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The predictable results of the parliamentary elections which took place in Belarus on September 28th, 2008 met with great surprise in the West and even in Belarus. Indeed, many signs had pointed to this ballot being markedly different to the usual routine exercise of validating the status quo, which is what elections in Belarus had become in the last twelve years. These signs included the release of political prisoners, scores of OSCE observers entering the country, many after years of being banned from doing so, European and US government representatives holding talks in the presidential administration, EU Secretary-General Javier Solana talking to the Belarusian president on the phone three days before the ballot, and even President Lukashenko himself hinting that a few opposition members might be elected. Yet despite all this, the results declared by the central election commission hours after the vote was closed brought Belarusian politics back to its old routine.
The European Union and the United States set two conditions for the normalization of relations with Belarus by summer 2008: free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. At the time, the West hoped that the normalization of relations with Belarus was at hand, and that meeting these conditions could promote meaningful political progress in Belarus, as well as in the election process. The government in Minsk appeared to be seeking ties with the West due to a growing uncertainty about its ability to uphold favourable treatment by Russia. This was especially the case in light of new negotiations over energy prices, as Moscow appeared to be pushing for price rises. The possible methods of avoiding steep price hikes included the privatization of key industries by Russian capital and/or authorizing closer political and monetary union with Russia. Both options, however, would have made a deep dent to Lukashenko’s power and he was trying to keep his geopolitical options open. Economic anxieties caused by the world financial crisis added a new rationale for seeking engagement with the West: Russia could soon run into severe economic trouble, making it incapable of continuing to supply the necessary subsidies.
Lukashenko therefore faced the task of forcing the West to commit itself to normalizing ties with Belarus. His methods included the removal of visa and economic sanctions, improvement of the overall image of the country to give an appearance of greater respectability and identifying back-up solutions to potential brawls with Moscow. Moreover, the engagement had to proceed in a way which would not compromise the president’s hold on power in any way. The Belarusian leader made a decision, as he later confirmed, ‘to play on the West’s own home turf’ by creating the impression that the parliamentary elections were an area where political progress was indeed possible. He then made numerous promises to conduct the ballot in a free and fair manner and admitted OSCE long-term observers in a clear snub to Kremlin, which had declined entry to the observers to its own election the previous year.
The geopolitical situation changed rapidly
Following the short Russia-Georgia war, the geopolitical situation changed rapidly and Russia reasserted its economic and military hegemony over Belarus. Russia pressurised Belarus to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, with the understanding that if Lukashenko agreed to this, it would seal Moscow's geopolitical hegemony over Belarus. It would also strip Lukashenko of the freedom of using foreign policy manoeuvres to withstand future economic and political pressure from Moscow. Moreover, the proposal to include South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Russia-Belarus union could have been used to formally finalize the process of the absorption of Belarus by Russia. Lukashenko therefore delayed the recognition of the breakaway republics and was forced to make clear and identifiable moves that would be interpreted in the West as political progress.
The release of the former presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin and two other political prisoners in mid-August, following Russia’s pressure to recognize the breakaway regions, was interpreted in the West as a clear sign from Lukashenko that he was ready for rapprochement. Even prior to this, Lukashenko made a ceremonial gesture by inviting the long-term observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in contrast to the Kremlin, which rejected OSCE observers the previous year. The Chief of Foreign Security, Viktor Sheiman and his second in command were removed from the presidential administration of Henadz Nevyhlas, following the mysterious incident which took place in the centre of Minsk on July 4th, 2008 (which, depending on perspective, was deemed to either be a terrorist attack or an act of hooliganism). This was interpreted by most analysts as a strengthening of the position of Lukashenko’s older son Viktor, who had been locked in a power fight with Sheiman for the last two years.
A series of confrontations between different factions in the security agencies in 2007-2008 often spun out of control and hinted that Lukashenko’s inner circle might split. The appointment of Vladimir Makey, a veteran advisor to Lukashenko senior and Viktor’s long-time associate, as the new head of the presidential administration, marked, for many, the advance of a new generation of “technocrats” - more pragmatic, business-oriented, and potentially more open for dialogue with the West. Makey, with his long career in the security agencies, may be as good at creating illusionary impressions as his predecessors. Indeed, being well-educated and fluent in foreign languages, he stands out among Lukashenko’s entourage as he has a better understanding of dealing with the West. It was presumably on his suggestion that Lukashenko agreed to release Alaksandr Kazulin to his wife’s funeral in February. At the same time, it was Makey who, in 2004, lobbied most actively for the closure of the European Humanities University. At the very least, there is no evidence that the removal of Sheiman brought forth a body of soft liners in the presidential administration.
The Belarusian elections and the West
However, the new coterie of associates was more keen to ration political repression and to avoid unnecessary excesses, and was prepared for more subtle methods of PR campaigning. The West appeared to be coming to the conclusion that engagement with Lukashenko had to be given a chance as a possible tool of influencing the situation in the country. This was influenced by three sets of factors: firstly, there was a growing perception that Lukashenko was going to lose out as a result of continuing international isolation, and hence conditionality, which had previously proven to be ineffective, could work this time. Secondly, there was a certain Belarus fatigue in both the EU and the US: attempts of international isolation and investment in democracy promotion in the past proved to be counterproductive, while the US in particular faced a somewhat awkward situation with the introduction of sanctions against the Belnaftakhim Company. These ended with the near-expulsion of the US embassy from Minsk, while Belnaftakhim continued its exports to the US through slightly modified schemes. There was also a growing disappointment in the abilities of the Belarusian opposition to turn the country’s situation around. Thirdly, there was growing interest in engaging on behalf of business interests, promoted by the partial economic liberalization that could be observed occurring in Belarus since 2007.
Overall, it has to be said that the parliamentary elections were an international rather than a domestic affair. Belarusian society remained largely uninformed about the exercise until immediately prior to the vote. The information available about the candidates and agendas was minimal: the authorities did increase the air time for candidates’ broadcasts, but this was done on TV networks with the smallest audiences and minimal national coverage. The major issue for the politicized minority of society was the prospect of a change in Belarus’s relations with the West (and, for that reason, with Russia) after the vote. In this situation, the major political players in the campaign were not the pro-government and opposition candidates but those who were not on the ballot: Lukashenko and his associates on the one hand, and European and US foreign officials and ambassadors on the other. (...)
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