Postscript: Belarusians Go To the Polls

Postscript: Belarusians Go To the Polls

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka is expected to sweep polls March 19 in a presidential election few anticipate will be free or fair.

Last updated June 15, 2006 8:00 am (EST)

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(Editor’s Note: Official results of the March 19 election in Belarus gave a victory to incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka with over 80 percent of the vote. Opposition candidates Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kazulin received 6 and 2 percent respectively. The vote was followed by several days of rallying in central Minsk in defiance of state orders to refrain from such demonstrations. After four days, Belarusian police moved in and arrested hundreds of those remaining in the city’s central square. The United States and the European Union condemned the vote and instituted a travel ban on Lukashenka and other top officials. On June 7, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued its final report, concluding the presidential campaign failed to meet its standards for a democratic election. Russia, however, praised the vote and congratulated Lukashenka.)

The following is the text of’s guide to the election, published on March 14, 2006.

On March 19, Belarusians are widely expected to reelect for a third time in presidential elections ( Alexander Lukashenka, whose regime has been labeled Europe’s last outpost of tyranny by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A wave of arrests, crackdowns on media and civil-society groups, and disappearances has earned Belarus a place on the 2005 list of the world’s most repressive societies, as judged by human rights monitor Freedom House. Yet in this self-isolated country of 10 million people, tucked between Poland and Russia, there are small but growing signs of civil unrest in the air. The opposition has rallied around a single candidate. Polls show Lukashenka’s popularity slipping, however slightly. And a string of recent peaceful uprisings in Belarus’ neighborhood has instilled hopes for what some have already dubbed the "denim revolution," named for the jeans worn by some in silent protest.

What will be the likely outcome of the election?

Lukashenka, who held a referendum last year to eliminate presidential term limits, should coast to an easy victory, experts predict. Official polls place his popularity as high as 70 percent, though a Vilnius-based Gallup/Baltic survey in January found his approval ratings to be just 55 percent. Experts say these statistics should be revised downward by several percentage points to account for the "fear factor" among many Belarusian voters. Lukashenka must win at least 50 percent of the vote to avoid an electoral runoff. The leading opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, still only enjoys single-digit support.

Some experts, however, say Lukashenka’s popularity may be waning. "There’re some cracks in the edifice," says Celeste Wallander, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia Program. "Even within the leadership, some are questioning [his legitimacy]." Others credit Milinkevich’s successfully run campaign. "It’s entirely possible a united opposition would get 30 [percent] to 35 percent," says Robert Legvold, professor of political science at Columbia University and co-editor of Belarus at the Crossroad.

What explains Lukashenka’s high approval ratings?

Partly economic reasons, partly reasons related to Lukashenka’s tight control of the media, experts say. Lukashenka, a former collective farm manager, has kept Belarusians largely isolated but has also kept the economy generally stable. Unemployment, as high as 20 percent in Poland, is officially under 2 percent in Belarus. Monthly wages are over $200, up 33 percent from 2004. And gross domestic product (GDP) doubled between 2002 and 2005. Pensions remain high, by East European standards, and streets are kept immaculately clean. But Lukashenka’s reported popularity, experts say, is due more to his clampdown on freedoms of expression and the use of propaganda than to economic indicators. These factors have created a climate of fear, redolent of former Soviet Union: "Fear in Belarus is pervasive," wrote Steven Lee Myers recently in the New York Times Magazine. "Fear of the police, fear of the secret service, fear of the bureaucracy at work or school that punishes any sign of antigovernment activity."

Is the election expected to be free and fair?

No. Belarusian authorities have censored the independent press, barred demonstrations, harassed opposition leaders, and shut down a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), according to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 Human Rights Report. On March 2, opposition candidate Alexander Kozulin was reportedly severely beaten by security agents and briefly detained after trying to enter the People’s Assembly in Minsk. Authorities say he pushed a policeman. "The Belarusian regime has learned the lessons of [Ukraine’s 2004] Orange Revolution quite well: to retain their grip on power, they must eliminate independent political and social forces, and restrict information that might lead citizens to question their government’s policies," Wallander said in her March 9 testimony before the U.S. Senate.

Who is running for president?

