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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 14, 2006

14 February 2006, Volume 8, Number 6
MORE SIMULATED DEMOCRACY. Belarus will hold a presidential election on 19 March, in which incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is seeking a third consecutive term. Even the most optimistic among the opposition concede it is unlikely the Central Election Commission will announce anything but a landslide victory for the incumbent. Over the years of Lukashenka's rule, elections in Belarus have steadily evolved into mere exercises in simulated democracy.

On 8 February, Belarus' Central Election Commission said its territorial branches in Hrodna Oblast annulled ballot-access signatures collected for united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich in 10 of the oblast's 17 districts. According to the commission, more than 15 percent of signatures collected for Milinkevich in these districts were false or otherwise defective, which under electoral regulations in force disqualifies the lists altogether.

Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, Milinkevich's election team manager, said the annulment is a deliberate step by the authorities to discredit the united opposition candidate in his native region and undermine public trust in him. "We have Xerox copies of all signature lists and we are ready to check the authenticity of all the submitted signatures jointly with territorial election commissions, but have been told 'no' everywhere," he added.

Milinkevich reportedly submitted 198,000 signatures to support his presidential bid; that is, well in excess of the 100,000 required for his registration as a presidential candidate. But it's hard to say whether he is on the safe side during the ongoing checks of ballot-access signatures. If territorial commissions in Belarus's other five regions and the city of Minsk follow the example of those in Hrodna Oblast, he may simply be denied registration and eliminated from the presidential race.

The checking of signatures is only one stage of the tortuous process that opposition candidates face in order to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Since the opposition in Belarus has virtually no representatives in the power system, either at the central or regional level, it is completely at the mercy of the authorities, which not only set the rules of the electoral game but also interpret these rules in the way they want to. And no one can challenge these rules or their interpretations because there is no independent arbiter in the country. Belarus's judicial system is nothing more than a punishing arm of the executive.

Campaigning in Belarus is another problem. Campaigning is possible only after the registration of candidates, which is expected to take place close to 21 February, thus leaving the registered candidates only four weeks for promoting their bids among the electorate. Each of the registered candidates will obtain some $30,000 from the state to cover costs of his campaign. Exceeding this amount in campaign expenses is fraught with disqualification from the race.

Each of the candidates will also be offered two 30-minute appearances on state-run radio and another two on state-run television, where they may present their prerecorded addresses to voters. If radio and television authorities deem the addresses inappropriate, they may ban them from being aired. Given Belarus's tight antidefamation legislation and lax rules of official interpretation of what defamation is, it is hardly possible for independent candidates to criticize the government of President Lukashenka during these broadcasts. There is no legal possibility for presidential candidates to place election advertisements on state-run television and radio apart from the above-mentioned appearances.

Each of the registered candidates may also publish his election platform -- not exceeding 10,000 characters -- in seven nationwide state-run newspapers. And the Central Election Commission's Lidziya Yarmoshyna warned on 8 February that the candidates should not try to do so in non-state press. Yarmoshyna argued that giving a presidential candidate the opportunity to publish his articles in a non-state newspaper will be tantamount to providing illegal financial support, which in its turn may serve as a reason for the candidate's exclusion from the race.

And presidential candidates cannot meet with voters where they want. They may only meet at venues provided by local authorities. Of course, that's if the candidates are able to pay the rent without exceeding the authorized campaign fund.

Counting the ballots in Belarus is totally under the government's control. In theory, the electoral code allows political parties and nongovernmental organization to be represented on territorial election commissions. But in the practice of the past decade, the authorities did not let any meaningful group of opposition representatives or democratic-minded NGOs to participate in these commissions. This year they were extremely uncompromising -- out of 74,107 people selected for 6,586 precinct election commission, only two individuals represent the opposition parties.

Election observers, either international or domestic, do not add much to making the ballot counting more transparent and reliable -- observers are not allowed into the room where the process is taking place and may observe it only through an open door from an adjacent room. It has never happened in the past 10 years of Lukashenka's rule that the authorities allowed election monitors to recount the ballots at some precinct in order to compare their result with the official one. Indeed, even obtaining information about the number of eligible voters in a given precinct frequently proves to be an impossible task.

The strict campaign rules do not apply, of course, to the incumbent president. Lukashenka may advertise his presidential bid whenever and wherever he wants -- he may always claim that he speaks on election issues as the head of state, not as a presidential candidate. And he does not need to bother himself about his election fund. He simply does not have to pay for anything. And he may habitually call his political opponents "thugs" (otmorozki) on television and describe them as mercenaries of the West, without bothering himself about defamation laws.

However, what the authorities are really concerned about is election turnout. The government does everything possible to show that Lukashenka's policies enjoy wide and enthusiastic popular support. Therefore, casting ballots in Belarus actually begins six days before the voting day, and people are encouraged by the government to vote early. And on the voting day the authorities at many polling stations offer vodka and sausages as well as other consumer goods at discount prices.

