Belarus elections: invisible, but not trivial
In what may well qualify as their country’s most invisible election ever, Belarusians went to vote for a new parliament last Sunday (11 September).
Only once the polls closed did the ballot draw broader attention: for the first time in over a decade a pair of opposition-minded candidates made it into the House of Representatives.
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In the tightly knit autocracy of Aleksander Lukashenko, such a surprise result hardly reflects a free and fair vote, a verdict OSCE monitors denied to this latest election as to all others since 1994.
Instead, the appointment of two independents to the submissive assembly follows a hard political calculus on the part of the Belarusian strongman, who counts on gains both at home and, even more so, internationally.
Such boosts are badly needed, shaky as Lukashenko’s reign has increasingly become. His country is living through its deepest recession since independence and faces debt repayments that effectively exhaust its meagre reserves.
The independence of his small nation - and with it, his very rule - are ever-more aggressively questioned by the Kremlin, and with the Russian war against Ukraine, Belarusians fear that they, too, might eventually draw the wrath of their eastern neighbour.
Faced with economic collapse and Russian chauvinism, Lukashenko has once again turned to the West. He unleashed a charm offensive, avoided taking sides in the Ukraine crisis, and offered himself as a peace broker, released political prisoners and relaxed the worst - but by no means all - repression of critics and civil society.
Yet with Western relief too slow and too little to stem the tide, it was only a matter of time until the ruler in Minsk would pull his next trick.
It came in the form of the unlikely admission last weekend of Anna Konopatskaya and Alena Anisim to the Belarusian parliament.
The former is a lawyer, businesswoman and member of the opposition United Civic Party, who ran on an economic reform program; the latter is a linguist, civic activist and, in her capacity as deputy head of the Belarusian Language Society, an ardent promoter of the country’s embattled native language.
These profiles so obviously fit the two Achilles’ heels of Lukashenko’s Belarus - the economy and independence - that design, rather than democracy, has certainly been at work.
Anisim’s nomination is to signal the Lukashenko regime’s sincere, if only recent, belief in the need to strengthen Belarusian identity.
In turn, Konopatskaya’s assignment feigns government awareness that economic reforms are needed, and its willingness to pursue them.
Enlisting representatives of an opposition party and a civil society group is only meant to amplify this message, whether to the many Belarusians who have recently begun to rediscover their language and identity, or to all those - from technocrats, to businesses, and to foreign creditors - who are hoping for economic change.
It is most unlikely that on both accounts little real government action will follow.
What is more sinister, these appointments are also designed to further deepen rifts among Belarus’ notoriously divided opposition and civil society. One disagreement has long been between opposition parties and civic initiatives.
The former have been effectively deprived of their raison d’etre in the absence of meaningful elections; the latter have a greater, even if a very limited, role in public life.
Another controversy has pitted advocates of radical change against those proposing the gradual transformation of Belarusian society and politics. Konopatskaya and Anisim mirror these different positions, and their presence in the assembly will only further strains among Belarus’ democrats broadly.
However, more important than these domestic machinations will be the effect that Lukashenko’s electoral surprise will have on the West.
The rapprochement with the European Union seems to have stalled. To be sure, a flurry of diplomatic contacts, exploration of business opportunities, and even intensified contacts among civil societies and citizens-at-large have ensued over the last year.
Yet the rapid progress that seemed imminent with the EU decision to lift most of its sanctions earlier this year has not materialised. Neither has Lukashenko been received wholeheartedly by EU leaders, nor have Europe’s coffers been opened up to soother Belarus’ finances.
In this situation, the outcome of last weekend’s elections is effectively to maintain the suspense.
It provides another well-timed dose of imitated progress. It keeps alive the illusion of political change among the many EU policymakers, business lobbies and pseudo experts who are itching to get back to business-as-usual with authoritarian Belarus.
And in so doing, the Lukashenko regime retains and expands its reach in Europe. It will inevitably demand further financial aid and political concessions.
One such concession, on which EU debate is likely to ensue after the elections, is the intensification of parliamentary contacts.
To date, such EU-Belarus cooperation is very limited and the country is excluded from key inter-parliamentary forums, such as the one of the EU Eastern Partnership.
Although the Belarusian assembly remains a unelected body by OSCE standards, the fact that it now comprises two opposition figures makes, as many will argue, this exclusion untenable.
Including Belarus, however, will gift international acceptance to the deeply illegitimate Belarusian regime.
Perhaps even more important than the EU is, in Lukashenko’s calculus, the United States.
The strongman in Minsk fully understands that his balancing act between Russia and the West, and his escape from financial collapse, depend on Washington.
Consequently, he has already intensified contacts, not least on security issues, and has promised the re-establishment of full diplomatic ties. His electoral charade is the latest push to convince the US to normalise its relationship with Belarus, after the Americans remained much more cautious than the Europeans on fully fledged re-engagement.
His immediate prize would certainly be the suspension of US sanctions; his possible next hope might be American support of a much-needed International Monetary Fund loan that Belarus has sought, so far in vain.
And in the long run, Lukashenko probably reckons that improved US-Belarus ties will add another modicum of international legitimacy and protection from Russian meddling in his country.
Seen from these domestic and international angles, then, the barely visible Belarusian ballot may unleash some very visible consequences.
If only some of these materialised, the West would have moved even further away from its own principles. Any wonder, Lukashenko remains the longest-serving dictator on the European continent.
Joerg Forbrig directs the fund for Belarus democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank