Belarus on the Eve of Elections, Testimony of Rodger Potocki, Director, Central Europe and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy

Testimony of Rodger Potocki, Director, Central Europe and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy

Before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), U.S. House of Representatives

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members of the Commission:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the political situation in Belarus prior to the September 28 parliamentary elections. The regime in Minsk has adopted a different approach to this election, in comparison to the 2004 contest, but the changes are of style, not substance. Belarus has not held a free or fair election since Alexander Lukashenka was elected in 1994, and the end result of this one will almost certainly be the same.

To win Transatlantic political and economic concessions, the regime is altering the way it conducts elections in three ways: by allowing international scrutiny, asserting technical improvements, and moderating the campaign climate. In the past, Lukashenka cared little about Western outcry over his persecution of the opposition and falsification of elections. The regime’s new business plan is to try to minimize international condemnation of and encourage domestic apathy about what is already a flawed process. Lukashenka wants a “quiet election” that will advertise “progress” on several fronts and can be sold to the West.

Selling Abroad

The regime’s first adjustment towards muting international criticism has been to open up the elections to the outside world. Unlike Russia, Belarus has welcomed international monitors. As compared to previous contests, Minsk has issued invitations in a timely manner and not refused visas to observers. In contrast to 2004, the regime has been less obstructionist, granting the OSCE mission access to the highest levels of government. Lukashenka has declared: “We want to show western countries and Russia how elections should be organized.”

This election is being orchestrated primarily for US and European consumption, mainly to improve Belarus’ image abroad. The country’s top election official has made it clear that the Central Election Commission’s primary goal is to “have the results be recognized by the international community.” The acceptance of, and focus on, international observers also helps gain legitimacy amongst the 71 percent of the population that thinks the election should be monitored. But just as importantly, the regime’s détente with the West seeks to divert citizens’ attention away from the election’s domestic aspects. Close to a third of the state media’s election coverage has centered on the international monitors, not candidates or races.

The regime’s spotlight on the international has been carefully focused. In terms of monitoring, it has concentrated on the more friendly CIS observers. In mid-August, the state news agency Belta devoted four times as much coverage to the CIS monitors than to their western counterparts. But there has been almost no official coverage of domestic observation efforts. The CIS mission has been careful to reinforce the regime’s “quiet election” scenario. Its Russian head declared: “The preparations for the parliamentary election are going on in a calm manner, just as planned.”

Like the government, the leadership of the democratic opposition has also recognized the paramount role of the international community. By focusing most of its efforts on competing with the regime for Western attention — instead of campaigning at home — the opposition is also deflecting the electorate’s attention away from domestic issues. Calls for a boycott by some in the opposition also threaten to turn the election into exclusively an international show. The first interim report of the OSCE mission stated that there is “very little evidence” an election is actually underway in Belarus.

Better Business Practices?

The second tack to temper international dissatisfaction with the election process is the regime’s focus on organizational and technical matters. Lukashenka has declared that “we want the elections to be held in a way so that nobody will be able to criticize us.” The Central Election Commission is pointing to procedural improvements as evidence of Belarus coming “closer to international standards.” Chairperson Lidia Yarmoshyna pointed out, for example, that the CEC has received a total of 275 complaints since the parliamentary campaign began, as compared with 888 complaints during the last campaign. The CIS mission praised the Belarusian authorities for successfully “securing the proper organization of the election process.”

Cosmetic changes in routine do produce good publicity, especially if the state controls the media. If this election is perceived as more efficiently run, it gives the appearance of being more democratic. A focus on procedures helps to influence the one-third of voters who consider the country’s election code as flawed and do not believe this contest will be free or fair.

Similarly, the state-run media’s election coverage is reporting on those who are running the election, not those running in it. During the second half of July, it devoted more than 70 percent of its coverage on the parliamentary elections to President Lukashenka. During the first half of August, Gomel Pravda, a state regional newspaper covering 17 election districts, allotted 99.82 percent of its space to the president and CEC. The regime’s depiction of the election as a series of well-organized procedures helps to promote apathy by diverting attention from competing candidates, parties, platforms or issues.