A poll taken by the Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nationwide nearly 55 percent of Belarusians want to vote for Lukashenka and just 17 percent for Milinkevich. Practically, Lukashenka could win in a fully democratic ballot. But he has his own way of handling elections. His own pollster, the Institute for Social and Political Studies, immediately reacted by saying that in a poll it held in December, 77 percent of respondents said they wanted to vote for the incumbent. According to the presidential institute, support for any other presidential candidate did not exceed 2 percent. Some Belarusian independent observers, leaning on the experience of previous election campaigns in the country, have opined that 77 percent is the minimum that Lukashenka would tolerate to see as his result in the Central Election Commission's protocol after the 19 March vote. (Jan Maksymiuk)

OPPOSITION EMBRACES INTERNET, DESPITE DIGITAL DIVIDE. With newspapers, radio, and television under state control, the Belarusian opposition is using new technologies to get their message out -- in particular the Internet. All the candidates campaigning in the 19 March presidential election have launched websites, with many users taking part in online discussions. However, these new forms of campaigning have trouble reaching remote locations with no Internet access -- the very places where the most committed supporters of incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are often to be found.

The Internet is becoming an important weapon in the hands of the Belarusian opposition. All four of the candidates for the March presidential election -- including incumbent President Lukashenka -- have launched campaign websites.

Syarhey Vaznyak heads the press office of the united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. He says Milinkevich's website was launched in November last year and attracts more than 1,000 visitors every day:

"News about the [presidential campaign] is constantly updated; [there is also] information about Milinkevich. There is a section on the activities of the campaign's staff," Vaznyak says. "We [also] have a section where people's opinions about Milinkevich are presented. People can also ask questions and Milinkevich answers then [online.] We [also] have various video clips [on the website.]"

Vaznyak says the Internet is more important as a campaign tool than the previous presidential election of 2001. Then, he says, only 2 percent of the population had access to the Internet. The figure now is more like 15 percent.

Aleh Manayeu, an independent sociologist from Minsk, agrees. He says that without a doubt Internet will play a significant role in future election campaigns. This, he says, is only a matter of time as research clearly shows the growing popularity of new media.

"According to the latest data, nearly one-quarter -- some 23-24 percent -- [of Belarusians use the Internet]. Half of them do it on a regular basis," Manayeu says. "That means around 12 percent [of Belarusians] are regular [Internet] users. By saying on a regular basis, I mean several times a week."

But the opposition has found that Internet campaigning has a number of drawbacks -- not least Belarus's "digital divide."

Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Minsk-based Strategy political analysis center, says it is mainly opposition supporters and people who live in urban areas who usually visit Belarusian independent Internet sites: "The Internet is used mainly by democratically orientated people, people who [already] support the opposition's values. It is natural that these people are visiting the sites of the candidates. They are looking for their programs and so on and so forth. But to tell the truth these people do not need to be converted [to the opposition's cause]."

Polls indicate that the majority of those who support Lukashenka are pensioners and people who live in villages or small towns -- a group often far removed from modern technologies. According to a 2001 Internet user survey, the vast majority of Internet users at the time were based in Minsk, under the age of 30, and had slow connections. The situation is not radically different today.

However, patchy Internet penetration is not the only obstacle to the opposition getting its message out. There are also the more traditional phenomena of political fatigue and apathy.

Kiryl Paznyak, the editor in chief of "Belorusskie novosti," says he thinks that society is tired of politics. "Political activity has decreased in Belarus. There are several reasons for that and the main reason is political, when people feel repression, pressure. People are simply afraid," Paznyak says. "On the other hand, people say frankly that they are disappointed in the opposition and see no real way of changing the situation in the country."

And he says those who have Internet often surf the web for reasons other than to find political information. He also points out that Russian websites are very popular in Belarus.

There is also the role of the authorities in clamping down on opposition-minded websites. During the 2001 presidential election campaign and referendum of 2004, opposition websites were often blocked.

Many within the Belarusian opposition expect this to happen again. But opposition press officer Vaznyak says the authorities do not have a clearly defined practice of Internet censorship. Until now, Vaznyak says, Milinkevich's site has had no problems.

And what if the opposition deems the elections to be phony? Vaznyak says that Milinkevich's team plans to use text messages to "mobilize voters" if the elections are forged: "It doesn't matter in our country what people will vote for. It is likely, as former [election] campaigns indicate, that the Central Election Commission will announce figures, which do not reflect reality. I think that people will use SMS messages to mobilize society to defend their choice."

But with President Lukashenka still topping the polls nationwide, an "SMS Revolution" is probably unlikely. Despite all the new technology, politicians in Belarus are still relying on old-fashioned campaigning. Or, as Vaznyak says, the most important thing is still getting out on the campaign trail and meeting with people. (Valentinas Mite)