A Fraudulent Fairytale

By Anna Volk

MINSK, Belarus - Despite their total control of Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko and his henchmen in government live in fear. They have the power to falsify the upcoming elections, and will certainly use it, as they have many times before. But they also see that the Belarusian people have had enough after 12 years of stagnation, and will not reinstate them in the next elections.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) of Belarus announced last month that four candidates had officially registered for the March 19 election: Lukashenko; the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Syarhey Haidukevich; and two opposition candidates. Those are Alexander Kazulin, of the Social Democratic Party, and Alexander Milinkevich, the leader of the united opposition. The CEC announced that Lukashenko had collected 1,903,069 valid signatures (this is almost one-third of the entire electorate), whereas only 180,000 had signed the lists legally for Milinkevich (his original total was over 226,000), and slightly lower totals were recorded for the other two candidates.

It's no surprise that the head of state proved his "popularity" by producing two million signatures. It is no secret that even on this first stage of the election campaign, he used his power to force people to sign for him. In two main leading universities of the country, students were not allowed to pass winter session exams until they signed for Lukashenko. The same situation happened in most state-owned companies, an enforced gathering of signatures for the Lukashenko campaign was reported in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the office of the State Prosecutor.

"We have built an independent state of Belarus, we have ensured peace, stability and security. But one must defend these achievements just as one must defend our Motherland. And not only in military terms. But also in the field of ideology and information," said Lukashenko during his February meeting with the cadets of the military school.

Belarus is an independent state, indeed. It has not been involved in any international conflicts during the last 12 years, but this is hardly due to Lukashenko. Security? One can feel secure, as long as one doesn't talk about political issues and as long as one doesn't have any private business in the country. Otherwise one risks imprisonment for up to two years for defaming the country. Entrepreneurs can be fined heavily at any time (Belarus is the only country in the world where fines are a normal budget line-item) and have their property confiscated.

When it comes to "ideology and information," here Lukashenko is right. The Soviet Union was a good school for learning how to manipulate people. Lukashenko now has total control over all state newspapers, radio channels and other media. Additionally, in recent years there has been a huge "ideological" movement in Belarus. All students and school children are subjected to constant brainwashing on "how wonderful life is under Lukashenko." There are obligatory grade school classes on ideology as well as lectures at the universities.

Lukashenko uses his power to "disorient" the people and create a fairytale in their minds-a fairytale of living in a prosperous and safe country.

On February 18, the main government newspaper cited the results of an opinion poll of 9,000 respondents from all parts of the country, conducted by the Belarusian Academy of Sciences. It indicated strong support for state policies, with double the amount of support registered three years ago (alleged support rose from 29.02 percent in 2002, to 55.45 percent at the end of 2005). Moreover, according to this poll, more than 76 percent of the citizens polled expressed their readiness to support Lukashenko in the presidential campaign, with figures of around 3-4 percent for opposition candidates.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. to understand that in this country the percent of people content with the authorities could never be 76 percent. It's not possible in a place where the word "entrepreneur" is a curse word, where students are expelled from universities for taking part in international conferences, and where prices for products and the cost of living are equal to the average in Europe, but average salaries are many times lower.

The popularity of the president and his regime aside, the election results are virtually preordained by the composition of the CEC and the territorial commissions. Representatives of opposition political parties make up only 2.6 percent in territorial commissions and less than one percent in district commissions. They are not represented at all in the capital, Minsk.

"The election will not be free, it already is not free," Milinkevich has said. He points out that the Belarusian government has created an un-level playing field for the vote. This is especially obvious in the placement of only one representative of the opposition coalition among 74,000 members of local election commissions (who will count the votes cast in this nation of 10 million).

"This is where the falsifications occur," Milinkevich says, adding that the government has also adopted a policy that will prevent both domestic and foreign observers from monitoring the counting process, making the observation process "more symbolic than real."

Joseph Stalin was 100 percent right in saying, "The people who cast the votes don't decide an election, the people who count the votes do." There is no doubt that Belarus is going to see business as usual in the coming election. The only question is whether the long-patient Belarusians will let it pass in silence.

The author is a writer living in Belarus.