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Meager Opposition Gains Don't Satisfy Belarus's Opposition -- Or Erase Vote Doubts

  • Ron Synovitz

Newly elected Belarusian parliamentary deputies Alena Anisim (left) and Hanna Kanapatskaya (file photo)

Newly elected Belarusian parliamentary deputies Alena Anisim (left) and Hanna Kanapatskaya (file photo)

For the first time in 20 years, official election results in Belarus show that candidates who are not allies of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have won seats in parliament -- two seats out of 110, to be exact.

But independent analysts and election observers warn the results don't mean that Belarus has suddenly cleaned up its notoriously corrupt electoral system or that the beleaguered opposition's fortunes have dramatically improved.

They say the tally for the September 11 parliamentary vote was as fraught with fraud as ever.

This time, critics allege, Lukashenka has allowed two candidates with opposition sympathies to be proclaimed winners because of pressure from the West.

"The appointment of two independent deputies signals Belarusian authorities are ready for some sort of transformation, but they want to control this transformation and limit it very strictly," Andrey Dynko, editor in chief of the independent Our Field newspaper and website, told RFE/RL. "Simultaneously, these appointments are also snubbing the nose of the West and those in the opposition who wanted to mastermind the creation of some moderate opposition."

Lukashenka, he argued, "wants to show that he wants to select who will be the moderate opposition in his country."

On September 12, international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cited the weekend Belarus elections as "efficiently organized" but still beset by "systemic shortcomings." They criticized the country's "constitutional and legal framework" as insufficient to meet international standards, in addition to media bias and a lack of "fundamental freedoms."

None of the country's elections has been deemed democratic since referendums in the mid-1990s that ushered in a new constitution and consolidated Lukashenka's power, marginalizing the president's political opponents in the process.

'Concession' To Critics

The editor in chief of the Minsk-based analytical website Our Opinion, Valeriea Kosyugova, noted that Lukashenka has been under pressure to open up elections to the political opposition in order to improve diplomatic and economic ties with the European Union and the United States.

Kosyugova agreed that allowing a single opposition candidate and one independent candidate to win parliamentary seats was a concession to its international critics.

One of those candidates, Hanna Kanapatskaya from the opposition United Civil Party, was declared the winner in Minsk's 97th electoral district.

Her main rival was one of the best-known opposition candidates who did not opt to boycott the ballot: Tatsyana Karatkevich of the Tell The Truth movement, who had run against Lukashenka for president in October 2015.

An independent candidate from the town of Stouptsy, Alena Anisim, was also declared the winner in a race against the principal of a local, state-run elementary school.

Anisim is the deputy head of a nongovernmental group called the Belarusian Language Society, which promotes Belarusian culture and the use of the Belarusian language, which is frequently sidelined in favor of Russian.

'Appointed' To Parliament

Mikalay Statkevich, a prominent Belarusian opposition figure who was imprisoned for 5 1/2 years for organizing mass demonstrations after his unsuccessful 2010 presidential bid against Lukashenka, says both Kanapatskaya and Anisim were "appointed" to parliament by Lukashenka.

"Let's be honest," Statkevich told RFE/RL on September 12. "Lukashenka appointed these women because he thinks they are less dangerous" to his government and his political agenda than other opposition candidates.

Reporters at Dynko's Our Field documented evidence purportedly showing election officials altering the official turnout and early vote count in Kanapatskaya's race against Karatkevich.

Still, Dynko said, any favoritism shown by election officials for Kanapatskaya and Anisim would not be the fault of those candidates.

WATCH: Voting In Belarus 'Just A Wild Guess'

Despite the motive for any favoritism they may have been shown by election officials, Dynka said he sees the emergence of moderate opposition deputies in parliament as a positive development.

He said Kanapatskaya and Anisim are "real, opposition, and not some fake opposition as we've had in Belarus," in Russia, and in other former Soviet republics since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He told RFE/RL that their ability to voice the opinions and agenda of the political opposition could expose new ideas to new audiences in Belarus.

And while the pair is unlikely to change the political landscape by proposing political reforms that would be passed by other lawmakers, he said he expects Lukashenka's allies will join with them to consolidate a Belarusian national identity and to promote Belarusian national sovereignty.

OSCE election monitors in Minsk concluded that, just like previous elections in Belarus over the past 20 years, the September 11 ballot was "still marred by a significant number of procedural irregularities and a lack of transparency" linked to "early voting and counting and tabulation procedures."

It said that despite the declared victories of one independent and one opposition candidate, Belarus has "yet to take steps towards democratic elections."

'No Way Free And Fair'

Kent Harstedt, the vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the head of the OSCE's observer mission in Minsk, told RFE/RL on September 12 that Belarus's elections "were in no way free and fair" and that "there were so many violations that they did not meet international standards."

In fact, Belarus has not held a vote that was assessed by international monitors as free or democratic since the early 1990s.

Authorities there routinely punish dissent and tightly control media -- leading to Western sanctions against Minsk for human rights abuses and severed diplomatic ties.

But relations between Minsk and the West have improved since Lukashenka hosted international peace talks on Ukraine's conflict and announced the release of political prisoners in 2015.

In February, the European Union ended five years of sanctions against Belarus as part of a push to encourage democratic change through engagement rather than isolation.

Washington has also relaxed some of its restrictions as it tries to counter what it sees as a newly aggressive Russia.

Belarus has also implemented some economic reforms in a bid to get loans from international lenders -- including a $3 billion loan it is seeking from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The economic crisis in Russia linked to falling oil prices and sanctions over Moscow's role in Ukraine's conflict has also hurt Belarus.

With 40 percent of Belarusian exports going to Russia, the Belarusian economy shrank by 3.9 percent in 2015.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service