Political Promise

Belarus, Russia and the EU: an awkward festive gathering

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Mark Stewart writes about the “last dictator of Europe” and his recent election ‘victory’.Writing of the Belarus presidential election, David Marples, stated that “neither the United States, nor the EU, nor the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) recognised the election as free and fair. The opposition camps were depleted by arrests of leading figures… Altogether, the authorities arrested over 600 people for protesting the results.”

Marples could have been writing about the election of December 2010; yet he was not. His statement referred to the election of 2006. In that time, President Lukashenko’s vote has fallen from a mighty 83% to a merely lofty 79.65%. In 2006 the leading opposition candidate received 6.1% of the popular vote, compared to 2.43% in 2010. The OSCE noted that, while “some specific” improvements have been made, Belarus still has quite a distance to go in democratising its electoral proceedings. The decline in both his own support and opposition support will barely worry a president determined to remain all powerful (the presidential two-term limit is but Belarusian constitutional history); a decline that is barely worth mentioning. The president himself, speaking of the EU’s observations, stated on the 21st of December 2010 that this election “is a considerable step forward compared to the 2006 election.” It almost sounds like an acknowledgement of what actually happens, but a decrease in support of around 4% will barely be enough to satisfy EU demands for free and fair elections. What happened in 2006 has seemingly happened once again in 2010. Progress is not an applicable term.

Often called Europe’s last dictator and the continents longest serving president, Lukashenko reigns supreme in Belarusian affairs. A loyal security service assists in maintaining absolute power, gate-crashing opposition protests time and again. These protests are disregarded by the incumbent president as being “unsanctioned” and attended by “bandits.” A cloud of fear is hung over the opposition.

For the 2010 election, all candidates were allocated air-time and media space to put forward their electoral platform. This, predictably, fell outside the boundaries of fairness as considered by the OSCE’s media monitoring. The OSCE’s initial findings noted that while the president’s message was front-page news, opposition candidates were consigned to the inner-pages. The state owned television channel was found to have shown the president’s activities for over eight hours; opposition candidates, as a whole, received just 32 minutes. Along with the noted bias towards the president, opposition candidates were mostly portrayed negatively or, at best, in neutral terms during editorial footage. Within existing Belarusian legal frameworks, election results cannot be appealed. Politically and legally, the odds are stacked against the opposition.

In recent years, the EU has made moves towards better relations with Belarus. Such improvements in are, naturally, dependent on the creation of a more free and fair political system. Belarus traditionally enjoys support – however apathetic – from the Russia. This historic bond has been fostered within Belarus as a way of ensuring that Belarus sides with east over west. For example, Lukashenko himself opposed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and, as Marples notes in his journal article, many themes from the Soviet era are maintained in modern Belarus: themes not so helpful are quietly ignored. The motivation of the EU moving towards Belarus is perhaps in part down to Russia cutting energy subsidies to Belarus by up to ten times in recent years. Harsh words were exchange between Minsk and Moscow over the supply of energy. Perhaps the EU saw an opening, a small vulnerability in a seemingly unbreakable partnership. Energy independence is a wish of Belarus and this could have been used by the EU as a way of bringing them around towards the idea (or ideal) of ‘European democratic values’. Effectively, the EU’s method of persuasion could have went as far as assisting Belarus in achieving its aim in return for reform deemed acceptable by Europe. This has been a main theme for the EU since the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe: where the Russians leave, the EU enters. While this is perhaps fanciful in the case of Belarus, any inroads whatsoever would be a massive step forward in moving Belarus towards Europe.

The EU itself states it is “ready to deepen its relations” with Belarus but that “the success of progress in the EU/Belarus relationship is conditional upon steps by Belarus towards.. the fundamental European values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” Prior to the 2010 election, the Polish Foreign Minister stated that Belarus could receive over £2bn of aid should the election be free and fair. It has since been stated that “the EU and the United States recognise the serious problems with the electoral process.” The rhetoric from the EU has hardened and will continue along a similar vein until such time as major progress is noted by the EU in the politics and the attitude towards civil society and human rights in Belarus.

The gap between Belarus and the EU grew inversely to President Lukashenko’s margin of victory last week. A smaller margin of victory, a more favourable analysis from OSCE observers or the allowing of a protest in Minsk as the results became clear (as much as they can be within the system) may have seen ties become more close and warmer (at the very least, the EU would have been kept interested in pursuing its own interests in the state). In reality, the words from the EU High Representative and the US Secretary of State are as cold as the recently passed arctic weather. In the immediate aftermath of the election results, the Belarus Telegraph Agency reported numerous deals with Russia over future economic matters (such as gas prices and overall predicted trade levels in 2011). On the 23rd of December, the Russian ambassador to Belarus – Alexander Surikov – stated of Russian-Belarusian relations on the same news source that “we are one people, and we share a common destiny. Even when public rhetoric becomes heated, the leaders of Russia and Belarus will not abandon those positions.” Seemingly, two is company and three’s a crowd.

The ‘colour revolutions’ of the past decade saw many former communist-bloc nations opened up to the European Union and all its benefits. The western frontier of the former Soviet Union and its once mighty reach are all now within the EU’s borders. Many other nations in the eastern Europe region – such as the Ukraine – are now within the EU’s sphere of influence thanks to the EU Eastern Partnership. Expansion, while not on the EU’s agenda, is very much on the agenda of many nations now sitting on the wrong side of the EU border (and its vast development funds, I hasten to add – the European Partnership isn’t quite as fruitful economically as full EU membership is). It is very clear that Belarus sees itself allied with Russia in its future rather than Europe. The offer of aid from the EU will now certainly be revoked – if it was a serious offer initially – and further harsh EU criticism is inevitable while presidential candidates and protestors remain imprisoned. The gap between what Lukashenko classes as a “considerable step” and what the EU will consider that to mean is as far and wide as Europe itself . A more free election would have been simply a small step forwards in relations between Belarus and Europe. But many small steps can soon equate to a large distance: it just wasn’t to be in 2010.


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