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As Belarus Votes, World Outside Settles On Lukashenka As The Devil It Knows

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the man once castigated as Europe's last dictator, has morphed into something slightly more palatable.
Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the man once castigated as Europe's last dictator, has morphed into something slightly more palatable.
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By Jan Maksymiuk and Daisy Sindelar
Television viewers in Belarus were recently treated to an unusual sight: their longtime president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, speaking Belarusian.

Speaking on the state-run STV channel, Lukashenka slipped into fluent Belarusian while briefly channeling his elderly mother, who he claimed had been unnerved by negative reports portraying her son as a thief.

In most countries, a leader speaking the native language would hardly be cause for excitement. But Lukashenka speaks only Russian in public and has scorned efforts by nationalists and the political opposition to resurrect Belarusian as the dominant tongue.

The crowd-pleasing linguistic display may have been a sign that the normally uncompromising Lukashenka, who has led his country for more than 15 years, knew there was no better time to reach out to the public than days before the December 19 presidential election.

As voters went to the polls, Lukashenka was considered certain to win an unprecedented fourth term as he faced off against nine somewhat indistinguishable challengers, all facing the usual administrative problems common to opposition figures in Belarus.

Even more critically, Lukashenka faces little resistance from his powerful outside neighbors. In the past, the West and Russia -- for different reasons -- have both shown an interest in ousting the irascible Belarusian leader, who demonstrates an almost universal tendency to play badly with others.

But this time around, there seems to be a grudging acceptance that love him or loathe him, Lukashenka is a known quantity and potentially the least bad option at this moment in Belarus's complicated history. In a sense, the man once castigated as Europe's last dictator has simply morphed into something slightly more palatable: the devil you know.

Moscow Factor

The European Union, the United States, and Russia have all struck deals with the Belarusian leader in recent weeks. Perhaps the most striking show of approval came from the president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, who reportedly told EU diplomats Lukashenka was "a guarantor of economic and political stability in Belarus" and that his victory would help limit the influence of Russia -- a key European concern.

Indeed, of the bullets Lukashenka dodged this year, the most threatening probably came from Russia.

Presidential candidate Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu addresses his supporters during a pre-election rally in Minsk on December 16.

This year, the Kremlin appeared to spare no expense in demonstrating its exasperation with its uncooperative partner -- who has repeatedly stoked Kremlin ire by cozying up to the West and refusing to follow Moscow's lead on issues like recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia this summer broadcast an investigative series, titled "The Godfather," that accused Lukashenka of corruption and attempted to link him to a series of suspicious deaths of opposition figures in the 1990s. It also imposed a backbreaking export tax on oil shipments, dealing a potentially disastrous blow to living standards for Belarus's subsidy-dependent electorate.

Such moves fed rumors this autumn that Moscow was grooming opposition candidates to oust Lukashenka in a Kremlin-style color revolution. But this month, there were smiles all around as the Belarusian leader signed a deal with Russia overturning the oil tax and putting into motion a series of economic agreements that, in the words of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, show "the Belarusian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia."

Waiting Game

There may be more to the 11th-hour reconciliation than just deals. Ultimately, says analyst Paul Goble, Russia may be unwilling to lose a character who conveniently absorbs much of the West's democratic moralizing.

"Many in Moscow recognize that the West, for the last 15 years, has used Lukashenka as its whipping boy," Goble says. "In other words, many Western governments seem to allow themselves to feel morally superior by denouncing Lukashenka for doing things that are no worse -- and in some cases not nearly as bad -- as the things that the Putin-Medvedev regime has been doing in the Russian Federation."

Other observers have suggested that Russia, after seeing its support of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine's 2004 presidential elections end disastrously with the Orange Revolution, is wary of involving itself in other countries' elections.

Instead, suggests David Marples, a Belarus observer and professor of history at Canada's University of Alberta, the Kremlin may be content to bide its time, sit back, and play its powerful energy card when the time is right.

