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What Do Belarus's Elections Mean For The Opposition?

A Minsk polling station

A Minsk polling station

The official outcome of Belarus's parliamentary elections, in which the Central Election Commission says the opposition did not win a single seat, poses difficult dilemmas for both the Belarusian opposition and its Western partners.

Political opponents will have to figure out how to survive under the circumstances of its increasing marginalization by the authorities and voters alike.

For its part, the West will have to determine whether it still wishes to support the apparently ineffective opposition or, alternatively, to open a dialogue with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who recently signaled a willingness to warm frozen relations with the European Union and the United States.

Opposition candidate Anatol Lyabedzka, head of the United Civic Party, told journalists on September 29 that the election was a sham and that the authorities did not even bother to count the ballots.

"Lukashenka is thinking about the presidential-election campaign in 2011," Lyabedzka said. "If he had met some European demands halfway during these polls, he would have created problems and difficulties for the vote count in the presidential campaign."

Within 24 hours of the polling, a preliminary verdict on the elections was delivered by a mission of observers sent to the Belarusian elections by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

The mission said the elections "ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections" despite "minor improvements." According to the preliminary report, the vote was "generally well conducted, but the process deteriorated considerably during the vote count." The report specifies that election monitors were hindered from seeing the vote count in 35 percent of cases and when they were present, "several cases of deliberate falsification of results were observed."

A protester in Minsk late on Election Day
The opposition initially planned a boycott of the voting but it eventually changed its mind after persuasion from its Western partners, who wanted opposition candidates to compete in the elections. That persuasion was reinforced by rumors that the West made a secret deal with Lukashenka wherein he would allow some opposition candidates to win seats in the legislature.

"I think what is taking place now offers evidence of the mistake that since February has been increasingly made by Europe, which hopes that it will succeed in recasting Lukashenka," Vintsuk Vyachorka, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, said, blaming the West for what he sees as a mistaken perception of the situation in Belarus.

Possible Responses

Regardless of whether Vyachorka is right, supporting the opposition and isolating the ruling regime may not be the only option in the West's dealings with Belarus.

Opposition activist Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was released from prison in August with two other political prisoners under pressure from the West, told journalists on election day that he does not believe the further isolation of Lukashenka can be productive.

The negative assessment of the elections by the OSCE monitors, even if it blocks any meaningful Western contacts with Lukashenka, would hardly help the Belarusian opposition to promote its cause in the country.

Belarusian political commentator Vital Tsyhankou has suggested that the flawed elections provide a "moral" excuse for the Belarusian opposition's political inefficiency.

"The opposition once again receives the full right to claim that it is impossible to conduct any talks with these authorities," Tsyhankou says. "The opposition once again receives the moral justification to remain in its political ghetto because, indeed, there is no need to leave it in the situation when everything has been falsified."

But Tsyhankou and other observers of Belarusian politics have suggested that such an excuse may no longer be taken into account by the West.

"If earlier the West acted according to some recommendations from the opposition, now we will have a different situation," predicts Belarusian political analyst Kiryl Paznyak. "Now [the West's] moral and financial support will be provided only for deeds, not for promises from certain opposition circles. Supporting the current opposition just for its own sake makes no sense. The opposition continues to undergo a process of marginalization, which discredits [the idea of it as a] political alternative as such."

If Paznyak is right, the Belarusian opposition may soon undergo serious changes regarding both its strategy and leadership.

Serious cracks in the United Democratic Forces, the main coordinating body of several Belarusian opposition parties, appeared during the recent election campaign when some parties opted for a boycott and some for participation in the election campaign.

As a result, the nominally united opposition was unable to conduct either a meaningful boycott or a full-fledged election campaign.