An orderly election also contrasts nicely with a democratic opposition that is painted by the regime as illegitimate, disorganized and riven by conflict. The regime, which bases its legitimacy on stability, is using opposition protests against procedural irregularities to accuse the democrats of disturbing the peace. By tussling with the regime over procedures rather than campaigning, the opposition is bolstering the regime’s “well-ordered” election plan. The state’s actions and its media coverage are not designed to inform voters but to influence foreign observers, foster mass indifference, and preserve the political status quo. According to one OSCE employee, the most important thing for the regime is how this election looks to the West, not how it affects Belarusians.

Targeted Advertising

The third means to insure a “quiet election” is to temper political noise at home. The regime has moderated its repression against the opposition. Candidates report that the current environment is appreciably better than it was in 2004, when the regime disregarded international opinion and made little pretense in allowing any semblance of competition. The state media’s coverage is better in the sense that there has been less vitriol flung at the opposition. This time around, there is less of a climate of fear. There is some truth in the Central Election Commission’s claim that “the campaign is being carried out peacefully, in a quiet manner.”

But again, this is a change in approach, not direction. Heavy-handedness has been shelved for subtlety, brute force has been set aside in favor of low-level harassment, and intimidation has been replaced by fostering indifference. While purposely raising the international profile of the elections for its own purposes, the regime’s game plan has been to play down the elections at home.

Before the campaign began, the regime made sure to eliminate many of the opposition’s troublemakers. Leading representatives, including former statesmen, government leaders and VIPs, were left off of election commissions. A dozen of the opposition’s “rising stars,” who had previously run strong campaigns and developed popular support, were not registered.

Those who made it past the procedural hurdles of registration have not been subjected to the full force of state repression. Rather than being beaten or arrested, as in 2004, they or members of their campaign teams have been forced to undergo tax inspections, expelled from university, fired from their jobs, and drafted into the army. The regime hasn’t abandoned the use of force, just ratcheted down its intensity. In fact, because the regime wants this election to come off well, most of the election-related arrests have been of those advocating a boycott.

To foster indifference among the populace, the state media has minimized the elections. From July to August, election-related coverage actually decreased. The state broadcast media has devoted more time to reporting on the weather than the elections; it has offered almost zero coverage to opposition campaigns. State radio rejected the opposition’s request to hold candidate debates. As late as the first week of September, Soviet Belarus and The Republic, two leading state dailies, provided no positive or no negative reporting on political parties – they simply ignored them. During the same period, the main news program on state TV devoted less than three percent of its election reporting to an anonymous opposition and anonymous political parties. A independent monitor was discouraged to see that “there is literally no election campaign going on in the media.”

Finally, the regime has used its administrative resources to limit the public outreach of opposition campaigns. Candidates’ television addresses were broadcast during rush hour, from 5:30 to 6:30pm, when working people were still commuting home. They appeared not on national TV, but on regional channels, which less people watch. T he state provided the equivalent of $800 to each candidate for campaigning, the only funding that can legally be used to get out his or her message. Meetings with voters have been restricted to only a few, out-of-the-way places, such as parks where dogs are allowed. Candidate materials are limited to isolated billboards. The regime’s goal is to make the elections unnoticeable for the general public, and to prevent any political excitement among common people. Citizens are being encouraged to go to the polls without knowing their choices, and the regime is doing all it can to keep a tight rein on those who might disturb the ritual of voting that still dominates in this post-Soviet state.

Mr. Chairman, during Soviet times, Belarus was known as “The Quiet Republic.” The regime is doing all that it can to make this a “quiet election,” palatable to the West. But “the sounds of silence” emanating from Minsk insure that this will not be a free and fair election. To answer the question in the title of this hearing, it’s not business as usual in Belarus this fall, but the same old scam is still in the works. Thank you.