"I think that the Kremlin is being patient. It recognizes that there may not be change on the 19th of December or whenever the results are announced in early January. It won't likely happen then," Marples says. "But within the next six months to two years, there is much more likelihood that there could be a change as a result of pressure through other means. One of which will be renegotiating gas prices, which I think are likely to go up again at the end of the year."

Only Connect

The perennial threat of Russian energy blackmail may have Lukashenka more mindful of the need to curry favor with the counterbalancing West.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this month signed a deal obliging Minsk to give up its Soviet-era stockpile of enriched uranium, a longstanding American goal. The United States, in return, has extended a partial suspension of sanctions imposed over Belarus's human rights record.

Belarusians cast early ballots at a polling station in Minsk on December 17.

But Washington, which conducts much of its post-Soviet foreign policy through the prism of its all-important relationship with Moscow, is unlikely to go much further in encouraging the latent humanist in Lukashenka to shine. That leaves the European Union, which sees Belarus as a vital territorial buffer between it and Russia, to dangle the most enticing lure: a $3 billion aid package contingent on the delivery of a free and fair election.

Marples says despite Belarus's repeated failures to commit to political reforms, Brussels now sees engagement, not isolation, as the best approach.

"I think as far as Brussels is concerned, Belarus is now seen as part of Europe, a neighbor state, and in many ways a stable neighbor state, unlike some of its neighbors, particularly Moldova and Ukraine," he says. "Therefore, a decision to maintain some kind of dialogue with Minsk is necessary, from the European perspective."

Steps Forward, Steps Back

It appears unlikely that Belarus, which has a long history of producing "elegant" election results of 80 percent and up, can go completely au naturel this time around, despite the $3 billion carrot. Observers like Marples predict Lukashenka will win with a healthy majority but with a figure more modest than the 83 percent finish he enjoyed in 2006 (amid claims by Lukashenka himself that the numbers were rigged down from the true result, 94 percent, in order to appear more "European").

Still, with current opinion polls putting the president's rating at an extremely "European" 35 to 45 percent, suspicions remain that falsification will be used to ensure that Lukashenka doesn't fail to clear the 50-percent hurdle needed for a first-round victory.

The weak media exposure extended to Lukashenka's rivals and the use of early voting -- a ripe opportunity for voter fraud that accounted for more than 30 percent of the overall vote in 2006 -- have added further to doubts about a free and fair vote.

At the same time, however, incremental changes have been seen in the Belarusian election campaign. Unlike the last vote, this campaign season has been notably free of antidemonstration violence. Several opposition protests were held in the days ahead of the voting with no interruption by security forces.

Signature-gathering for potential candidates, a process often vulnerable to pressure and intimidation tactics, was conducted openly and with little interference this year. The relatively long and diverse candidate list is also likely to draw praise from Western observers, as was the broadcast of a lively debate between the rivals -- albeit without Lukashenka, who declined to participate.

Fork In The Road

Observers were expressing cautious optimism that Belarus can be slowly drawn into a more democratic orbit through a series of baby steps -- first with Lukashenka, and then possibly someday without him. But some, like Goble, express regret that the West failed to capitalize on Belarus's promise early in its independence.

If the West had more actively helped Belarus's first post-Soviet leader, the pro-reform Stanislau Shushkevich, says Goble, "no one in the world ever would have heard of Mr. Lukashenka" -- the devil they've since come to know so well.

"I'm very sorry that the West didn't do what it might have done in the 1990s," Goble says. "But what is really heartbreaking is that now, having failed to do the right thing in the past, we're going to do something which looks like it's supporting Belarus but in fact is going to be supporting a Belarusian dictator, because we have seemingly left ourselves with nowhere else to go."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has some 400 monitors at polling stations, watching how the vote is conducted.

The opposition has vowed to call supporters into the freezing October Square in the capital, Minsk, after polls close.

The police and KGB state security warned on the eve of the vote that they would deal "decisively" with any attempts to stir tensions.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report

Jan Maksymiuk

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Joe Sabino from: Prague
December 17, 2010 20:04
A biased, inaccurate and uninformed piece of journalism.Is Radio Liberty trying to justify dictatorship? Ridiculous and full of naivity the assumption that Lukashenko can change his ways. Can he still fool you all after all these years?

