Next month Belarusians go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Ever since President Alyaksandr Lukashenka succeeded in changing the country's constitution in 1996, the chamber has been stripped of most of its powers. Many opposition parties have called for a voter boycott, arguing that participation in the vote would legitimize Lukashenka's rule. But some do not agree, causing splits among what was once a united opposition. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the situation.
Prague, 21 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The fact that Belarus is not a functioning democracy is disputed by no one, save for Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his allies in government. Opposition politicians and their supporters are routinely harassed by police and interrogated by the security services. Some have gone into exile, others such as opposition leader Viktar Hanchar and former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka have simply disappeared.
The state controls all access to electronic media and a law stipulates that a print outlet that receives two warnings for any violation from state authorities can be shut down.
Given this context, local and international democracy advocates say the elections on October 15 will be anything but free and fair -- even if there is no outright intimidation at the ballot box.
The fact that Lukashenka monopolizes radio and television air-time ensures him much visibility and some support among the population. How much is difficult to gauge. Valery Karbalavich, an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent political institute based in Minsk, tells RFE/RL the regime benefits greatly from the exposure:
"The certain support he [Lukashenka] has in society is based on the fact that in Belarus the electronic media is fully monopolized by the government. The overwhelming majority of the population sees the same and only person on Belarusian TV every day, who travels throughout the country helps to bring in the harvest, goes into stores and forces them to sell a wider assortment of goods, visits factories, etc. From Belarusian television, only one politician is seen to exist. There is no one else, not even standing nearby, so to speak."
Not only is the political climate not conducive to a fair electoral campaign, but the institution to which deputies are to be elected hardly resembles a fully-fledged democratic parliament. Karbalavich explains: "According to the constitution of 1996, the chamber of representatives has insignificant powers de jure, and de facto it's a type of presidential advisory body. The current chamber of representatives cannot even adopt any bills without the agreement of the presidential administration. And the president, through his decrees, can change any law passed by the chamber of deputies. He can send them his budget by decree, etc. Therefore, according to the constitution of 1996, the chamber of representatives isn't a real parliament in the full sense of the word."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been critical of Lukashenka's authoritarian style, has decided not to send an official observer mission to monitor the poll because it says the election does not begin to meet its criteria. Instead, it is dispatching a "technical assessment mission" to evaluate the campaign and media treatment of the election.
Some opposition leaders, such as exiled Conservative Christian Party leader Zyanon Paznyak, denounce the OSCE move, calling it a half-measure that will be interpreted by Lukashenka as a concession.
The election has also forced opposition groups into an awkward situation: whether to participate in the vote and risk legitimizing Lukashenka's rule or to boycott and possibly lose any influence over events.
Most of the opposition parties are officially boycotting the vote, but some of the leaders of these same parties are running as independents.
Among them are former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir and Social Democratic Party leader Mikalay Statkevich. The fact that the government-appointed Central Electoral Commission has failed to register most opposition candidates last week has not discouraged them. Many are appealing the decision and there are signs that the government is allowing a trickle of opposition candidates to run, in a bid to assuage critics.
Statkevich himself was registered by the authorities. The party he leads is boycotting the poll, but he is running as an independent. Statkevich's campaign manager, Nina Shidlovskaya, says by running in the election, Statkevich can continue to make his voice heard:
"Those democratic candidates who are [participating in] the elections will put forward their own positions in parliament. The other thing is that a deputy's mandate will give them the possibility of access to information, access to working with people and with state structures."
Shidlovskaya was asked if this seemingly contradictory strategy will not end up hurting the party by making it appear to voters that some opposition leaders are more interested in the perks of power rather than practicing what they preach -- in this case, a boycott. She acknowledges this is a risk, but argues that the benefits of having some opposition voices on the inside outweigh the disadvantages. She says voters know that her party as an organization is working hard to focus the international community's attention on the parlous state of democracy in Belarus.
"Already to this day we have observed many violations. All the facts are being collected and are being sent to the OSCE and other international organizations. We once again want to emphasize that the elections which are being conducted here this autumn are not free and democratic. The government is already violating its own electoral code."
Meanwhile, on the economic front, things keep getting worse. Economists say cheap Russian oil and gas are keeping the economy afloat, but shortages, low wages and inflation remain the order of the day for ordinary citizens.
"We are seeing a clear drop in the standard of living here. The growth of inflation is outpacing all our economists' predictions. The average salary around the country doesn't [amount to more than] $30 [a month]. Salaries in rural areas are being paid late, which wasn't the case before."
What Shidlovskaya and others like her hope is that the OSCE's technical mission will use its time in Belarus to make its own independent assessment of the situation and communicate its findings to Western governments.
"It would be good if Western representatives, if this technical commission, could objectively collect information on its own about all the violations currently taking place here, about the level of our economy and about the methods by which the current government governs. The saddest thing of course for us would be if -- despite all the violations, of which there are already very many -- if in spite of them, a decision is made to recognize the newly elected parliament."
The fact that both the international community and the domestic opposition are having a difficult time adopting a united strategy indicates Lukashenka has succeeded in keeping his critics off-balance.