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Dan Hamilton: After years of vote rigging and human rights abuses, it’s time to get tough with Lukashenko's Belarus

0,1020,770341,00 Looking at the vibrancy of Eastern European states today, it’s hard to believe that just over twenty years ago much of the continent lay under a cloak of authoritarianism and communist oppression. 

The two decades that have since past are littered with inspiring examples of the power of democracy; from the anti-communist uprisings of the early 1990s to the symbolic transition of power from Lech Wałęsa to Aleksander Kwaśniewski in Poland’s 1995 Presidential election that proved former communist countries had not simply replaced one cult of personality with another.

Sadly, such progress towards improved human rights and democracy appears to have eluded the people of Belarus – a land-locked country of ten million people sandwiched between Poland in the west and Russia and the Ukraine to the east.   Indeed, for the past sixteen years, the administration of Alexander Lukashenko has ruled with an iron first; brutally suppressing opposition movements, flagrantly abusing human rights and relentlessly seeking to concentrate all power in the President’s office.

Aware of the negative reputation his country has amassed internationally, Lukashenko has fought hard in recent years to recast himself as a western-leaning reformist; talking the language of democracy to the west one day while pursuing a policy of slavish subservience to the Kremlin on another.  Indeed, even ordinarily-sane politicians such as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė have been willing to do Lukashenko’s bidding in the EU corridors of power recently under the misapprehension that his continued hold on power would “limit the influence of Russia” – a curious observation given Moscow’s expressed policy of providing Belarus with cheap energy in exchange for bolstering its regional influence.

Western government have, of course, be wrong to conflate the President’s clever public relations campaign, which has included paying lip-service to democratic reforms and human rights, with a commitment to real reform – something he has shown little or no appetite for enacting. Yaroslav Romanchuk, an opposition candidate for the United Civil Party neatly summed up the President’s newly-found reformist zeal: “he is trying to persuade the West that something is changing, but it is like taking ten nails out of the coffin of democracy which is held together by 100 nails”. 

One such nail in the coffin for democracy was yesterday’s Presidential election.

With the majority of votes now counted it appears that Lukashenko has been returned to power with 79% of the vote.  Despite protestations to the contrary, nobody credibly believes Lukashenko has won a truly democratic mandate.

In an effort for the Presidential election to be seen as free and fair, Lukashenko has agreed to allow observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the poll.  As such, the number of early complaints about the standard of the election’s conduct has been kept to a minimum in comparison to previous contents.  This does not, however, mean the President and his supporters have played an entirely straight bat.

Looking forward to the election, Lukashenko appeared sanguine about the effect allowing a larger number of valid votes than usual to be counted will have upon the result, telling the Economist that “if 70-75% of the population votes for him, it will be good” and that he “doesn’t need 95% or 97% like last time”.  How magnanimous!

According to the Central Election Commission, 23% of the electorate had already cast their votes prior to polling day under an early voting procedures provided for under Belorussian law.  In one polling station in Minsk, a student who volunteered as an independent election observer attested to 50 people having come in to vote on Saturday yet, when the box was opened for review at the end of the day, it contained 180 ballot papers.  The whereabouts of the ballot box is unknown.  In another case, observers were allowed into the polling station only after the boxes had already been sealed for the day, giving them no opportunity to check if they were empty at the start of the day or not.

While the OSCE election observation mission led by British MP Tony Lloyd has yet to issue its final statement on conduct of the elections, Polish MP Pawel Poncyljusz has declared the counting process a “farce” and claimed “they could have put toilet paper in the ballot boxes for all the good it did”.

During his sixteen years in office, Lukashenko has grown used to dealing with opposition protests. This year, he deployed a myriad of tactics in an attempt to prevent a spectacle similar to that which occurred in Kiev in 2004 when thousands of pro-democracy activists took to the streets in order to protest against the Ukraine’s rigged Presidential poll.

Given that the majority of pro-democracy protests have tended to revolve around October Square in the centre of Minsk, a giant ice-rink and Christmas tree was installed there for the first time in order to ensure protestors are not able to rally there.  A ban on the sale of salt was also enacted across the city to ensure protestors were not able to pour it onto the rink to allow crowds to gather.  Similarly, sports shops were ordered not to sell tents in order to prevent protestors being able to shield themselves from the harsh -15 degree temperatures that would greet them if they chose to set up camp.

The President’s efforts at stopping peaceful protests against the continuation of his dictatorship appear to have failed. 

As of midnight, more than 40,000 opposition activists had ignored the President’s threats of violent recriminations for protesting against the result and took to the streets.  Unable to gather in October Square, they simply relocated their protest to Independence Square, the home of the majority of the country’s government ministries.  As I write, the protests have yet to be fully dispersed, despite riot police attacking protestors with batons and several hundred having been taken away in police vans.

It is not simply protestors who have felt the full force of Lukashenko’s opposition crackdown. 

According to a statement issued by Jerzy Buzek, the President of the European Parliament and long-term supporter of Belarus’ pro-democracy movement, opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyaev was attacked and beaten unconscious by the Police [photo above] whilst on the way to October Square.   He has been rushed to intensive care and is receiving treatment for a serious skull fracture.   While not as badly injured, a second candidate Nikolai Statkevich was also attacked by police forces on his way to the square.

Despite a mixture of clever posturing on the part of Lukashenko regime over the past two years designed to convince the EU of his intentions to pursue democratic reforms, George W. Bush’s characterisation of the premier as “Europe’s last dictator” continues to hold true.   Promises such as allowing TV air time for opposition candidates and the freedom to hold a limited number of public meetings were merely fig-leaves to mask a continuing campaign of oppression against pro-democracy activists.

Rather than pander to Lukashenko in the hope he will voluntarily loosen his grip on power, it is now time for affirmative action to destabilise his regime.   

As a starting point, the UK must demand the European Union exclude Belarus from organisation’s Eastern Partnership programme – and with that, the revoke the promises of free trade deals, visa liberalisation measures and European funding for the country’s infrastructure projects.   As painful as the effective withdrawal of international aid from Belarus will be for many of its already-impoverished citizens, such an approach could only serve to bolster the already-strong opposition forces in the country. 

In addition to withdrawing trade and investment opportunities from the country, the US and EU should immediately re-impose the travel ban on Lukashenko, his ministers and senior party officials which was previously in place between 2006 and October 2008.  Without such travel opportunities, the present regime may never have been able to hoodwink the international community into believing their weasel words. 

While an influential player, the European Union cannot act alone.   It must fall to governments such as our own in the United Kingdom to call on Washington DC to implement similar sanctions against Belarus. 

Lukashenko has been awarded ample opportunities to pursue democratic reforms and to demonstrate a commitment to human rights.  He has opted not to do so.  As his actions yesterday evening demonstrate, it’s high time for him to face the consequences of his actions. 


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