Friday

3rd Feb 2023

EU watching as Belarus shuts out opposition

None of the 78 opposition candidates won seats in Belarus parliamentary elections on Sunday, amid allegations of vote-rigging. The OSCE and the EU will react later on Monday (29 September), with the EU looking for reasons to ease Belarus sanctions.

The head of the Central Electoral Commission, Lidziya Yarmoshyna, unveiled the preliminary result at 2 am local time on Monday morning, saying prominent opposition candidates such as Syarhey Kalyakin, Ales Mikhalevich, Anatoly Lebedko and Volha Kazulin received only between 8.6 percent and 15.6 percent of the votes in their electoral districts.

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"All elections in Belarus were held democratically, but the only thing is that election processes are viewed in a different way," Ms Yarmoshyna - who is on the EU's visa ban list along with 40 other Belarus officials - said, BelaPAN reports.

The result reflects the fact many older, working class and rural Belarusians support President Alexander Lukashenko and do not believe that the parliament has any real political power. It also undermines earlier reports the EU and Belarus had cut a deal to let 22 opposition figures into the lower house.

In one way the election was more free than the previous one in 2004, when no opposition candidates were allowed to run.

The police also stood back as around 1,000 pro-democracy activists marched around central Minsk for three hours on Sunday night, carrying EU flags and banners that read "Lukashenko is Europe's last dictator" and "No to electoral farce!"

The OSCE verdict on the poll - due at 3 pm local time on Monday - may focus on details of the vote count. In past elections, monitors had to sit five metres away from the counting table. The OSCE was on Sunday night still waiting for detailed feedback from its 477 personnel scattered around the country.

Opposition claims that the vote was fixed centre around the fact that just 13 opposition personnel were allowed into the 6,500 or so regional electoral commissions that administer the count. Critics also point out that 25 percent of the electorate voted in early ballots without any oversight.

Anatoly Lebedko of the opposition United Civic Party said he has photographs of unsealed ballot boxes containing forged votes. "There was no election in Belarus," he told AP. "It was an electoral farce for the West. We call on the EU and US not to recognise the results of the election."

"This spits in the face of the European community," leading dissident Alexander Kazulin said, Reuters reports. "The OSCE is in a pretty sensitive position. They need to produce some positive assessment, but they will find it difficult to do after what has happened."

The French EU presidency is expected to make a statement on the elections later on Monday, setting the political tone ahead of a discussion by senior EU diplomats on Tuesday about suspending the visa ban or taking some names off the list.

The EU is keen to pull Belarus closer to act as a buffer against what it sees as a newly aggressive Russia. But it fears Lukashenko may be using the option of rapprochement with the West as a bargaining chip in upcoming gas price talks with Moscow.

A European Commission official told EUobserver ahead of the elections that if a sanctions move is deemed strategically useful, the EU will be able to find grounds for it in the OSCE judgment, which always lists positive and negative elements and is not a simple pass or fail.

"No matter what happens in the elections, the OSCE verdict will say something positive about democratic reforms," the contact said.

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