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Human Rights

Belarus Heads for Election, not Democracy

WARSAW, Sep 10 2012 (IPS) - Belarusians will vote for a new, but still regime-controlled parliament on Sep. 23. At least those who do not respond to calls for boycotting the poll.

The opposition is far from united in their positions on the election: some are campaigning, some boycotting, others plan to pull out right before voting day. But all are agreed that the election process is being rigged.

The seats, dissidents believe, will again be distributed according to the will of president Alexander Lukashenko who has ruled the nation of 10 million since 1994, earning the title “Europe’s last dictator”. The parliament in Belarus, as in most autocracies, has in any case very little say.

The election campaign started Aug. 22. The registration process ended the same day. Every fourth contender has been denied the right to run.

The election commissions registered most opposition candidates, but banned the most popular – on the ground of alleged irregularities in their financial disclosure, or claims that some of the signatures on their supporters’ lists were forged.

“Registration has been denied to those who would run till the end with a fair chance to win,” analyst Valery Karbalevich tells IPS.

Among the excluded are Aleksander Milinkevich, leader of For Freedom movement, a former Lukashenko rival in the presidential race, Anatol Liaukovich, former leader of the Belarusian Social-Democratic Party and Mikhail Pashkevich from ‘Tell the Truth!’.

Some popular dissidents are still in jail, like Mikola Statkievich who was sentenced for six years for “driving riots” on Dec. 19 2010 – the day of the rigged presidential election. An estimated 20,000 protesters assembled in the main square of capital Minsk on that day, leading to a massive crackdown against opponents of the regime.

Some opposition members cannot run because of their suspended sentences. Others fled abroad, such as Ales Mikhalevich, another presidential candidate, who was arrested and charged for organising riots.

Mikhalevich was released after two months in jail and said he and other political prisoners had been tortured. He escaped the country soon after, and has been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic.

This has not deterred him from trying to run for parliament. Members of the civic initiative ‘Freedom for Mikalai Statkevich and other political prisoners’ put forward candidatures of Statkievich and Mikhalevich. But the concerned election commission derided the move as “PR action aimed at gaining them prominence,” and said “there is no legal ground” to nominate them.

IPS asked Ales Mikhalevich whether he believes the opposition will manage to enter parliament at all. “Probably not,” he said. “The mechanism of vote rigging is well oiled. To quote Joseph Stalin: ‘It’s not the people who vote that count; it’s the people who count the votes’.”

Among 68,945 members of the election commissions charged with vote counting less than 0.1 percent are from the opposition, fewer than in the last parliamentary election in 2008. The 279 registered candidates then included 70 critics of the regime – none of who gained a seat.

But Mikhalevich says boycotting would be a mistake. “The Opposition should run to show that our candidates are of better quality than those of the regime.” The Lukashenko administration has put forward mostly elderly officials and security apparatus members.

Independent opinion polls give the president 25-35 percent of support, mostly among villagers and pensioners. But that does not mean that the rest are ready to support opposition, let alone fight the regime.

Interest in the election is close to zero. “None of my friends plan to go to the ballot,” Alexei, a 26-year-old doctoral student from Minsk told IPS. “Not because we are boycotting; we just don’t care about politics. This election is not going to bring any change.”

Divisions in the opposition movement are playing further into the hands of the regime.

“By persecuting some opponents while offering preferential treatment to others, Lukashenko is skillfully playing his critics,” said Mikhalevich.

Although confident of victory, Lukashenko still seems to be nervous, mostly over the prospect of widespread boycott.

In a speech Sep. 1 he criticised those who shun electoral confrontation. “Had it been the actual opposition, they would have struggled to the very end for power, for the nation’s interests,” he said. “But this is the fifth column, they act for the benefit of certain powers, some of which are located outside our country.”

Another sign of the regime’s nervousness are recent arrests of administrators of political social media groups – especially those calling for boycott.

On Aug. 30 law enforcement officers in Minsk and Vitsebsk detained four moderators of two pro-opposition groups. One of them had said bluntly, “We’ve had enough of Lukashenko” – on the Russian social network

Investigators physically abused the moderators in a bid to obtain the password of the group they administer. “I was taken to the living room and tortured for an hour for the password. They hit me in the head, chest and stomach,” Pavel Yeutsikhiyeu reported.

Among them, Yeutsikhiyeu and Andrey Tkachou got five and seven days in jail, respectively, on charges of petty hooliganism. Others were released after a few hours.

The human rights group Viasna reported on Aug. 31 that access to the pro-opposition news websites Charter97 and BelPartizan had been blocked. Much of the content was removed.

“As usual, the regime is preparing for the elections with an all-out crackdown,” Reporters Without Borders declared. “The judicial harassment of journalists and Internet users critical of the government has just one aim – to keep them under pressure and make them feel permanently threatened.”

The authorities are meanwhile engaged in building pro-government websites, some defaming opposition members. None has gained much popularity.

Many people believe Lukashenko will stay in power for the next two decades, then hand the government to his son Kola, now eight years old.

Mikhalevich predicts “a revolt inside the state apparatus which might open the doors of change.

“To me a Ceasusescu scenario seems probable,” he said, referring to Romanian head of state Nicolae Ceausescu who was overthrown and executed following a televised two-hour court session in 1989.

“I believe Belarusians have already grown to democracy,” he said. “They just don’t want to fight for it.”

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