The EU should not recognise elections in Belarus


EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - After the war in Georgia last month, geopolitics have returned fast to the heart of foreign affairs in Europe. Belarus' parliamentary election last Sunday became more interesting than past elections under President Lukashenko, which were never remotely competitive.

Mr Lukashenko appeared to be interested in some warming of relations with the EU, rather than relying exclusively on Russian backing. As a condition for better relations, the EU wanted to see an improvement in the conduct of elections. They were encouraged when Mr Lukashenko started the electoral process by pardoning three political prisoners in August. However, the observers of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) found little to cheer in these elections. Indeed, it appears that pardoning the prisoners was the end rather than the beginning of an opening towards more democracy.

Pro-democracy protestor in Minsk - the EU should not sell out its values for short term gains (Photo:

"Elections are not decided on election day only," is what EU observers rightly stress when monitoring elections around the world. The best election day is of little value if there has been no free campaigning, while the most competitive campaigning cannot make an election democratic if there is no transparent and honest accounting of votes, as recently demonstrated in Kenya and Nigeria.

The Belarusian elections looked spoilt before they even started. An election may have been taking place, but there was no visible competition going on. "Extremely low key throughout Belarus" is how the OSCE politely described the campaign. What it means concretely to silence an opposition can be seen in the media monitoring data from the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

State TV's Nashi Nosti news programme gave 40 percent of its coverage to sports and 36 percent to the weather, leaving 23 percent to election subjects. Of these, 82 percent were given to the president and 2.8 percent to political parties without naming names - the candidates remained anonymous. Their only chance of visibility was a five-minute spot of free airtime on TV.

The suffocation of political life can also be seen in the numbers. On average, fewer than three candidates competed for any seat in parliament, and more than a fifth of the nominated candidates were rejected by the electoral administration. Some of these were considered to be promising opposition candidates.

Apart from technical shortcomings detailed by the OSCE, the most worrying problem was the lack of transparency in the counting of votes and the aggregation of results from various polling stations. As Josef Stalin infamously noted about these vital aspects of the process: "It does not matter who votes. What matters is who counts."

The OSCE reported that a third of its observers were not allowed to observe counting, while those who were able to observe noted a "bad or very bad" process in 48 percent of the cases. The EU does not even deploy its own election observation missions if there are no guarantees that counting can be observed.

The Belarusian authorities claimed that there was more transparency, because the opposition was allowed to appoint more polling station officials than before. More maybe, but only 43 opposition nominees were accepted, with almost 70,000 polling station officials across the country. Lacking transparency, the electoral arrangements are perfectly suited to produce any result that may be considered politically expedient. According to initial results no opposition candidate won a seat.

The OSCE concluded that "there were some minor improvements, which could indicate a step forward. But these elections ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections." Minor improvements and it is not even clear whether they were a step forward - the assessment leaves no room for diplomatic interpretation.

The EU should not recognise these elections in any form and resist the temptation to trade its soft power as a promoter of democracy for geopolitical short-term gains. It should not apply lower standards to a neighbouring country than to the rest of the world. Dozens of ex-Communist countries have made huge efforts in order to establish democratic elections and it would undermine these efforts to give any recognition to the minuscule steps that Belarus has taken recently.

A loss of the EU's democratic credibility in the East would be worse than some more years of frosty relations with Belarus.

Michael Meyer-Resende co-ordinates Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting democracy



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