Belarus vote count details could impact EU ties


EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - With less than 24 hours to go before polls open on Sunday (28 September), OSCE monitors still don't know if they will be allowed to closely watch the vote count. But an EU decision to relax sanctions may be taken on strategic instead of technical grounds in any case.

In past elections, OSCE observers had to sit about five metres away from tables where the actual vote count takes place. If they stood up or tried to walk across the room, they risked being charged with "interference" in the electoral process under Belarus law.

Lukashenko dancing at an independence day party in July. The 54-year old has forbidden media to picture him from behind, showing his bald patch (Photo:

"There are media reports the head of the central electoral commission said we will have 'full access.' But we'll have to wait and see what our observers say on the day. We still don't have assurances that we will have meaningful access to the vote count," the OSCE mission spokesperson told EUobserver from Minsk on Saturday.

There has been little progress in democratic standards in the run-up to the election. Opposition candidates have had no access to media. Some activists have been beaten up or intimidated. A protest to commemorate the regime's "disappeared persons" was violently broken up. Early voting by students, soldiers and government officials - which is notoriously easy to fiddle - has been ongoing since 23 September.

In this context, the question of whether OSCE monitors stand up or sit down could have a big impact on the group's final verdict and on EU-Belarus relations. A strongly critical OSCE judgment would make it hard for the EU to justify softening sanctions. "We would need some cause for satisfaction in the conduct of the elections. They need to be less rigged than before," an EU official said.

A harsh verdict could also provoke a strong reaction from Belarus' autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has threatened to break off ties with the West if it says the elections are unfair. The 477 OSCE monitors on the ground have been told to leave within 48 hours of the OSCE judgment in case the government dubs them persona non grata after the event.

The polls officially open at 8 am local time on Sunday and close at 8 pm, with an initial result expected on Sunday night and an official one three days later. Opposition campaigners plan a street rally in central Minsk on Sunday night. The OSCE will deliver its verdict at 3 pm on Monday.

EU reaction timetable

The EU reaction timetable will see a political statement by the French EU presidency on Monday, probably after the OSCE briefing. Senior EU diplomats will meet in Brussels on Tuesday to debate a potential sanctions move. Belarus has been pencilled in as a "possible" agenda point for an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 13 October, where any sanctions decision would be unveiled.

The EU is already planning to make it easier and cheaper for Belorussians to receive EU visas no matter what happens in the elections.

But a real diplomatic breakthrough would come if it lifts a ban on meeting with Belarus politicians above deputy-minister level or temporarily suspends an EU travel ban on 41 Belarus officials, including President Lukashenko. Another option under consideration is to take a few junior names off the visa ban list but to keep Lukashenko on the register as a future bargaining chip.

The EU's main motive for mending ties with Belarus is not to sponsor democratic change, but to prevent the country from being swallowed into formal union with Russia or becoming an entirely hollow client state.

Belarus and Russia have held talks on unifying the two countries since the 1990s, with Russia exerting pressure via cheap oil and gas exports, which subsidise the Belarusian economy to the tune of ?12 billion ($17 billion) a year. The next round of talks for 2009 gas prices is due in November, with Belarus so far refusing to recognise the Georgian rebel enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and with Russia threatening to raise prices to EU market levels.

"These are the last few years in which we have a chance to make a difference in Belarus. The clock started ticking on 7 August [when Russia invaded Georgia] and the gas price talks are now becoming talks about Belarus' independence," a senior Lithuanian official said. "We'd rather have Belarus to deal with 20 km from Vilnius than a newly aggressive Russia."

Pre-election deal?

With the OSCE verdict up in the air, Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita newspapers report that the EU has made a deal with President Lukashenko - that a list of 22 EU-specified opposition candidates will get into parliament - to help justify a sanctions move.

Belarus opposition website Bielorusskji Partizan has also published five opposition names that are supposedly on a "Lukashenko list," implying that if the five get through, it proves the result was a fix. The names are Alex Mihalevich, Valery Frolov, Anatoly Levkovich, Uladzimir Nistiuk and Jarolsav Romanchuk.

But even Lithuania, which has a strong interest in keeping a friendly Belarus between the EU border and Russia, is wary of removing President Lukashenko from the EU sanctions register too fast.

"We should wait to see what will be the conduct of the new parliament and of Lukashenko after the elections. To see if there is a genuine trend toward the West or if it's just a big game before the next negotiations on Russian gas," the Lithuanian official said.

"Even if there is a new parliament that includes these democratic figures, but its first decision is to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia or to recognise the documents on state union with Russia, would we applaud such a move?"



Partners: Social Network