Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Column

The Grand Vote Theft - or why the East is so unstable

Russian government propaganda likes to pretend that the post-Soviet space is a harbour of stability compared to the tumultuous politics of central and western Europe.

The facts show the opposite.

Read and decide

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Not counting the Baltic states, the 12 countries of the former Soviet Union suffer from five militarised border-conflicts and have seen eight massive upheavals around fraudulent elections in the last 20 years. Three governments were overthrown.

In the EU, the respective numbers are zero, zero and zero among its 27 member states.

At the core of the Eastern instability is the lack of public legitimacy of its governments. The post-communist elites that rule most of these countries decided that they are not interested in democratic politics but aim to stay in power as long as possible, no matter what their people want.

That's not a way to build a stable country.

In the authoritarian worldview, every election becomes a massive stress test. It needs to appear to be as democratic as possible while making sure that the incumbents are not challenged.

The toolbox to achieve such results includes assassination, intimidation, de-registration of candidates, owning or controlling media and falsifying election results.

Such processes are embellished by sham institutions, like fake election observation groups that will invariably find every flawed election to be without fault.

In short, instead of political participation, citizens get propaganda.

Belarus remains one of the more gruesome examples. For 20 years, Belarusian election observers and those from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have criticised all elections in the country and repeated essential recommendations to improve them.

None have ever been adopted.

The Belarusian election administration does not even pretend to manage transparent elections. Observers are often not allowed to see the ballots being counted, vote protocols are regularly signed when they are still empty and it is impossible to review the overall results because no detailed voting results from polling stations are published.

The Belarusian NGO Viasna found that the recent elections were the most repressive ever.

Even before the vote started, more than a thousand people were arrested.

Three promising candidates were either put in jail or exiled. The same pattern was repeated after the election. Two of the three women who filled the void are now in exile and the third, Maria Kolesnikova, was abducted in broad daylight on Monday. It appears the government is trying to force her out of the country as well.

Authoritarian rulers often pretend to be defenders of law and order.

But they are serial violators of their own constitutions. In Belarus, it is the people who defend law and order against security organs that went on a rampage.

For example, the constitution solemnly states that no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or undignified treatment and yet hundreds of Belarusians have been tortured by security forces; no state organ has done anything to stop them or to prosecute the offenders.

I am all in favour of realpolitik aimed at making gradual changes in the real world as opposed to aspirational pronouncements.

Not an optional extra

Yet in public debates in the EU, the understanding of realpolitik is often reduced to meaning that human rights and democracy are mere extras on top of "real" issues like economic relations. They are not.

The blatant violation of democratic norms in many post-Soviet states is a serious risk to Europe's stability. We can take it for granted that electoral unrest will remain a feature of the authoritarian countries of Eastern Europe until they democratise.

Despite their many struggles, countries like Georgia or Ukraine are less likely to suffer from this kind of instability. Most of the former Soviet Union however remains on the bottom of global charts of freedom and democracy.

Any good realpolitik needs to be built on the assumption that authoritarian regimes are a threat to European stability. Supporting change towards democracy is an investment in long-term stability.

And, as the case of Belarus shows, it is not a matter of geopolitical orientation. Democratisation means that people decide their own destiny. It does not mean becoming an EU member.

The EU´s new budget (or Multi-Annual Financial Framework) should include significant funding to support democracy in the East. It needs to have flexible mechanisms that allow working in the adverse conditions of repressive systems.

This is not to export democracy to unwilling people. It is to support groups and people that insist that governments operate transparently and do not trample on democratic rights.

Talking is not a policy

Another misperception of realpolitik, which is widespread in Germany, is that it means giving a premium to talking to each other.

But talking is not a policy. It is a self-evident principle of diplomacy to keep talking, even to the most repressive regimes. It is why we have embassies and diplomatic services. Nobody suggests we stop talking.

The question is what to talk about, what to say and where to draw red lines.

When Moscow draws a red line that the EU should not encourage Belarusian aspirations to be associated to the bloc, the EU can draw its own red line and insist that Russia-EU relations will suffer at all levels if there is no reformed political process in Belarus that results in genuine, competitive elections.

In one crucial aspect, the EU's power as a democratic actor has much weakened: some of its own member states are attacking democratic institutions.

The Polish government provides case studies to any government seeking to undermine independent courts. Bulgarians are staging major protests against corrupt institutions. And the Hungarian ruling party has restricted the space for electoral competition and skewed it in its favour to an extent that one has to consider the country at risk of electoral instability because it stops producing legitimate governance.

Realpolitik suggests that here too, the EU needs to do more.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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