Voting for All

Russia and the West hoping to benefit from the new Parliament of Belarus

Yesterday Belarus held its parliamentary elections. Minsk expects much from them: it hopes that the West will acknowledge the country's legislative assembly legitimate and lift the numerous sanctions against Belarus. Europe and the U.S. also look forward to learning the outcome of the voting, sending a clear message that they are ready to overhaul their relations with Minsk in case opposition gets some of the mandates. Finally, Moscow pins its hopes on the new Parliament of Belarus, wishing it would recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

All for people

Yesterday Belarus held elections to its National Assembly's House of Representatives, with 110 mandates contested by 264 pro-government and opposition candidates. 60% of the voters were reported to have participated in the voting, and the Central Election Commission (CEC) claimed the elections legitimate. CEC Chief Lidia Yermoshina said the turnout was "usual, but not too high". Today the CEC is to announce the results of the voting and perhaps present the list of those who won the election (Belarus has a majoritarian system, with direct vote).

During the campaign, the Belarusian government reiterated they took unprecedented measures to make the voting as transparent as possible. "We have tried our best to let the election proceed openly, fairly and democratically," Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko stated ahead of the voting. "These principles must be followed at the final stage of the election too."

To let a maximum of citizens get the opportunity to take part in electing the new Parliament, the CEC organized early voting in advance - it started five days before the general voting, on September 23. "This is an opportunity for those who have some important business on Sunday to cast their ballots. That is why I find it absolutely necessary to preserve this institution," CEC Chief Lidia Yermoshina agitated for early voting.

According to the CEC, 29.9% of Belarusians participated in early voting. Commenting on that index, Ms Yermoshina said she "didn't expect such a high turnout" at the early voting.

Opposition activists, who were mainly brought together by the United Democratic Forces (UDF) comprising 11 different parties, spoke against early voting. "If you want your ballot to be counted the right way, do not go to the early voting," UDF co-chairman Sergey Kalyakin of the Communist Party appealed to voters. "The fraud mechanism is very simple - if the authorities manage to drive 25% of voters into polling stations, and then ascribe those ballots to my rival, they will be able to easily count ballots on the voting day, even with monitors watching them. I won't have a 25% lead however hard I try," Sergey Kalyakin told Kommersant.

Mr Lukashenko's main opponent and former political prisoner Alexander Kozulin shares this point of view. "Early voting is used for fraud. There are polling stations where 30-40% of voters cast their ballots before September 28, and there are polling stations where more than a half did," Mr Kozulin told Kommersant.

Alexander Kozulin didn't participate in the elections, agitating for his daughter Olga instead. Nominated by the Hromada party, which was set up by her father, she stood for election in Minsk's 102nd Sukharevsky polling district. "We visited several polling stations to see the ballot boxes. They were sealed on the top, but the bottom was fastened with screws you could easily unscrew," Alexander Kozulin said. "There are the same people I saw four years ago in the election commissions. They know the technology pretty well - at night ballots are changed with those needed, and then monitors are allowed to enter the room."

The early voting was accompanied by numerous scandals. Opposition media reported secret instructions to heads of Belarusian businesses strongly recommending that employers should participate in the early voting. If they refused, they risked to be deprived of bonuses. Even Belarus' Prime Minister Sergey Sidorsky voted in advance.

"We would like to state that these elections, just like the previous ones, were forged. The global community should not recognize them as free and legitimate," Chairman of the United Civil Party of Belarus Anatoly Lebedko articulated the opposition's stand.

All for the West

During the campaign, Minsk took account of the external factor as never before. The thing is, the West has considered Belarus' legislative assembly illegitimate since 1996 as Mr Lukashenko dissolved the disloyal parliament appointing new MPs with his decree. The consecutive elections of 2000 and 2004 were not even acknowledged as democratic by Europe and the U.S. Meanwhile Alexander Lukashenko makes no secret of the fact that he would like the West to recognize the fourth House of Representatives, with Belarusian MPs restoring their "specially invited" status with PACE, which they were denied in 1996.

"Prior to the campaign, I promised it would be exemplary. I should say we really want the new Parliament to be recognized in the international arena," the Belarusian leader stated last week. "We created an unprecedented atmosphere of openness inviting almost all those willing to monitor the elections." Belarus's government made true concessions to the West - over 1000 international monitors were allowed to come to Belarus, including those of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Mr Lukashenko even fulfilled one of the U.S. and EU's requirements releasing the most famous political prisoners.

Minsk expects the West to reciprocate lifting the economic and political sanctions it imposed on Belarus. Namely, it is believed to unfreeze the foreign accounts of one of the key contributors to Belarus' budget Belneftekhim, and to annihilate the black lists of Belarusian officials banned from visiting western countries. The latter have already told the press about their plans to travel about Europe after the parliamentary campaign is over. For example, CEC Chief Lidia Yermoshina has lately confessed she is bored with her too frequent trips to Turkey an Egypt and she is looking forward to visiting Europe. "Knocking on wood, I dream of the joy of selecting a luxury tour next year. I imagine strolling along Parisian streets, sitting in a cafe with Hemingway's Moveable Feast, which is about that city."

The European Union is ready to get more emollient. On September 15, at their meeting in Brussels, the EU Foreign Ministers declared ready to start with overhauling the sanctions if the OSCE acknowledges the parliamentary elections in Belarus democratic. At the same time the U.S. and EU point to the presence of opposition in the new Parliament as a precondition. Last week Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza reported secret negotiations between the EU and Minsk regarding the matter. According to the edition, the EU promises to lift visa-related restrictions and unfreeze the monetary aid to Belarus in exchange for leveraging at least 20 opposition activists into the lower chamber of the Belarusian Parliament.

In his interview with Kommersant, Alexander Kozulin admitted that representatives of the opposition might be elected in the Parliament after all. But, in his opinion, charismatic leaders are unlikely to get there. Last week they speculated in Minsk that the Belarusian government has already decided on the list of opposition activists to get mandates.

All for Russia

Unlike the West, Moscow barely cares about complying with democratic procedures during the elections to the Belarusian Parliament. During his meeting with CEC Chief Lidia Yermoshina back on September 26, State Secretary of the Union State Pavel Borodin said that the currecnt elections are the most democratic. Expressing her gratitude, Ms Yermoshina presented him with an international monitor's certificate.

Like the West, Moscow has its own motives. Russia hoped that, following it, Belarus would recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, joining Russia proper and Nicaragua, which have already done it. According to the information of Kommersant, in exchange for his support, Moscow promised Alexander Lukashenko to reduce gas prices and give a long-term credit of $2 billion. However, Mr Lukashenko preferred to take his time. "I would like the new Parliament to articulate its stance (regarding the recognition of the two Caucasian republics - Kommersant)," President Lukashenko stated in his interview to western media on September 19. "Perhaps they will have other arguments and fact I am unaware of. They will come from the people. Maybe they can heed people's sentiments better than I do. Why should we hurry? Who needs that hastiness?" According to Alexander Lukashenko, even in Russia, which was the first to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, President Dmitry Medvedev signed corresponding decrees after both chambers of Parliament had thrashed it out.

For its part, Moscow wants Minsk to decide on the issue as soon as it can. "In our view, Belarus should sort out its relations with these enclaves," Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov has stated recently.

The decision Alexander Surikov presses for may be arrived at in the near future - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will pay a visit to Minsk on October 6.

Vladimir Solovyov; Yury Mironovich, Minsk



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