Besides Lukashenka, there are two main candidates. The opposition has been criticized in the past for its disorganization and inability to unite behind a single candidate, which has splintered its support in previous elections. The candidates are:

  • Alexander Milinkevich. Last October, the Congress of Belarusian Democratic Forces’ 800 delegates nominated Milinkevich, a physics professor and relative newcomer to Belarusian politics. His door-to-door campaign throughout Belarus’ countryside has boosted his approval ratings among rural and older Belarusians who traditionally support Lukashenka. "He has managed to unite what has always been a very disunited opposition," Legvold says. "He counts on word-of-mouth. He meets with small numbers of people and creates this buzz." He is calling for greater openness in government, future membership in the European Union and World Trade Organization, and less integration with Russia, including blocking a proposed political and customs union. Milinkevich does not support membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), preferring to maintain Belarus’ neutrality.
  • Alexander Kozulin. Leader of the Social Democratic Party and former academic, Kozulin, fifty, made headlines after being beaten and taken into custody by security agents earlier this month. Kozulin and Milinkevich have clashed in the past, but immediately upon being released from detention, Kozulin, in an act of solidarity, attended a pro-Milinkevich rally. In general, Kozulin is much more vociferous in his opposition to Lukashenka; he reportedly smashed a picture of the president while in detention at the police station.

Have civil society groups been active in the election process?

In general, yes. Experts say these groups are taking more risks and becoming technologically more advanced and organized. "They’re pretty savvy about how they disperse knowledge and power," Wallander says. "There’s lots of organizing via text-messaging [on mobile phones]." She also points to the spread of pro-democracy youth movements, including Zubr (Bison), as a positive sign of pro-democracy growth in Belarus. "I was struck...that there’s a vibrant civil society there, despite the very best efforts of the Belarusian government to suppress it," said David Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, talking to reporters on March 2. NGOs, including opposition news agency Charter 97, have increasingly taken to forms of silent protest by organizing monthly vigils by candlelight—always the sixteenth of every month—to honor those disappeared, imprisoned for political reasons, or killed, as well as urging supporters to wear denim on this day as a show of solidarity.

What is the likelihood of a revolution occurring in Belarus?

Not very likely, experts say. Lukashenka is not expected to tolerate the kind of grassroots protests that followed unfair elections in Georgia or Ukraine. "Any attempt to destabilize the situation will be met with drastic action," the president said in a January 27 television interview. Unlike Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, in Belarus there is neither access to independent media by opposition groups nor any domestic oligarchs to provide these groups or candidates with additional funding. Further, there is no incumbent stepping down in Belarus as there was in Ukraine.

What’s the significance of Belarus’ election for Russia?

Russia is motivated mostly by military and economic interests. Belarus acts as an important buffer of sorts between Russia and the European Union. Earlier this year Russia announced a new airbase to be built on Belarusian soil. And both countries’ security forces continue to carry out joint military exercises. Russia also subsidizes Belarus’ economy by roughly $2 billion per year. Besides being its largest trading partner, Russia supplies Belarus with discounted gas—$46 per 1,000 cubic meters (cm), compared with $95 per 1,000 cm in Ukraine. But Russia and Belarus disagree on a number of issues as well. Russian businessmen, seeking more customers and markets to invest in, have pressed Minsk to privatize its economy. Relations between Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin have never been warm. Still, Russia does not support regime change and is generally suspicious of the West’s pro-democracy efforts in Belarus.

What leverage do Europe and the United States have on Belarus’ government?

"Our leverage is not enormous," says the State Department’s Kramer. U.S. involvement consists mostly of publicly criticizing Lukashenka’s regime and supporting independent NGOs and media groups. The Bush administration, which has made democracy-promotion the cornerstone of its foreign policy, ratcheted up its rhetoric against Lukashenka’s regime last spring, when Secretary Rice met with opposition leaders in Vilnius. Funding for democracy-promotion in Belarus has increased to roughly $12 million in 2006 from about $11 million in 2005. And in October 2004, Congress passed into law the Belarus Democracy Act, which denies all U.S. investment or loans to Lukashenka’s regime with the exception of humanitarian assistance. This past February, President Bush met with the wives of two Belarusian dissidents who disappeared. And after Kozulin was beaten up in March, Kramer warned Minsk that "should there be incidents like there were today, there will be consequences."

Belarus, given its geographic proximity, is particularly important to the European Union (EU). The EU accounts for 36 percent of Belarusian exports, second only to Russia, and has threatened to impose economic sanctions if Belarus’ March 19 elections are not free or fair. Brussels has also launched a series of soft-diplomacy programs in Belarus, including a recent $2.4 million program to promote independent media in Belarus. Radio Racja, a Polish-funded radio station, began broadcasting in early February. Poland and Belarus have had testy relations, most recently over Belarus’ treatment of its Polish minority community. But Europe and the United States could do more, Wallander says, by providing easier visa access for Belarusians who wish to work or study abroad. Conversely, Europe and the United States could deny visa access to Belarusian officials accused of human rights abuses and freeze their foreign assets. Similar efforts in Ukraine were effective, she says, in the run-up to its November 2004 presidential elections. Wallander also recommends an international investigation into Belarus’ disappearances, killings, and other human rights abuses.

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