In the run-up to the 19 March presidential vote, an atmosphere of fear and tension prevails in Belarus. Incumbent President Lukashenka is widely expected to win a third term. The west, meanwhile, is weighing its options.
In a presidential vote on 19 March, the citizens of Belarus, the former Soviet state of 10 million, face a choice between the "stability and security", offered by incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka and "freedom, truth and justice" championed by his main challenger, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich. The west has pre-election concerns about the fairness and validity of the vote and Lukashenka's victory is widely seen as a foregone conclusion.
Labelled by the US "the last dictator in Europe," Lukashenka has been in power since 1994 and he now expects to win another term in office. His original four-year term of office expired in 1999. However, his tenure was extended till 2001 by a referendum held in 1996. In 2001, Lukashenka won a second term of office in a widely criticized vote. In 2004, some 80% of voters supported a referendum motion that eliminated presidential term limits. Accordingly, he is now entitled to seek a third term.
Lukashenka claims that authoritarianism is the only real alternative to instability. He has said on several occasions that in Belarus there would be no repeat of the so-called 'coloured revolutions' of Georgia and Ukraine. Belarus is the only former Soviet state not to turn westwards. Despite the repression, Lukashenka is very popular.
The EU has negotiated a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with Belarus but it never came into force. In any event such an agreement would not be binding. Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe either. The EU's tools to respond to Lukashenka's conduct are therefore limited. An EU visa ban is already in place on six high-ranking Belarusian leaders and another option is to temporarily withdraw preferences under the EU's Generalised System of Preferences. In 2005, the EU transferred 2 million euros to support democratisation in the country.
The incumbent Lukashenka - a former prison guard and leader of a collective farm - faces three opposition candidates:
* Alexander Milinkevich - a physics professor nominated by the Congress of Democratic Forces of Belarus as the opposition's joint candidate.
* Alexander Kozulin - from the Social Democratic Party, an academic and former education minister. Local press reports have claimed that he is backed by Moscow in a mission to steal votes from Milinkevich. Kozulin has identified himself as an "alternative" rather than an opposition candidate.
* Sergei Gaidukevich - from the Liberal Democratic Party; he is understood to be loyal to Lukashenka.
In essence, the country's economy is believed to be propped up by subsidies from Russia. The foremost tool here is oil: Belarus receives Russian oil at a heavily discounted price. The total effect of this discount represents some 30% of the country's GDP.
Overall, the state employs over 90% of the people, providing practically full employment. Private enterprises are few and far between. Overall, wages tend to be low, but are paid predictably and on time. According to the World Bank, Belarus's economic growth in 2005 "has been genuine and robust." Over the past 12 months, real wages increased by 24%. One of Lukashenka's trump cards is stability - and people indeed tend to vote according to their pocket books. According to newsagency Interfax, Lukashenka has said that he will "calmly hand over power to others" once he manages to accumulate 100 tonnes of gold and foreign currency reserves with a total value of some ten billion US dollars. Meanwhile, several analysts warn of an economic crash within years.
Most recently, observers from Georgia have reportedly been banned by the Minsk authorities, apparently because of their fear of Georgia's experience of the Rose Revolution. Observers from Sweden and Denmark have also been ordered to leave Belarus. A group of MEPs has also been refused entry by the Belarusian authorities. Other EU monitors who had planned to travel to Minsk were denied visas. Close to 500 foreign observers have been invited by Minsk under the OSCE's auspices, and a further 400 people from the post-Soviet states are scheduled to witness the elections.
Wave of arrests
According to opposition sources, some 300 activists have been detained or harassed in recent days and over 50 remained behind bars, often on charges of swearing, littering and hooliganism.
The head of the government's security service (KGB), Stepan Sukhorenko, has said that "under cover of the elections, a violent attempt to seize power is being planned in the country." He accused the US of active involvement and added that protests would be treated as "terrorism." This crime could result in life in prison or the death penalty. Lukashenka has made it clear that he would not tolerate mass protests. The Foreign Ministry has told ambassadors from Europe and the US that their countries would be held responsible if protests broke out on or after election day.
Several western states have threatened to impose sanctions if the elections prove to be neither fair nor free. On 16 March, the European Commission called on Lukashenka to immediately release those who were detained in the run-up to the elections. "Such arrests have no place in the conduct of free and fair elections," said External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
Denim is now widely considered a symbol of freedom and the west in Belarus. In September 2005, a protester, Nikita Sasim, was beaten up for waving a Belarusian flag. In response, he took off his denim shirt and used it as an improvised denim flag. Since then, denim ribbons are used as symbols of freedom and resistance.
According to opposition candidate Milinkevich, Lukashenka is set to receive 80% of the vote. He said, "Without even counting, not even waiting until the end of voting, they are already preparing for this." "Of course, these are absolutely illegal elections," Milinkevich says, "but we participate in them because they're the only opportunity for us democratic forces who live in totalitarian countries to have a dialogue with people, to share independent information, to destroy their fears."
"It is not for [the west] to teach us about human rights," Lukashenka has said. "Let them deal with their own affairs. They have plunged the entire Middle East into blood. We see your democracy soaked in blood," he said.
"The Belarusian authorities should recall that the EU has made clear it stands ready to take further appropriate restrictive measures against the responsible individuals, if the elections are not conducted in a democratic manner," said External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
The President of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, has expressed his "great concern" at the recent developments in Belarus. "In the course of last year Parliament several times expressed its position on the situation in Belarus," Borrell said in a statement. "In its most recent resolution, adopted on 16 February 2006, Parliament deplored 'the continuing deterioration of the political situation and the continuing violations of the civil and human rights of the Belarusian people'." On behalf of the European Parliament, Borrell has repeatedly called on the Belarusian authorities to "respect international standards and comply with their undertaking, as entered into with the OSCE and the UN, to guarantee the equal rights of all candidates taking part in the campaign."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has described Belarus as an "utterly un-European [country] in terms of respect for democracy and human rights. Belarusian people deserve much better." "But let me be clear," he said. "The EU does not wish to isolate Belarus. It is Lukashenko who is isolating the country. The EU remains open to dialogue and has clearly set out the steps Belarus authorities need to take to normalise relations."
The Young European Federalists believe that "it is absolutely intolerable that a political scam like this [ie the elections] is going on in Europe in 2006. There is no room for dictatorships in Europe."
According to US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Freed, the authorities in Belarus are conducting a campaign of intimidation, fear and violence. Freed predicted that the presidential election will not only be deeply flawed, but will be "an election which may not deserve the name".
The UN's special investigator on human rights, Adrian Severin, has said that the Belarusian authorities should "immediately cease all actions aimed at intimidating opponents, journalists and human rights defenders and jeopardising the free and fair running of the electoral campaign."
"The EU needs a new policy," argue Charles Grant and Mark Leonard of the Centre for European Reform. "It should offer big incentives to encourage the regime to reform, but also make clear any further repression would provoke a tough response. It should step up its efforts to support civil society and overhaul its methods for aiding NGOs." In the authors' opinion, "Two factors have undermined the EU's ability to deal effectively with Belarus. One is that very few EU governments care - less than half of the member-states have embassies in Minsk. The other is that the member-states sometimes fail to forge a common line towards Belarus."
"I don't think the EU is ready to have Belarus as a member," the Financial Times quoted opposition candidate Alexander Kozulin as saying. "But Europe should care about Belarus. Its regime is a challenge to European civilization."