So, the opposition candidates are all insignificant lookalikes? Have you seen the full theatres that Sannikov is achieving in provincial towns? Have you seen the thousands of supporters rallied on meetings with Neklayev and Sannikov? Apparently the Radio Liberty journalist is basing his assumptions after watching endless hours of the belorussian national TV (93% of its news time is occupied by Lukashenko and his stooges)

Is this how Radio Liberty wants to help the belorussian people to free himself from the chains of dictatorship?

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
December 18, 2010 09:21
Montenegro have been granted EU candidate status yesterday and RFE do not even write a small article about this?

Isn't it an important news?
In Response

by: Johann from: USA
December 18, 2010 16:24
Wasn't Montenegro famous for tobacco smuggling to Italy and The EU, a few years back in time ?
Shouldn't The EU investigate it before they let them in !!!
What about accusations ( according to BBC documentary) of arms smuggling by Transnistra, about 10 years ago ?
Has it ever been investigated ?

by: Dr. Jonathan levy from: Washington DC
December 18, 2010 15:38
Ask an average citizen in Ukraine and they will say things are far better in Belarus. The pensioner and worker wants stable prices and fewer oligarchs. Lukasehnka's moral compass is certainly no worse than a a Western darling like Timoshenko. Belarus is no prison state like North Korea, anyone who wants capitalism is free to go work in the West - just don't try to set up a busioness is Minsk. Besides Luka's got a real sense of humour:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqXimJ9CASQ
In Response

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
December 18, 2010 19:40
If you prefer socialism over capitalism why don't you go and settle in Minsk?

Probably you are a hardliner leftist Democrat...

Do you also adore Chavez of Venezuela???

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
December 18, 2010 19:38
Lukashenko built his fortune on cheap Russian oil.

He bought Russian oil paying Russian domestic prices and then re-exported it to the west. This was the 'know-how' of the Belarusian economic "miracle".

However this have ended as Russia now sells only oiul duty free to Belarus which meets domestic consumption. Therefore they are unable to re-export oil products. That's why Luka tried to get cheap oil from other sources just like Venezuela.

Belarus without the subsidies of Russia will not be a better place than Ukraine... Their 'high living standard' is not a result of Lukashenko's economic cleverness just a result of cheap Russian oil.

However people are fed up with Lukashenko. Tomorrow there will be 50-60 thousand people on the square.

He is finished!

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
December 18, 2010 19:45
In order to avoid media blackout of the authorities the opposition should storm the state TV first.

People all over Belarus should know what's happening on the square. The authorities will try to prevent spreading of real information.

Revolution is about to happen. History will be made tomorrow!
In Response

by: Johann from: USA
December 19, 2010 15:10
Zoltan.
My friend and fellow worker Igor at the Casino, where I used to work before becoming a sailor, voted for Luka.
My blond and pretty dry cleaning lady around the street, also told me three weeks ago when I turned in my uniform for cleaning, that she is driving to Washington D.C. to vote for Luka. She told me that she, and her American born Ukrainian husband, consider people of Belarus to be much better off than people off Russia, Kyrgyzstan, or Kazakhstan.
I haven't heard in the American media, name of anybody, who is running against Luka.
Who is Russia supporting, running against Luka ?
Luka, hasn't any worthy opponents. He is even praised by Lithuanians !!!

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York NY
December 19, 2010 07:24
Disgraceful copy from Maksymiuk again! So all the dictator has to do is speak Belarusian and you swoon? No doubt Jan -- and his editors -- believe they are "merely reporting the news" when they "report" that there is some kind of grudging acceptance now of this dictator. I'm with Joe Sabino on this one -- huh?! Have you seen these candidates in the provinces? Have you seen the crowds and signatures that Sannikov and Neklayev have drawn?! RL Belarusian Service has always been terribly biased to any candidate not in their beloved Belarusian Popular Front, and not speaking Belarusian as their primarily language of comfort.

