Belarus after October 17: Lessons of the past, challenges of the future

Posted in Other | 17-Nov-04 | Author: Jaroslav Romanchuk

President Lukashenko - one of the last dictators in Europe.
President Lukashenko - one of the last dictators in Europe.
Uneasy anticipation, a sense of foreboding and hope-crashing doom accompanied the parliamentary election and referendum campaign in Belarus. Everybody pretty much knew the results of both the referendum and the parliamentary elections long in advance. On October 17, it became obvious that the elections and the referendum had been rigged. The scale of violations was unprecedented. The people felt cheated and depressed.

Voters – the weakest link

The democratic opposition had no illusion about the nature of the regime and the outcome of the “parliamentary elections” and “referendum”. The authorities firmly refused to change election legislation and tightened its grip over the civil society and media long before October 17. The situation regarding human rights and freedoms worsened this year, to say nothing about meeting the four OSCE criteria or engaging in a meaningful dialogue with democratic opposition leaders and the international community. During the campaign, the democratic opposition underwent tremendous pressure. Its representatives were denied access to the electronic mass media. They were denied the right to hold meetings with voters. The authorities did not include representatives of the democratic opposition in election commissions. In addition, the democratic opposition was not permitted to respond publicly to slander that the authorities came up with in state television and newspapers.

The authorities executed their detailed plan for administering the whole process of “elections”. In theory, elections took place; in practice, people were appointed to office. Heads of local executive councils and members of the election commission at all levels approved candidates. Officials on the ground were instructed who should win in the parliamentary race and how strong public support should be for constitutional change (referendum). They spent approximately $10 per voter in campaign costs plus powerful administrative resources to ensure an “elegant victory”. On average, the democratic opposition candidate spent about 4 US cents per voter, which is 250 times less than spent by the authorities.

International observers from the OSCE observed mass violations of the democratic and open election process months before October 17. After October 17, they decided that the elections could not be recognized as free and democratic. OSCE representatives did not observe the referendum. The Council of Europe and European Parliament observed neither the elections nor the referendum. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe stated that carrying out the referendum on the issue proposed by Lukashenko was a clear violation of the Belarusian constitution. In addition, Article 112 of the Election Code states that questions regarding the “election and removal of the president from office cannot be out on the referendum”.

At the same time, the authorities ensured the participation of their own “politically correct observers” from CIS and Western countries (Lithuania, Poland, USA, Belgium etc.). This was important for the television presentation the day after “the political show” as well as for the Russian Duma’s decision to recognize the elections and referendum as free, fair and democratic. Russia, alongside other CIS “democracies” continues to recognize the results of this obvious political sham.

The one missing element here is the weakest link among political forces and groups in Belarus: voters. The authorities isolated voters from the process of real decision-making. They were denied the right to learn about voting options presented by the democratic opposition. They have not been given a chance to listen to opinions of those who did not want to change the constitution. They were an easy prey for the state propaganda machine that poured torrents of lies on their gullible heads.

They were denied the right to elect and be elected as well as to decide on the fundamental issue of amending the constitution - by about 100,000 people directly (members of the election commission at all levels, heads of local executive committees and the authorities’ observers) and about 50,000 indirectly (officials on the ground, intelligence, deputies of local councils and the parliament). The president’s administration presided over the process of rigging the elections and the referendum. Regional elections commissions performed a formal role and let the executive bodies of power control the activities of the polling station election commissions. They acted impudently and with impunity; the judicial system willingly sanctioned gross violations of election legislation. In fact, courts became tools of discrimination against the democratic opposition. They deny citizens the right to a fair and unbiased judicial process. At the same time, they protect those who are instrumental in rigging the elections and referendum.

Official results vs. exit polls and opinion polls

The authorities stated that about 80% of the voters (the turnout was about 90%) supported the amendment of the constitution. In the first round of parliamentary elections, 108 out of 110 deputies were elected. All of them are representatives of the authorities. The 109th deputy was elected in the second round at the end of October. He also supports the government and the constitutional amendment. The authorities effectively blocked representatives of all democratic political parties.

During the month before the elections and the referendum, various opinion poll takers (Gallop International, Yuri Levada) conducted opinion polls in Belarus. The popular support of the referendum varied from 40 to 42% one week before the election on October 17. Many democratic candidates had over 50% support in their constituencies. The exit poll on election day showed that amending the constitution was supported by 48.4% of voters. Adjusting this number to the so-called fear factor, experts state that even less people supported the constitutional amendment. It means that Lukashenko has lost the referendum. He has been denied the right to run for the presidency for the third time (for the fourth time according to 1994 constitution).

