After weeks of delay, the first six observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe arrived in Minsk today to monitor the 9 September presidential elections. But as RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, the problems are far from over -- two monitors were earlier denied visas, and there are other obstacles that could prevent the poll from being free and fair.
Prague, 17 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is unlikely to encounter visa problems like this when he visits Belarus later this month.
The OSCE, which routinely monitors elections in a number of countries in transition in Central and Eastern Europe, were first barred from traveling to Belarus at the beginning of August. Observers from the organization's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) did not receive the necessary invitations and visas, despite assurances from Belarus officials they would be sent.
Last week the monitoring team again expected to depart for Minsk -- but once again the long-promised invitation and visas failed to materialize. The ODIHR warned that the credibility of the election result was now doubtful.
Invitations finally arrived two days ago (15 August), and today, the monitors received word from the Belarus embassies in Warsaw and Kyiv that the visas were finally ready. There was just one catch -- the Belarus Foreign Ministry, they were told, "was not giving clearance" to one American and one British monitor.
Branimir Radev is deputy head of the ODIHR's election section. He says the monitors who have arrived in Minsk will now have to hurry to prepare for the 9 September polling day:
"We have to do what we need to do in a much shorter time. We don't have a week to prepare to deploy our long-term observers from the ground. They don't have sufficient time to prepare. That is the time [indicated] by our standards before. Now we have to do that in a much shorter time."
Once they start their mission, the ODIHR and other monitors are unlikely to have an easy time of it.
The incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has made no secret of his contempt for the OSCE. He has accused them of siding with the opposition and of preparing what he called a "Kostunica" scenario, a reference to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who ousted Slobodan Milosevic last year on the back of popular protest.
Hrair Balian, who heads the monitoring operation, said yesterday that the OSCE will not be allowed to observe sessions of the Central Election Commission, which is staffed exclusively by supporters of Lukashenka. Nor will they be permitted close monitoring of the tabulation of results sent in by local polling offices. Balian said all these measures would restrict the OSCE's ability to say whether the election was democratic.
In another blow to independent monitors, the Belarus Justice Ministry said yesterday that exit polls are forbidden under the electoral code, punishable by prison sentences or several months' hard labor.
Radev says that the ODIHR does not conduct parallel counts or exit polls, but adds that such a restriction will seriously hamper the efforts of NGOs hoping to publish exit polls after voting has closed.
Since he was first elected president of Belarus in 1994, Lukashenka has ruled the country in an increasingly authoritarian manner. In 1996 he extended his term as president and dissolved parliament, and Western governments declared last year's parliamentary elections rigged.
Judging by past experience, next month's elections are shaping up according to a familiar pattern. On the face of it, Lukashenka's main opponent -- labor leader Uladzimir Hancharyk -- seems to be in a strong position, backed by four opposition leaders, who joined forces behind him in an effort to boost their chances of ousting Lukashenka.
Hancharyk, as head of the federation of trade unions, can theoretically count on the support of several million union members. And as the candidate backed by the coalition of opposition groups, he should be able to garner support from voters who would otherwise have backed the other candidates.
One, Syamyon Domash, registered as a contender in case Hancharyk ran into problems. Domash is expected to stand down in favor of Hancharyk soon, perhaps tomorrow when the coalition holds a meeting.
Still, Lukashenka's three challengers face substantial obstacles. Despite widespread hardship, support for Lukashenka is still high, particularly among older voters nostalgic for the Soviet Union and appreciative of a state-provided welfare safety net.
A decree limits foreign aid being used to support democracy. Protestors risk arrest or worse. And the offices of independent newspapers have repeatedly been the target of break-ins by unknown intruders.
Opposition leaders such as Anatol Lyabedzka have warned that falsifications could happen at so-called "pre-election" polls. Under this unusual arrangement, various state employees are meant to vote over a two-week period running up to 9 September. Since the economy is still overwhelmingly in state hands, a sizeable chunk of the electorate could vote this way.
With this as the backdrop to the election, Hancharyk is under no illusion about the size of the task ahead. Speaking after his registration earlier this week, Hancharyk said it was unlikely that the election would be democratic. But he added the opposition should be active in telling the people about the situation.
"Unfortunately, there are few grounds to hope that our election will be honest and fair. That is why we will be preparing ourselves for a difficult situation where we will have to take all measures which remain within the law, mainly in informing the population."
But even this is likely to prove difficult.
The four candidates have divided up media time for their political broadcasts. Domash will be the first of the opposition coalition to appear on television, early next week.
But the three weeks remaining before the election will have to make up for entire years where access has been denied. Even name recognition of the opposition candidates among the general public is limited.
Under such circumstances, the challenges facing election monitors seem especially steep. Radev, the deputy head of ODIHR, says he plans to travel to Minsk at the beginning of September -- if, he says, he gets a visa.
(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)