18th Mar 2018

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Belarus is living through its deepest recession since independence (Photo: Marco Fieber)

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.

Western relations

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.

US factor

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

Lukashenko angling for better EU ties

On paper still Europe’s biggest pariah, the Belarusian leader is keen to mend fences with the EU amid concerns on Russian aggression.


Belarus: A nation with no politics

Lukashenko will never become Gorbachov. If Belarusian people do not stop acquiescing on fake elections and other abuses, change won't come.


Lukashenka: End of an era?

The political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season began, but greater changes loom after 23 years of dictatorship.

MEPs call for reset in relations with Belarus

A group of 72 euro-deputies have written to EU leaders, asking them to stop funding Europe's last dictatorship and increase their support for democracy activists instead.


Four years on – but we will not forget illegally-occupied Crimea

Together with many other partners, including the United States, Canada and Norway, the European Union has implemented a policy of non-recognition and sanctions regimes, targeting people and entities that have promoted Russia's illegal annexation.

News in Brief

  1. Sweden emerges as possible US-North Korean summit host
  2. Google accused of paying academics backing its policies
  3. New interior minister: 'Islam doesn't belong to Germany'
  4. Hamburg 'dieselgate' driver wins case to get new VW car
  5. Slovak deputy PM asked to form new government
  6. US, Germany, France condemn 'assault on UK sovereignty'
  7. MEPs accept Amsterdam as seat for EU medicines agency
  8. Auditors: EU farm 'simplification' made subsidies more complex

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceConmtroversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  2. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. Martens CentreEuropean Defence Union: Time to Aim High?
  5. UNESDAWatch UNESDA’s President Toast Its 60th Anniversary Year
  6. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Condemns MEP Ana Gomes’s Anti-Semitic Remark, Calls for Disciplinary Action
  7. EPSUEU Commissioners Deny 9.8 Million Workers Legal Minimum Standards on Information Rights
  8. ACCAAppropriate Risk Management is Crucial for Effective Strategic Leadership
  9. EPSUWill the Circular Economy be an Economy With no Workers?
  10. European Jewish CongressThe 2018 European Medal of Tolerance Goes to Prince Albert II of Monaco
  11. FiscalNoteGlobal Policy Trends: What to Watch in 2018
  12. Human Rights and Democracy NetworkPromoting Human Rights and Democracy in the Next Eu Multiannual Financial Framework

Latest News

  1. Brexit and trade will top This WEEK
  2. Dutch MPs in plan to shut EU website on Russian propaganda
  3. Four years on – but we will not forget illegally-occupied Crimea
  4. Evacuated women from Libya arrive newly-pregnant
  5. Merkel in Paris for eurozone reform talks
  6. Commission rejects ombudsman criticism over Barroso case
  7. Western allies back UK amid Russian media blitz
  8. Meet the European Parliament's twittersphere

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUDigital Cooperation a Priority for China-EU Relations
  2. ECTACompetition must prevail in the quest for telecoms investment
  3. European Friends of ArmeniaTaking Stock of 30 Years of EU Policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: How Can the EU Contribute to Peace?
  4. ILGA EuropeCongratulations Finland!
  5. EUobserverNow Hiring! Sales Associate With 2+ Years Experience
  6. EUobserverNow Hiring! Finance Officer With Accounting Degree or Experience
  7. UNICEFCyclone Season Looms Over 720,000 Rohingya Children in Myanmar & Bangladesh
  8. European Gaming & Betting AssociationEU Court: EU Commission Correct to Issue Guidelines for Online Gambling Services
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina Hopes for More Exchanges With Nordic, Baltic Countries
  10. Macedonian Human Rights MovementCondemns Facebook for Actively Promoting Anti-Macedonian Racism
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal Seed Vault: Gene Banks Gather to Celebrate 1 Million Seed Collections
  12. CECEIndustry Stakeholders Are Ready to Take the Lead in Digital Construction

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ILGA EuropeAnkara Ban on LGBTI Events Continues as Turkish Courts Reject NGO Appeals
  2. Aid & Trade LondonJoin Thousands of Stakeholders of the Global Aid Industry at Aid & Trade London
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementEuropean Free Alliance Joins MHRMI to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism Year to Promote Business and Mutual Ties
  5. European Jewish CongressAt “An End to Antisemitism!” Conference, Dr. Kantor Calls for Ambitious Solutions
  6. UNESDAA Year Ago UNESDA Members Pledged to Reduce Added Sugars in Soft Drinks by 10%
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsUzbekistan: Investigate Torture of Journalist
  8. UNICEFExecutive Director's Committment to Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region 2018: Facts, Figures and Rankings of the 74 Regions
  10. Mission of China to the EUDigital Economy Shaping China's Future, Over 30% of GDP
  11. Macedonian Human Rights MovementSuing the Governments of Macedonia and Greece for Changing Macedonia's Name
  12. Swedish EnterprisesHarnessing Globalization- at What Cost? Keynote Speaker Commissioner Malmström