But that's really myopic and immature, and it's time to stop hobbling the people of Belarus with these emigres dreams. There aren't any baby steps where you incrementally change Lukashenka. The U.S. tried such a plan back in the late 1990s and it was a total bust. You can only lose by getting ensnared in a game where the KGB sets the rules.

I hope and pray there will not be provoked violence today, and that the opposition at least gets a second round out of this vote. And even if they lose, that it gives the lie to both the RL Belarusian Service, Polonia in the State Department and NSC, Poland and Germany, and of course the Kremlin, all of whom refuse to wish this opposition well and continually make demands on it that they don't make on themselves to unite and reject Russia.

Regretably, Belarus will always have Russia as a neighbour it has to deal with and Russia has many levers to use that the West can't or won't use. But there is one thing you can always do if you are not able to affect a situation: you can refuse to confer legitimacy on the dictator. That much anyone can do, and every single Western and Eastern power should reject the results of the election on the main grounds that 3 months for a campaign period is ridiculously short, when the incumbent controls the TV and only doled it out toward the end.

by: Ethan S. Burger from: University of Wollongong
December 24, 2010 15:06

Mr. Lukashenka's ability to hold onto power in Belarus is a testament to his ability to secure control over the state apparatus, repress the country's political opposition, and the naivity & avarice of Western political and business officials who often pursue craven policies towards his regime.

The situation reflects the depth of the cynicism present among the Western political elites. The lessons from this recent so-called" election is being closely watched in Moscow -- where the rulers enrich themselves at the expense of the population they purport to govern. Their ability to remain in power is facilitated by persons engaged in significant financial crime both in their own countries and abroad.

by: Election Observer from: Washington DC
January 06, 2011 07:10

I participated this December as a short-term observer in the OSCE's Belarusian Presidential Election Observation Mission. As a veteran of more than a dozen observation missions in different countries, I went into this election with an objective mindset, aware of Belarus's past election history but approaching the Belarus polling station election commissions with an assumption of honesty on their part and a assuming a general intention to protect the integrity of the voters will.

Unfortunately, the polling station where we observed the count was massively rigged. The early voting ballot box was stuffed with what we estimate were approximately 800 ballots (for a polling station of 2200 registered voters). The way we estimated that was looking through the voters list...while flipping through it (we were not allowed to count or touch it, in some polling stations it was held 3 or 4 meters away from us) we could see only one or two signatures per page at the close of early voting which was the night before Sunday's Election day. Given that on the posted polling station protocol, the station already reported more than 1000 voters having voted during the four day early voting period (almost 50% of the station of 2200), the voter's list should have been more than half filled. Also during the four days of early voting in this station, where we spent at least an hour or more each day, we never observed more than 5 or 10 voters arriving in an hour period. Either the station had some very busy hours which we didn't see or the numbers were being inflated. Those were our first tip offs.

During the Sunday December 19 E-day we were actually quite surprised by the heavy turnout of voters. There was a quite steady flow of voters in most of the polling stations we visited and a quite heavy turnout in the station we had been paying special attention to, as mentioned above. So we decided to observe the closing of polling stations and count in this particular station.

The polling station commission very proudly displayed the remaining ballots, 112 to be exact, announcing that number. Doing the math we realized that meant more than 1300 ballots had been cast in the two E-day ballot boxes as the commission had reported to us in previous days that 2400 ballots had been received for the election (no serial numbers of course). Adding the 1300 from E-day and the 1000 from early voting would give a turnout of 2300 of 2400 registered voters, a suspiciously high turnout in any election. What and how it happened soon became apparent.

As per Belarusian election code, the early voting box was first opened and the ballots came tumbling out. As the early voting box was a medium sized box, just about half the size of the two E-day boxes. it was clear the ballots were folded very small, more than four times to form a small thin tube, and stacked all the way up to the top fo the box. At the bottom were some couple hundred ballots that were legitimately voted during E-day, folded in a manner consistent with the random haphazard way that most voters we observed had done. The 17 election commission members, (yes seventeen), proceeded to form a wall to prevent us from clearly observing the count but it was obvious as they sorted the ballots that one candidate had a large number of similarly folded ballots...more than 920 of the 1006 ballots supposedly cast in the early voting period box were for the incumbent, Mr. Lukashenko.

