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1996 In Review: Election Roundup I -- Serbia, Belarus, Armenia, Bosnia

Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- There was plenty of encouraging news in 1996 about the consolidation of democracy in Eastern Europe. But elections in at least three countries serve as a depressing reminder that the trend is not universal. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored most of this year's ballots. (This is part one of a two-part article.)

Serbia: All eyes turn to Belgrade as protests continue

International attention is now focused on Serbia, where apparent election victories for opponents of President Slobodan Milosevic were nullified in 15 municipalities last month by pro-Milosevic election commissions.

Tens of thousands of university students have responded with daily protest marches through Belgrade. They have been registering their disgust by pelting Milosevic's office and his state-controlled television with eggs and insults. Evening opposition rallies continue to pick up where the day-time marches end. By mid-December, Western reporters said the marches were gathering more than 200,000 people a day.

Smaller demonstrations in at least seven other towns also have been conducted on a daily basis. In the industrial town of Nis, demonstrators are mostly disgruntled factory workers.

Local courts in Nis and the town of Smederevska Palanka have reinstated the opposition victories. But so far, the magnitude of the demonstrations has not been significant enough to persuade Milosevic to do much more than look the other way. The countryside and most of Serbia's trade unions have remained silent.

For many rural residents, there has been scant information about the urban protests. That's because Milosevic's state media have largely ignored the rallies. Milosevic's government had ordered the temporary closure of the only independent radio stations in Belgrade reporting about the protests. That led much of the Western press now condemn Milosevic as a petty Balkan dictator who is ready to throw democracy to the wind rather than share power.

With pressure mounting in mid December, Milosevic invited a team from the OSCE to Belgrade to investigate the situation. That team was to be led by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.

The OSCE said it is "extremely concerned" about the "irregularities and violations of law" during the vote count. It also complained about an extra round of balloting that took place only where Milosevic's opponents appeared to have won strong positions. The OSCE said Belgrade's integrity will be under question until an independent and open review of the election is conducted.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said pressure must be kept on Milosevic to recognize all of the opposition victories.

Belarus: A negative example of democratic reform

In Belarus, the Western press says President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has taken big steps toward establishing a similar authoritarian form of rule. European Union leaders this month warned Lukashenka that his failure to respect human rights and basic democratic principles would have "negative impact" on relations between Minsk and Brussels.

In June, Lukashenka launched formal proceedings against the country's leading opposition group, the Belarusian Popular Front. A month later, in a move reminiscent of Cold War defections from the Soviet Union, Popular Front leader Zyanon Paznyak and one of his colleagues fled to the United States. Washington granted Paznyak's request for political asylum in August.

Lukashenka, meanwhile, launched a constitutional referendum to extend his term in office without an election and to give himself expanded powers. Those powers include the right to appoint judges and legislators, and to disband the parliament. Despite a heated battle with parliament, massive opposition rallies and a constitutional court ruling that the referendum was illegal, Lukashenka pushed forward with his November 24 vote and declared himself victor.

The reaction in the Western press has been to equate Lukashenka with Josef Stalin. International organizations ranging from the United Nations to NATO have condemned Lukashenka's moves. The U.S. State Department decried Lukashenka's media controls as a "virtual information blockade." Other critics say he should have at least published the full text of the referendum before the vote started so that all voters could have had a chance to first read the document. The OSCE says the referendum cannot be considered legitimate.

Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, who is the current OSCE chairman, has called on Lukashenka to end the rigid media controls that have effectively silenced opposition views. Cotti also urged Lukashenka to enter into talks with opposition leaders, and to "re-establish full respect for internationally accepted democratic principles."

The OSCE also condemned Lukashenka's dismissal of the chairman of the Central Election Commission, who had spoken against the legality of the referendum.

But in the end, analysts say the ballot shows many Belarusian voters share Lukashenka's nostalgia for Soviet-style communism and support his argument that the country can surmount its problems only by giving him near dictatorial powers.

Armenia: OSCE has 'no doubt' vote count was flawed

Armenia's presidential ballot in September was marred by violence when tens of thousands of opposition supporters declared that incumbent Levon Ter-Petrosyan's government stole the vote by falsifying results. Officially, the Central Electoral Commission said Ter-Petrosyan received just under 52 percent of the vote while his rival, Vazgen Manukyan, gathered about 41 percent.

In the days after the results were announced, thousands of Manukyan's supporters surrounded the parliament in Yerevan. Several hundred stormed their way inside. They assaulted the speaker of the parliament and his deputy before troops with armored vehicles fired their guns in the air to disperse the crowds outside. Five parliamentary deputies were stripped of their immunity and arrested on charges that they had incited the violence. About 230 others also were jailed. Most of them have since been released.

The OSCE said there is "no doubt" that the tabulation of the ballot was "seriously flawed." It also noted many violations of election laws during the voting process. Monitors watched military officers ordering their troops to vote for President Ter-Petrosyan in some districts. The OSCE concluded that laws on military voting need to be changed to stop such practices in the future.

Observers noted "serious breaches" in the security of the ballots after the polls closed. The OSCE says election officials at some precincts tried to delay the count in the hope that the international monitors would leave. At one station, representatives of the Interior Ministry were present when a police officer entered the building with a group of others. Observers say they watched five people tamper with the ballot box during the commotion that followed.

In central Yerevan, a group of men cut off the electricity and charged into another polling station and stole the ballot box. The box surfaced the next day and there was evidence that it had been tampered with.

The OSCE says another disturbing trend was the partisan behavior of election officials. The OSCE noted that the chairmen, secretaries and deputy chairmen of an overwhelming number of precincts and community commissions were nominated by Ter-Petrosyan's Republic Bloc. Most were nominees of the president's core support group. While the practice is legal under Armenia's current election laws, the OSCE says that the issue needs to be addressed in the future.

Bosnia-Herzegovnia: Testing the Dayton Peace Accords

Democratic elections in the former Yugoslavia are a key aim of the Dayton Peace Accords, and will continue to be so in 1997. An important test of the peace process was the September 14 cantonal, parliamentary and presidential ballot -- both at the entity and all-Bosnia level.

The OSCE has expressed concern that conditions for a "free and fair" election were not satisfied. But overall, it concluded that the ballot was run in what it called "a technically correct manner, with discipline and without any major incidents."

It said problems stemmed from conditions away from the ballot boxes -- such as illegal checkpoints outside of some towns and cities where gangs charged fees to pass. Freedom of movement is a basic principle in the Dayton accords, and is considered essential for free elections.

The absence of adequate electoral rolls and the question of voting rights for refugees also made it difficult to ensure a democratic ballot. Rolls drawn up in the 1991 census were said to be virtually worthless because about 200,000 people had been killed in the war or had gone missing. More than 2 million people also had become refugees.

Another problem was the lack of a "free and independent" news media. The OSCE said most newspapers and broadcast journalists were either directly or indirectly controlled or influenced by the main political parties. It said development of opposition media is being blocked mainly by the lack of funding.

In a post-election statement, the OSCE said the small number of refugees who returned to their home towns to vote indicates a "negative political climate that still reigns." It concluded that support from the international community is essential in ensuring the fairness of Bosnia's municipal elections, which have been postponed until 1997 due to what the OSCE called "manipulation of the voter registration process."

OSCE ministers said another threat to stable democracy in the former Yugoslavia has been the failure of authorities to deliver indicted war criminals to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.