OSCE criticises Belarusian elections

By Rikard Jozwiak

'Wind of change' in the environment fails to bring transparency to Belarus's parliamentary elections, monitors say.

Belarus's parliamentary elections, in which the opposition failed to win any of the 110 contested districts, failed to meet international standards, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said today.

The organisation, which deployed more than 450 observers from 43 countries, said that the election campaign was "generally well conducted", but said that standards during the casting and counting of votes were far poorer, with the counting process assessed as bad or very bad in 48% of polling stations visited. OSCE monitors were also prevented from observing the vote count in 35% of cases.

The head of the OSCE election observation mission, Geert Ahrens, said he was "hopeful and disappointed at the same time. Hopeful because when we came here it seemed that there was some wind of change in the election environment; disappointed because we were unable to see a problem solved that has been with election observation in this country for a long time, and that is the non-transparency of the vote count."

The OSCE noted some small advances: opposition representatives had been given slightly greater access to election commissions and that the electoral authorities had sealed ballot box slots overnight during the five-day early voting period. Opposition candidates had also been able to meet without interference and their parties had been allowed one five-minute broadcast on TV.

Not a single of the 97 opposition candidates running in the election did however manage to get more than 20% of the vote in any of district, reflecting the lack of media access and the in-built political advantages enjoyed by Lukashenka's regime.

Opponents of the regime were able to demonstrate in central Minsk after the elections, and security forces avoided the scenes of violent crackdowns and mass arrests that have marred previous election campaigns.

Geopolitics and the elections

In the run-up to the election, there was considerable anticipation that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, dubbed 'the last dictator of Europe', would allow these elections to be freer than any others in his 14-year rule. Those hopes were nourished by Lukashenka's decision to release from prison a former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin and the political activists Andrey Kim and Syarhey Parsyukevich. Lukashenka had also resisted Russian requests that it follow their lead by recognising the independence of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, something that would complicate the EU's efforts in the Caucasus and relations with Belarus even further.

Ties between Belarus and the EU have been very poor for many years and hit an all-time low after the rigged presidential election in 2006, which prompted the EU to impose a visa ban on Lukashenka and other senior officials in his regime. Lukashenka has for some time been keen on having the ban lifted. He has also moved significantly towards more market-based economic policies.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, avoided outright condemnation of the Belarusian authorities' conduct in the elections, restricting herself to saying that the OSCE had noted "a number of negative elements" and that "it is important now for the EU to reflect on how best we can engage with Belarus, its government and people".

However, it is likely that flawed nature of the election will ensure that there are no quick changes to the status quo. According to sources, there had been a possibility that Belarusian Foreign Minister Serhiy Martynov could be invited to meet his EU counterparts at their regular meeting, scheduled for 13 October in Brussels. That, though, will now not happen, they suggested.

Some EU member states may, though, argue for some sign of greater openness to Belarus, in part out of concern that Belarus might once again edge closer towards Russia. As the winter approaches and the prospect of fresh increases in Russian energy, there is also the fear that the new parliament in Minsk will recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as states.



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