-averse citizens, who show little interest in elections due to the limited role of the Parliament and a lack of trust in the election process.

In addition, the 2014 amendments to Belarusian electoral legislation, stipulating that information on candidates with a criminal record be made public, affect many opposition leaders convicted of ‘hooliganism’ in the wake of the 2010 protests. The legislation also criminalises election boycotts. Ahead of the 2015 presidential elections, the opposition groups have differing strategies, reminiscent of those applied in the 2012 parliamentary election campaign, where the main opposition parties boycotted the election and urged citizens not to vote, while others ran full campaigns. Moreover, the focus is often more on personal differences than on clear ideological goals.

Despite attempts to unite forces within two larger platforms, they have so far not agreed on a joint candidate. ‘People’s Referendum’ platform to announce a single candidate in the early spring Five major opposition groups: the BPF Party, the ‘Tell the Truth!’ campaign, the ‘Movement for Freedom’, the Belarusian Freedom Party of Freedom and Progress, and the Belarus Social Democratic Party ‘Hramada’, have joined forces in the ‘People’s Referendum’, a mainly socially oriented platform. Founded in 2013, the platform held public meetings across Belarus in 2014 on how to improve education and healthcare, and handed to Parliament a petition for reforms, signed by 50 000 people.

The platform has stated that it would present a joint presidential candidate in the early spring of 2015. However, Hramada Deputy Chairman Valiery Fralou announced in October 2014 that he would run for the presidency independently. Civil Alliance for Fair and Honest Elections for a Better Life, ‘Talaka’ – no consensus on a single candidate Signifying the lack of unity in the opposition, seven other opposition groups formed the ‘Talaka’ platform in 2013, to counterbalance the ‘People’s Referendum’ and explore the idea of a popular vote (primaries) to select a joint candidate.

Talaka’s founders are the United Civil Party (UPC), the Belarusian United Left Party ‘Just World’, the Workers’ Party, the Women’s Party ‘Nadzeja’, the ‘For Fair Elections’ association, the Belarusian Movement, and the ‘Young Belarus’ organisation. While Talaka has not yet announced a joint candidate, the UPC has put forward two candidates: its own leader Anatol Liabedzka, and the leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party ‘Narodnaya Hramada’ (not to be confused with ‘Hramada’), Mikola Statkevich, who is currently serving a six-year prison sentence over the 2010 protests. However, the Central Election Commission ruled Statkevich’s nomination illegal, due to his being in prison.

European Belarus – civil campaign forum supporting Statkevich outside the established platforms European Belarus was founded in 2008 as a pro-European civil campaign. It has coordinated street protests and flash-mobs throughout Belarus. Led by Andrey Sannikau, the forum advocates EU membership, demands the release of Statkevich and supports his candidacy, or, if he is not released, an election boycott. Anti-regime protests have grown steadily between 2001 and 2010, culminating in the wake of the 2010 presidential elections, when up to 40 000 people protested the rigged election results.

The subsequent violent crackdowns on civil society, opposition leaders and independent media, with up to 700 arrests, sparked EU sanctions, further increasing Belarus’s international isolation and its chronic dependence on Moscow. Since then, Lukashenko has managed to prevent large-scale demonstrations. He crushed budding protests in 2011, warning that he would ‘strike hard’ against any public unrest. In January 2015, Lukashenko urged citizens ‘not to freak out’ during a crisis, and Minsk rejected a number of requests for anti-Lukashenko protests over the country’s recent financial crisis, which is likely to worsen ahead of the November elections.

Outlook: looming discontent over the financial crisis Latvian EU Presidency officials said in January 2015 that Minsk could start moving towards a visa-free regime with the EU, if it releases political prisoners before the May Eastern Partnership Summit. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics in February said: ‘We’d like to do all we can to give a new momentum to relations with Belarus’. In its resolution on the 2012 elections in Belarus, the EP noted ‘the persistent failure to organise free and fair elections’. EP President Schulz said the 2012 vote ‘failed to meet international standards of fair and transparent polls.’

 

EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service Author: Naja Bentzen,  © European Union, 2015.

 

Link to webpage ishttp://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2015/551327/EPRS_ATA(2015)551327_EN.pdf

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