Exit polls in 20 constituencies showed the following results. In 5 constituencies out of 20 that were randomly chosen, democratic candidates did not run. In 3 constituencies, they were denied registration. In 2 constituencies, the democratic candidates were withdrawn from the parliamentary race (their registration was annulled by the election commissions). Thus, there were no democratic candidates in 25% of the constituencies, which is similar to the situation in the whole country. Out of the 15 remaining constituencies that were randomly chosen, the democratic candidate won in the first round in Constituency 105 in Minsk (63%). In 7 other constituencies, the total support of democratic candidates in was over 50%. Hence, the results of exit polls show that the democratic opposition should have 4 – 6 deputies elected in the first round and 30 - 40 candidates should take part in the second round of the elections. 32% of Belarusian voters supported representatives of democratic coalitions. If we adjust this number by excluding the constituencies where democratic candidates were denied registration or had their candidate mandates withdrawn, the potential support for the democratic opposition increases to 47% throughout the country as a whole and to 54% for constituencies where the democratic opposition took part.

Hence, the democratic opposition has made 5 major achievements during the campaign: 1) We can state that the Belarusian opposition has increased its popularity during the political campaigns. The people welcomed its unification. They came to vote and said “no” to Lukashenko. They came to support a change of government. The single list of candidates was a big step forward. 2) The “five steps to a better life” program can be viewed as the alternative to Lukashenko slogans. The opposition got the program of reforms that many more voters began to recognize as a viable alternative to the socialist practices of Lukashenko’s government. 3) Many candidates and members of their teams were well trained and prepared to campaign professionally in a hostile political and administrative environment. Party and civil society structures were also tested. 4) Weak structural and human elements were revealed. The campaign was an important element of the general power struggle campaign that will culminate in the 2006 presidential elections. 5) People finally saw that the democratic opposition is not a bunch of evil guys, Western agents and arrogant strangers. People had a chance to see that the opposition is a part of them. The opposition has become a part of the people; common folks no longer make the division “we” and they (the opposition).

Rigging elections: The most popular ways

During the campaign and on the day of elections, the authorities applied the following tools and methods of rigging elections and distorting the people’s will:

  • Representatives of the democratic opposition were denied participation in election commissions (only about 0.2% of all members of commissions represented the opposition). Hence, the authorities had unlimited opportunities to influence the process of candidate registration, terms of campaigning and vote counting. The election commissions declared the results that were ordered to them. Moreover, polling stations were under close supervision of the local executive committees and monitored by members of the authorities.
  • More than a half of independent candidates and representatives of democratic opposition political parties were denied registration as candidates. The reasons for denial were clearly fictitious. Members of election commissions and the executive power put much pressure on people who voted for democratic candidates. The authorities openly cheated people who confirmed their signatures in favor of democratic candidates. The Supreme Court confirmed decisions of the Central Election Commission on all candidates. A few well-known candidates were removed from the parliamentary race just a few days to October 17 for having allegedly violated campaign rules.
  • To ensure the highest possible turnout, the authorities reduced the list of voters in the register by about 370,000. Voters who did not take part in previous elections were crossed out of the voter register. As a result, in some constituencies the turnout was over 100%. The unusually large number of voters was included in additional lists of voters.
  • During the campaign, the authorities violated the principle of equal opportunities for all candidates. State-run printing houses refused to print information materials for opposition candidates. Private printing houses were threatened to have their licenses revoked. Radio and television statements (5 minute slots for each candidate) were censored without permission of the candidates. The local authorities did their best to prevent democratic candidates from meeting voters.
  • All opposition political parties were denied the right to state their position on the referendum on state-run television or in state-run newspapers. State television endlessly broadcast a video clip on how to vote. It urged people to support only one option. It indicated the only valid and correct answer - “yes”. This is a gross violation of election legislation. The authorities produced a massive amount of promotional and propaganda materials in favor of a constitutional amendment. At the same time, they denied the distribution of any materials against it. During the campaign, two independent papers - ‘Vremya” and “Nedelya” - were closed down without any explanation. During the last year, about 15 newspapers have been closed down. Other papers and individual journalists were under constant pressure. There were numerous cases of confiscation of leaflets and newspapers with information on democratic candidates and against the constitutional amendment. On election day at 11 a.m., the authorities announced the results of exit polls carried out by the government-supported youth organization. This result was repeated continuously. In addition, many election campaign materials were sanctioned by the authorities at the polling stations.

