President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has surprised many by including 42 opposition members among the 1,430 participants in district election commissions overseeing the Belarus's September 28 parliamentary elections.
The opposition's representation is less than 3 percent, but it's still a tremendous improvement over the 2004 elections, when there was exactly one member of the opposition serving on a district election commission.
The decision to give the opposition a say on the district election commissions followed a government conference on July 10 in which Lukashenka reportedly urged the authorities to create equal conditions for all candidates in the elections.
"Equal access to the media should be secured for all candidates so that we are not later reproached for creating favorable conditions for some and unfavorable for others," official information sources quoted the president as saying.
But deep in his heart Lukashenka appears to believe that the opposition, which he described as "ephemeral," stands no chance of being elected to the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives.
"So-called oppositionists are waiting today for the authorities to start pressuring them because they cannot be elected," he said. "But they need to explain to their sponsors why they have not been elected. The people will reject them anyway."
Zmitser Shymanski of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, who plans to run for parliament from a district in Brest Oblast, says the inclusion of opposition representatives in district election commissions is only the beginning of an uphill road toward a more democratic election process.
"This success is very relative, because all falsifications take place at the level of polling-station commissions," Shymanski says. "Naturally, for me as a candidate for parliament, the only indication that the election will be transparent is if they include people I trust in all polling-station commissions [in my district]."
Moreover, Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists, points out that the formation of 110 district commissions was far from being transparent.
"They simply read out a list that was compiled by someone in advance and they told us that these people were included in the commissions," Kalyakin says. "Why these people were included and not others, and who proposed them for the commissions, was absolutely unclear."
So, was Lukashenka's statement about the equal conditions for all candidates a routine propaganda exercise?
Kalyakin is fairly skeptical regarding the officially announced intention to hold fair elections. "There should be some [positive] moves after the statement. But the situation in the country contradicts the statement," he says. "People who want to become legislators are being persecuted -- 16 people have been arrested in connection with the [July 4] blast without justifiable reasons, including political-party activists and the heads of election teams of democratic candidates."Persecution Followed Bombing
Quite unexpectedly, a gloomy atmosphere for the election campaign was set by the explosion of a homemade bomb, which injured some 50 people at an Independence Day concert in Minsk on July 4.
In the wake of the Minsk blast, some commentaries in the state-sponsored press pointed the finger at the Belarusian opposition by suggesting that its members have a stake in destabilizing the situation in Belarus ahead of the parliamentary elections.
The arrests of a dozen people immediately after the bombing also suggested that law enforcement officers were looking for the culprits among opposition activists or people connected with the opposition.
On July 14, riot police dispersed a rally in Minsk held to protest against those arrests, harshly beating United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka.
And on July 15, President Lukashenka once again reminded his compatriots of his mantra that each election campaign in the country is actually about staving off a Western-sponsored coup d'etat.
"Unfortunately, open calls can constantly be heard from the lips of certain Western politicians for an unconstitutional change of the government in Belarus and for the imposition of the Western model of so-called democracy," Lukashenka warned.Purely Symbolic Representation
While it cannot be ruled out that, by making some overtures to the opposition in the election campaign, Lukashenka is trying to appease the West and mend some fences, one thing is clear even now -- whatever Chamber of Representatives emerges in Belarus after the September 28 ballot, it will hardly resemble any "Western-model" legislature.
However, some commentators in Belarus assume that this time Lukashenka may go as far as to allow two or three opposition representatives to sit in the Chamber of Representatives in order to show the West that Belarus's legislature, too, has an opposition. And the West, those commentators continue, is so fatigued with promoting democracy in Belarus that it may eventually give up and say that Belarus has finally taken a path toward democracy.
Sadly, such a "bit of benevolence" on the part of Lukashenka may be the only possibility for the Belarusian opposition parties to find themselves -- at the level of a symbolic representation -- in the system of power from which they were banished in 1996.
Some opposition groups are mulling a boycott of the upcoming elections but the United Democratic Opposition, which groups major opposition parties, is preparing to field its candidates.
However, Belarusian Popular Front leader Lyavon Barshcheuski won't rule out a boycott if the political situation in the country becomes much more unbearable.
"A boycott is a weapon that fires only once. Before you fire, you need to dispel any doubts as to why you're doing this," Barshcheuski says. "For the time being, we are not at this stage. I hope they will release our people. But if the authorities decide to exacerbate the situation, make more unjustifiable arrests, intimidate and repress people, we can use this weapon."
But even an election boycott in Belarus can be hidden from sight by the authorities, partly with their resourceful techniques of mobilizing the electorate and partly with falsification of election protocols.
What the Belarusian opposition actually faces is a Sisyphean task of once again undergoing a strenuous election procedure, only to see yet another triumph of "Belarusian-model democracy." But this is what politics in Belarus seems to be about these days. The only consolation being that such politics is better than no politics at all.