President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is urging Europe and the United States to lift sanctions against his country. But European election monitors say that parliamentary elections on September 28 fell short of democratic standards.
The United States and the European Union had voiced a willingness to consider lifting trade and travel sanctions imposed on Belarus, if monitors from the Organization and Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) certified that the voting process met international standards for transparency and fairness. And despite what the OSCE called “minor improvements” in procedures, it noted opposition candidates failed to win a single seat in the 110-member parliament.
A Byelorussian Perspective
Byelorussian journalist Maria Sadovskaya says those “minor improvements” were largely cosmetic, despite Western hopes that the Lukashenko government was slowly moving toward democratization. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Sadovskaya says, “the election results were something that pessimists had predicted, that realists were afraid of, but that optimists were hoping this time the authorities would behave differently.” However, she says, the government played it safe and tried to prevent any opposition in parliament.
Maria Sadovskaya suggests it was unrealistic to expect the elections would be free and fair. Now, she says, it is up to the United States and the EU to decide whether the improvements that took place during the election process were sufficient to justify lifting some sanctions. Sadovskaya says she thinks there will be a compromise. That is, no major sanctions will be lifted, but that further steps may be taken to encourage Minsk to democratize more. Still, she says Washington and the European Union aren’t expected to make any moves in that direction until after the U.S. presidential elections in November.
A Ukrainian Perspective
Ukrainian journalist Yevhen Hlibovytsky in Kyiv says the Ukrainian view of elections in Belarus depends entirely upon whom you ask. Pro-Western Ukrainians were hoping the elections in Belarus would free and fair. But, as the OSCE monitors reported, the Lukashenko government did not provide equal access to the media for opposition candidates, and instead promoted the candidates it favored. Hlibovytsky calls it “yet another failed attempt to get rid of one of the last dictatorships in Europe.”
Yevhen Hlibovytsky points out, however, that while Belarus has been a long-time ally of Russia, Minsk has recently tried to differentiate between its position and Moscow’s, especially on Georgia. For example, he notes that Belarus has not recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and that it is trying to play its own balancing game between the interests of Russia and those of the West, all the while “staying within the range of Russian influence.” Hlibovytsky says he thinks the West will give the Lukashenko government another chance – in fact many chances – because it is crucial in the midst of a financial crisis that is shaking the world economy to decrease the level of risk coming from the post-Soviet sphere of influence. He agrees that the West will probably postpone making any hard decisions on Belarus until next year. But he says this is more about geo-politics than about democracy in Belarus.
A Russian Perspective
Dmitri Siderov, Washington correspondent for Kommersant, Moscow’s political and economics daily, says Russian media were also closely watching the elections in Belarus. Siderov says the Kremlin was apprehensive about President Lukashenko’s overtures to the West. But he goes on to note that the failure of the Byelorussian opposition to win any seats in parliament during the election strongly suggests Mr. Lukashenko was merely playing political games.
On the other hand, Dmitri Siderov says Russia’s perspective is understandable, if you take a hard look at the map. Belarus is located right on Russia’s western border and is almost completely dependent on Russia economically. Siderov says one could see how the Kremlin considers Western calls for democracy and modernization in Belarus as much too threatening. And, in view of the Russian belief that Belarus is one of the last battlegrounds in Europe, he suggests any changes to the system in Belarus could provoke a fierce fight between Russia and the West.