The authorities forced people to vote before the election date (early voting started 5 days before election day). This is a violation of Articles 5 and 55 of the Election Code. In particular, students, the army, the police, hospital employees and factory workers were strongly urged or forced to vote early. About 15% of citizens voted before the official elections. In some constituencies, the number was as high as 30%. As the ballot boxes were not sealed and guarded properly, it was quite easy to change the ballot papers to ensure the desired results. At many polling stations, commissions ignored the observers’ demand that ballot papers from early voting be counted separately from ballots from the actual day of elections.

Minsk - victory square.
Minsk - victory square.
On the day of elections, observers noted that many voters (who more often than not showed up to vote wearing characteristic leather jackets) voted several times and were given many ballot papers. Members of many election commissions signed additional ballot papers on October 17.

Independent observers were denied the right to observe the vote count. They were prohibited approaching the table where the counting took place. Ballot papers were sorted without declaring any results. Chairpersons of commissions discussed the results of the vote count before filling out the protocols. In many cases, observers were not given copies of protocols. All of these facts provide evidence for questioning the validity of the election and referendum results. Candidates for parliament who did not recognize the results of the elections and voters who did not recognize the validity of the referendum are denied the right to challenge the official results in court.

Important omissions and mistakes of the democratic opposition

In spite of the meaningful achievements of the democratic opposition and the civil society, the democratic opposition has made some considerable mistakes and omissions. They failed to: 1) create a wide-scale observation network; 2) ensure a fair vote count on the day of elections; 3) protect the elections and referendum victory after the day of elections; 4) protect representatives of the civil society from persecution; 5) put pressure on members of election commissions to guard against violation of election law.

Opposition political parties were deeply involved in campaigning. They helped their candidates and had neither resources nor human potential to arrange observation. The organizations that dealt with independent observation turned out (as before) to be weak, fragmented and inefficient. In many cases, candidates had to organize their own observation. The observers were not well organized. They were not ready to act decisively to prevent violations during vote counting. In the days after the election, they were inert and passive.

A few organizations claimed they could mobilize people to come and defend the victory of the opposition through holding a series of public rallies and demonstrations. They failed to deliver (as before). As a result, the demonstrations after the elections were small and could not threaten the authorities. Though many people felt cheated and depressed, their hearts were not addressed and their energy was not claimed by the democratic opposition.

After the elections and the referendum, more than 30 demonstrators were jailed including the Chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Nikolai Statkevich. Chairman of the United Civil Party Anatoly Lebedko was severely beaten and taken to hospital. A group of opposition members is expected to be accused of creating disorder in the center of Minsk. Journalists from Russia were beaten as well. The authorities threatened to open a criminal investigation against the leader of the Belarusian Communist Party, Sergei Kalyakin. If one considers that Mikhail Marinich, another important figure of the opposition movement has been in jail for about 6 months, one can conclude that the authorities began a massive campaign against the democratic opposition structures and its leaders.

In such circumstances, the activities of human rights organizations can provide legal and material support for the persecuted, and this is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, the existing structures have failed to provide this kind of support for members of the opposition. People who join the opposition or just vote differently (even those who refuse to take part in early voting) feel vulnerable. However, the existing organizations either tend to concentrate their efforts on representatives of a single political party or some small political groups.

Finally, members of the election commissions felt well protected and did not have a guilty conscience violating the law and rigging elections. Their neighbors, relatives and colleagues are still not aware of their destructive social activities during the elections. People are hardly aware of who has stolen their votes.

In addition, we should state that the national campaign against the referendum was rather poor. Lack of information materials and high-quality influential publications, the drawbacks of distributing these materials and poor coordination of the information efforts of the independent newspapers and radio weakened the efforts of the civil society to challenge the authorities.

Challenges of the future

The democratic opposition has shown that it can win the elections. It also demonstrated that it couldn’t defend its victory. People are ready for change. The opposition should be ready to deliver it. Therefore, during the remaining 20 – 24 months before the presidential elections, the democratic opposition should concentrate its efforts on a few key areas. First, the people’s coalition “Five Plus” will continue to be a coordinating body. Efforts should be made to urge the Social Democratic Party headed by N. Statkevich to join the coalition. It should become a political platform to coordinate activities of the democratic opposition.

In 2005, wide-scale discussion on who should become president after Lukashenko should be arranged throughout the country. Only the well-organized democratic opposition can manage the process to come with a single democratic candidate to challenge Lukashenko in 2006. Holding primaries (present circumstances should be taken into account) can be an important part of the process of nominating a presidential candidate from the opposition. A headquarters of the presidential campaign should be set up to unite the best minds in the country. Those opposition and civil society leaders who want the support of the coalition should also take part in working out the rules of engagement. There are two tentative dates for coming out with the single candidate – late spring or October/November 2005. Planning the campaign and exercising it are the biggest challenges for the opposition in the year to come. The people’s coalition “Five Plus” should become the center for this campaign. All potential candidates for presidential elections should be created on equal grounds. They in their own turn should seek public support during this campaign.

