By Alex Nice

On December 19, 2010, Belarussians went to the polls amid hopes in Europe that the presidential vote would show evidence of a freer and more transparent process than in previous elections.

Since the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka came to power sixteen years ago, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has never recognised an election held in this authoritarian state. There had been some superficially positive developments in the run-up to the vote. In contrast to Russia's last presidential election, opposition candidates were freely permitted to register; air-time on the highly controlled mass media was made available for candidates to express critical views; and a televised presidential debate took place, in which the incumbent did not participate. The law on street demonstrations was also reformed, removing the requirement to obtain a permit for public meetings from officials.

The background to these moves was the marked improvement in relations between the European Union (EU) and Lukashenka's regime seen over the past two years. Following the Russia-Georgia war, the EU had been keen to engage Lukashenka, suspending travel bans and other sanctions for top officials in 2008 and including Belarus in its Eastern Partnership development programme. The aim of this engagement, in the words of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, was 'to move (Belarus) in the direction of European values. ' For his part, the Belarusian president was eager to court the west. Lukashenka's regime had long depended on Russian subsidies, in the form of preferential oil and gas imports, to maintain growth in the country's largely state-owned and unreformed economy. Last year witnessed a crisis in Belarus-Russia relations as Moscow sought to leverage its subsidies to Belarus to gain control of strategic assets. Under increasing economic pressure, Lukashenka's government started a limited privatisation process. With Russian capital eager to gain controlling stakes of strategic assets, western investment would be Lukashenka's only hedge against a Russian takeover of the Belarus economy. Increased dialogue between Minsk and Brussels culminated in the EU offering four billion US dollars in financial support to the Belarusian state, should it conduct an election the west could accept as democratic. How these criteria would be assessed was not clarified. As the election neared, it increasingly came to be seen as a test of the EU's 'pragmatic' engagement policy, and of the depth of political liberalisation in Belarus.

The election and its aftermath shattered all illusions of a liberal thaw in Minsk. Aided by widespread fraud, Lukashenka claimed a victory with 79.7 percent of the vote, on a notional 90.7 percent turnout. Almost half of vote counts monitored by the OSCE observation mission were assessed as 'bad' or 'very bad'. As polls closed on election night, around thirty thousand people gathered on the streets of Minsk to protest the result. As the journalist Andrei Pochobut has remarked, the reaction of the government was brutal even by Lukashenka's standards. Following an apparent attempt by a small number of people to break into the parliament building, special forces violently dispersed the crowds, attacking protesters, journalists and electoral candidates alike. Over six hundred people were arrested, including seven of the presidential candidates, some of whom were severely assaulted. One candidate, the poet Vladimir Neklyaev, was beaten unconscious by unidentified assailants before he could reach the protest. He was taken to hospital, from where he was later dragged to a detention cell by the secret service. Further repressive measures have followed the Election Day violence, including arrests and assaults on civil society activists and journalists. On December 29, the secret service, still known as the KGB (the State Committee for State Security), raided the office shared by the Belarusian branch of the international free speech charity PEN and the opposition newspaper Nasha Niva. In early January the Belarus government announced it was terminating the mandate of the OSCE Mission in Minsk.

Having worked hard to improve ties with the west, why did Lukashenka so publicly tear them to shreds on election night? There are two main theories. Faced with higher than anticipated opposition turnout, Lukashenka may simply have lost his nerve. Determining true levels of public support in authoritarian regimes is notoriously difficult. Whilst a substantial core of the electorate undoubtedly supports Lukashenka, he may have panicked at the prospect of any kind of political competition. Lukashenka and his allies have sought to present elections as a purely administrative procedure, not a political event, however one-sided. Even with the incentives the EU was offering for an improved electoral process, any hint of real contest may have appeared too risky to a nervous and insecure elite.

Alternatively, analysts have also suggested that the violence may have been coordinated by regime hardliners to sabotage Lukashenka's engagement with the EU and undermine the president's position. In previous elections the authorities had allowed the opposition to demonstrate on the freezing streets for several days before winding up the protest. This time, the crackdown was immediate, shockingly violent, and took place in front of the world's media, before the OSCE monitors had even delivered their verdict on the election. With many candidates beaten and imprisoned on election night, the message for those in the west hoping for further rapprochement with Minsk was blunt and unambiguous.

In the short term, these developments leave little room for debate on EU policy. The EU is likely to re-impose the sanctions and travel bans on Lukashenka and other leading officials. Having previously raised the possibility of just over four billion dollars in financial assistance to Belarus, Radoslaw Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle co-wrote a strongly-worded condemnation of the regime in the New York Times entitled 'Lukashenka the Loser'. Financial support for Belarus is firmly off the agenda.

The EU will soon face much more difficult decisions. The farce and then tragedy of the presidential elections has made the EU approach to Belarus appear naive and misguided. The EU invested political capital in a fairer and more transparent electoral process in the hope of consolidating a more liberal atmosphere in Minsk. It now seems fanciful to have anticipated that improvements in electoral procedure could lead to political change in such an authoritarian environment - this is tantamount to expecting Lukashenka and his henchmen to prepare the scene for their own demise. Whilst engagement with the authorities appears impossible at present, at some point the question of renewed dialogue will inevitably resurface. The EU will then need to make a difficult judgement about how to balance concerns over the contravention of basic human rights, with the fear that a policy of isolation is ineffective and would push the country further into Russia's sphere of influence.

As for Lukashenka, whether the president was the architect or the hostage of the events of December 19, his position is increasingly precarious. The Belarusian economy is ailing, external debt stands at 52 percent of GDP, and the only alternative to Western support is increased Russian dominance, with consequences all the Belarusian elite, and hopefully most western politicians, well understand. Shortly before the election, President Lukashenka made moves to patch up relations with Russia, reaching an agreement on oil and gas imports in exchange for Belarus accepting the conditions of the customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan. Despite this agreement, Moscow is likely to maintain pressure on Belarus, particularly as Lukashenka's political options are now severely limited. Moscow offered only a tardy and half-hearted endorsement of Lukashenka after the vote. At the same time it pushed Minsk hard to release Russian citizens arrested during the protests. Russian television, which in 2010 had waged an extraordinary dirty public relations campaign against Lukashenka, has continued to broadcast critical coverage, including claims that the attack on the parliament building was a provocation staged by the Belarus secret service. Russia will expect something in return for continued subsidies of the Belarus economy, but the terms of the energy deal between the countries are, as so often, obscure. Further dispute between the two countries seems likely.

The EU is likely to re-impose sanctions and travel bans on Lukashenka and other leading at its Foreign Affairs Council meeting on January 31. Harassed by Moscow, persona non grata in Brussels, and struggling to control hardliners at home, Lukashenka is in a bind. The future looks uncertain for Belarus and its leader. A review of the EU's approach is a policy imperative. If and when change comes to Belarus, the EU must be ready to respond.

(Alex Nice is the Programme Coordinator for the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House.)


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