(Cont. on next post)

by: Short-term Observer from: Wash DC
January 06, 2011 07:14
After this the mobile boxes and finally E-day boxes were opened. The two large E-day boxes were almost full to the brim with normally cast ballots, folded in the typical haphazard fashion, totaling a bit more than 1000. To our minds that number didn't add up as the total, given that the commission had announced only 112 ballots left should have been 1300. Our question was met with a response that we were now "interferring" in the work of the commission by asking questions of the committee chairperson. A role that is clearly set out in Belarusian election code for international observers. The vote count was then announced for each candidate...of the 1000 ballots, 470+ for Lukashenko with the balance being spread among opposition candidates with two leading. During E-day voting Lukashenko had less than 50% of the vote. However the total amount of ballots on the table appeared to be close to or in excess of 100% of the vote.

This left the commission with a dilemma. They had under estimated the E-day turnout and over stuffed the ballot box. In the end, the only solution they had was simply to change the final protocol votes totals. Lukashenko's remained the same and all the other candidates had their vote totals reduced by orders of round numbers of ten (ie 120, 50, 30, 60) across the board, bringing the total vote turnout to about 80% with some 75% for Lukashenko in this particular station. When we noted the discrepancies between what totals they verbally announced and what they subsequently published, they simply disputed our analysis. We were never allowed to see the math used or to approach the count process in a fully transparent manner, and in the end, the reason was clear to us.

After the end of the count at this station, our instructions were to follow the PEC chairperson by car to the Territorial Election Commission to watch aggregation of the vote totals by district. After initially being not allowed to observe the data entry process, we were assigned a minder and allowed to visit the rooms where data was being entered. There we sought out some protocols from other polling stations we had visited during our days that also had curiously high early voting totals, to randomly check some of the fixed statistics such as total number of voters and number of ballots received. There we discovered that the polling station chairperson's fears of a low turnout on E-day also led them to overstuff the early voting ballot boxes. However when the large E-day turnout put their stations also at or above 100% of voter turnout they used an even more simple mechanism to shift the vote totals to the more "realistic" 80% turnout. They simply increased their total number of registered voters and received ballots recorded on the final protocols by large round numbers to get the proportions more or less to match up (ie they added 500 voters and ballots received). As there were no legitimately independent domestic observers to watch this in most polling stations and our international team observing about 30 polling stations could only observe the count in one, there was no reason for these other polling stations to go through a complicated charade of making the numbers add up. They made the most simple adjustment they could.

by: Short-term Observer from: Washington DC
January 06, 2011 07:16



I would like to add there were several instances, three observers that we met, who were performing their job as civil society people trying to guarantee the integrity of the vote. They were members of the Belarus Helsinki Committee and another organization called Svabodno Ruka. In those two stations, where those observers had been sitting for four days, during full operation of the polling stations and counting each voter's presence, both the early vote totals were more realistic, in the low hundreds. This proves to me that even the presence of a small but committed honest group can have significant impact on corrupt behavior.

All in all in Belarus, there is an enormous climate of fear. The chariperson's of polling stations in these elections were also generally the directors of the school or other government run facilitity where the vote was being held. The election commission members and domestic observers were almost all, with the exception of the three domestic observers I mentioned above, were employees of the same facilities. In a sense it was obvious...if the election commission chairpersons did not turnout the vote for Lukashenko, then the authorities will find someone who will. It could mean loss of position, income, status. While we could only observe in one small part of Belarus, speaking to other of the 400 short-term observers that were distributed around the country for the election, it was obvious that many teams had observed similar corrupt practices. It would fair to say that the Belarus Presidential election of 2010 was widely fraudulent. The true Belarusian patriots are the young men and women who unarmed and knowing that their voice, their votes, are being stolen, marched on the October Square, risking their lives for justice and a better, democratic future. I have only the utmost respect for those brave young people, observers and activitis, who suffer under a morally bankrupt and depraved regime. They are true heros for standing up for what is right and speaking the truth.

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