Revolution, reform or stagnation?
(06/12-2010) -On the surface we have been seeing a different kind of Lukashenko the last few months, with less tension, repressions and sense of intimidation, both Tatiana Reviaka and Pavel Sheremet noted during the seminar at the House of Literature.
"But have no doubt about it," they added, "Lukashenko is under hard pressure and this is his strategy to gain the recognition of the European Union who has promised a 3 billion Euro contribution in exchange for 'democratic elections.'" The two experts, Tatiana Reviaka, deputy director of the Belarusian human rights organization ”Viasna,”and Pavel Sheremet, a well known Russia-based journalist, author and analytic, were invited by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee to analyze the prospects of the upcoming presidential elections on 19 December, at a seminar on 3 December 2010.
Tatiana Reviaka compared favorably the atmosphere to that of the 2006 elections when arrests and beatings of activists occurred almost daily. However, Reviaka saw this liberalization as a cosmetic one, and claimed it does not entail a deeper and lasting reform in Lukashenko’s regime. She believes that the mobilization of presidential administrative resources and control of the counting process will ensure the incumbent president from around 70 to 75% of votes in December elections. She reminded the audience how the European Union in 2006 presented a list of 12 conditions on improvement of the human rights situation in Belarus for increased dialogue and cooperation with EU. Some of the conditions have been partially fulfilled, but most of the problems prevail. Despite this, the EU increased it's dialogue already in 2008. She mentioned, for example, that one of the conditions was to release all political prisoners. While they were freed, political activitists have been newly imprisoned since then. As to freedom of expression, registration of a couple of independent newspapers does not change very much, especially as restrictions on the free use of the internet are introduced shortly after.
Pavel Sheremet observed a new style from Lukashenko: Although in spring we saw signs that made us brace ourselves for increased pressure, we have seen the opposite. He related this to Lukashenko's difficulties with the Russian leadership since this summer. The damage is beyond full repair; Russia is fed up and does not want to have Lukashenko in power. Lukashenko can no longer count on favors from Russia, and this will affect Belarus deeply. Lukashenko is weakened, people are psychologically tired of his regime. But the opposition in Belarus is weak, there is no unity, which in Sheremet's opinion is a betrayal of the country's liberal opposition. Also, in Sheremet's opinion none of the current opposition candidates are a credible alternative to Lukashenko for the Russians. Lukashenko, by registering nine opposition candidates, tries to wash out the opposition "in the sea of ambitious persons". Nevertheless, Lukashenko is afraid of mobilization, again a reason for avoiding too heavy-handed prosecutions.
-With Lukashenko’s ratings as low as never before, his deteriorating relationship with Russia and an apparent slight liberalization of the last year – there could seem to be a chance for the opposition to seize the opportunity and bring about the long awaited regime change, Sheremet said. - Instead, the few prominent opposition leaders are too busy pursuing personal ambitions and playing intricate political games. The main question on their agenda, according to Pavel Sheremet, seems to be the rivalry over the leadership of the Belarusian opposition after the election. Alexander Milinkevich, the leader of Belarus’ main opposition movement the United Democratic Forces of Belarus in 2006 elections has decided not to put forward his candidacy.
On the other hand, the incumbent president has regained control over the security services and is determined to show to the West his good will in holding democratic elections. A record number of ten candidates were allowed to register. With this amount, simple mathematical calculations inevitably point to the necessity of holding the second round of elections, as the winner of the elections must have more than 50% of the votes. The human rights organizations monitoring the election campaigns claim, however, that at least three of the registered opposition candidates did not manage to collect the necessary 100 000 signatures to be registered.
Both Ms. Reviaka and Mr. Sheremet agree on the necessity of a second round of voting, if the election results should have any chance of reflecting the true situation and the will of the people. Both also agreed on the importance of Russia’s recognizing elections results as crucial for Lukashenko’s chances to stay in power after December. Advances in the relationship with the European Union are seen as important, but not decisive. Ms. Reviaka expressed her disappointment with the increasing “commercializing” of the dialogue between the Belarus leadership and the European Union, which acquired a very negative quid pro quo form. And even though the pro-Russian or pro-Western orientation remained one of the dividing issues, staying a stable 50/50 for the last two decades, the majority of Belarusians will most likely associate and lean towards the historical ties with their eastern neighbor, not to mention the dependence of the Belarus economy and it’s industries on financial injections and the Russian market.
It is of upmost importance that the European Union not recognize these elections as democratic, especially not without a second round of voting, the two experts urged.