Other priorities are:

  • Support for a national human rights organization that would provide assistance to all persecuted and oppressed members of the democratic opposition
  • Creating a network of candidates for election commissions (at least in all major cities). We should make the best use of people’s energy right now and prepare 10 people for each polling station (about 8,000 for Minsk) who will be able to take an active part in the presidential election process as either members of the election commission or as observers. These people should not necessarily be members of political parties but representatives of the public
  • Strengthening the information distribution network. It should be able to handle up to 1 million. leaflets or newspapers
  • Support independent newspapers that are instrumental in preparing the public opinion for the presidential elections
  • Support for the analytical center that will generate the program of the democratic opposition for the elections and provide articles and “intellectual ammunition” to counteract the authorities
  • Support for radio stations that can broadcast on AM waves throughout Belarus
  • Support the establishment of party structures and NGO expansion in the areas that are important to winning presidential elections in 2006.

We must not repeat the mistakes of the presidential campaign of 2001. Belarusian nomenclature and the people who claimed to get its support failed to deliver. The search for a so-called “third force” (not the democratic opposition and not the authorities) also turned futile. There is not a single ex-nomenclature structure in Belarus that is capable of holding a meaningful presidential campaign. At the same time, the authorities will strive to split the opposition and to urge ex-nomenclature to challenge the policy of the Coalition.

From passive contemplation to decisive action: An “axis of good” for Belarus

The Belarusian democratic opposition welcomed the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the United States. We are looking forward to meaningful assistance along the guidelines that will bring about concrete changes for Belarusian society. We believe that the European Union should take a more active position towards Belarus, as Belarus is a source of instability and the growing political GULAG. It is unacceptable to look on passively while 10 million Europeans in the heart of the continent are deprived of basic freedoms and rights. Hence, a EU Belarus Democracy Act is needed to help Belarusians regain freedom and democracy. A “new neighborhood” policy should be filled out with concrete programs. We expect it to provide institutional and technical solutions. The TACIS program for Belarus must be revised, as it is scandalous in many ways. The way that it is exercised is of no use to the civil society and the sustainable development of Belarus in general.

European procedures should enhance the EU’s impact on Belarus. Coordinated efforts of the EU, its member states and parliamentary organizations (OSCE, PACE) are extremely important to accelerate changes in Belarus. The West speaking with one voice is necessary to consolidate Belarusian society and the democratic opposition.

Setting up a European Endowment for Democracy can be an adequate response to solving the “Belarusian problem”. It could work closely with the NED, NDI, IRI and other organizations that are actively involved in the political and civil process in Belarus. Some Europeans say that active engagement in Belarus can be a good means to better relations between the US and the EU. Out of three policy options towards Belarus – passive contemplation, active indifference and active engagement - the democratic opposition needs the third. It is also important to adjust the contents of the assistance programs and projects to the real needs of Belarusians. Seminars, conferences and training abroad cannot be a substitution to grass root work in Belarus. The lessons of the past should teach us who to isolate, who to support and who to cooperate with. We realize that Belarus holds 67th place as a trading partner to the EU with less than 0.2% of EU trade turnover. Economic determinism should be substituted with value-oriented policy.

As Belarusian authorities are heading full speed to restore a mini version of the Soviet Union it is extremely important to form an “axis of good” for Belarus consisting of the US, the EU and Russia. We realize the position of Russia and its record in legitimizing large scale violations of the law in Belarus. We believe that at present there are common grounds for the three parties to form such an axis. Holding an international conference on Belarus under the auspices of the EU with participation of top policy makers (presidents and/or ministers of foreign affairs) from the US and EU countries would be an important contribution to solving the Belarusian problem and to raising the awareness of ordinary Europeans to the situation in Belarus.

Belarus deserves changes. It is ripe for change. Belarusian people are Europeans - no doubt about it. We share the same values and strive for freedom, democracy, the rule of law and a market economy. The democratic opposition is determined to continue its fight to liberate the country from the unfortunate, ruthless leader and the impudent “servants” of the regime. Now the biggest challenge for us is to avoid the trap of silence and passivity of the international community, to turn contemplation into action and to add Belarus to the agenda of all freedom-loving nations and organizations of the world. The splinter of the Soviet Union is too contagious for Europe and Russia to ignore. Let’s take the policy of decisive action towards Belarus. It is the only moral policy to follow.