IN THE SPOTLIGHT
EaP CSF Members React to Belarus Elections and Suspension of EU Sanctions
15 October 2015
European Union sanctions against Belarus have been suspended by the European Council pending the publication of the final report early next year on the recent presidential election by OSCE/ODIHR and the Council of Europe and OSCE Parliamentary Assemblies.
Commenting at the EaP CSF panel discussion on EU-Belarus relations held on 14 October at the European Parliament, Co-chair of the EaP CSF Steering Committee Andrei Yahorau noted: “The suspension of the sanctions is starting the new engagement period with Belarus and opens a window of opportunity to push through reforms in a number of sectors in which both the EU and the official Minsk are interested. However, the EU should have a principled approach and not to shy from conditionality in such problematic areas as human rights and judicial reform.”
The peaceful nature of the election is an important element of the thaw in relations between Brussels and Minsk, which includes recognition by the EU of the efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and the freeing on August 22 of the last six political prisoners in Belarus. Civic society organisations have reacted positively to these changes while remaining determined to pursue their aim of establishing a democratic society by working for change whenever and wherever possible. However, the conduct of the election shows that President Alexander Lukashenko has no intention of relinquishing his grip on the main levers of power and will limit the current liberalisation to those moves, which could unlock more financial aid from the European Union and help him to retain a measure of independence from Moscow.
The presidential election in Belarus on 11 October 2015 passed without incident and saw the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko receive about 85 per cent of the vote, which opened the way to a fifth term in power. International observers from the OSCE/ODIHR working together with the representatives of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted that the election authorities exhibited „a welcoming attitude” to them while observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and, for the first time, the Shanghai Cooperation Council praised the way the election was handled, according to Yury Hubarevich (Movement for Freedom) from the Elections Sub-group of the EaP CSF Working Group 1. In his short report on elections, Hubarevich adds that the reports of the CIS and the Shanghai Council were presented favourably in the official media.
Yury Hubarevich’s report on the elections describes how certain ‘independent international observers’ operate:
“These are often nationals of CIS countries and the countries that maintain good relations with the Belarusian regime, but there also nationals of European and other democratic nations. They may be MPs, actors, businessmen, etc. who are hand-picked by Belarusian embassies abroad. Many of them have been coming for every election for many years. The embassies facilitate their travel to Belarus (visas, travel arrangements). Often, travel expenses are paid by the Belarusian government, and local transportation and entertainment is often provided by the government. These observers rarely monitor all stages of the election process. As a rule, they are satisfied by making short visits to polling stations, where they observe an orderly and well organised voting process (no queues, no violence, happy voters, who are not impeded in any way). This is often enough for these observers to conclude that the elections are free and fair. Most of them do not even stay for the vote count (the most controversial moment) because they are invited for dinner by their government hosts. They rarely talk to opposition and NGOs in Belarus. The activities and conclusions of these observers are well reported by the state media. If they are Westerners, their nationality is used to imply that ordinary people in these countries are sympathetic with the Belarusian regime.”
The OSCE/ODIHR report was received by the Belarusian authorities less favourably as the experienced monitoring organisation noted that „Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections”. The report said that the legal framework for the election remained „essentially unchanged” compared to the 2010 election which was followed by demonstrations, subsequent multiple arrests and prison sentences to those protesting against the unfair conduct of the election. This year, according to ODIHR, there were ‘significant problems’ with the counting of the votes at the level of regional election committees (tabulation). In a quarter of these, observers noted a lack of transparency and assessed the process „negatively”.
The ODIHR report leaves little doubt that the election process remained under the control of the authorities from the moment voters’ lists were put together through to the counting of votes. Also as is often the case in Eastern Partnership countries the central and local administration was harnessed to make sure that people went to the ballot stations and voted the right way (the use of administrative resources). In effect, the election was turned into a plebiscite designed to demonstrate overwhelming support for the incumbent president.
This conclusion was borne out by a joint monitoring endeavour from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the „Viasna” Human Rights Centre, which said that the election „failed to meet a number of key international standards for elections”. The group noted that there was a “lack of equal access to the media for all candidates, the lack of impartiality of election commissions, use of administrative resources in favour of the incumbent, numerous facts of coercion of voters to participate in early voting, the closure of some election procedures for observers”.