Elections in Belarus criticised by observers


WESTERN OBSERVERS and European Union states have condemned the conduct of elections in Belarus that filled parliament with supporters of autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko.

Two opposition parties boycotted Sunday’s vote, saying it would be a sham, and they ridiculed results that gave 109 parliamentary seats to pro-Lukashenko candidates and put voter turnout at 74 per cent.

“The blatant violations in these elections make it clear to everyone that Belarus is the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” said German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. “Together with our European partners we will increase our efforts to push for the release of political prisoners, to strengthen Belarus civil society and to isolate president Lukashenko and his regime even more.”

Matteo Mecacci, co-ordinator of a short-term observer mission from the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is chaired this year by Ireland, said: “This election was not competitive from the start.

“A free election depends on people being free to speak, organise and run for office, and we didn’t see that in this campaign. We stand ready to work with Belarus to take the steps forward that are in our common interest.”

The OSCE reported the election campaign “was barely visible” and media coverage “did not provide a wide range of views. Candidates who called for an election boycott had their free access to media coverage denied or censored. Media coverage focused on the president and government, with minimal attention given to candidates.”

Poor counting procedures and the alleged bias of the election commissions also undermined the ballot, the OSCE claimed. Observers from Russia and other ex-Soviet states found no fault with the elections. Parliament in Belarus serves largely to stamp the edicts of Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled his country of 9½ million people for 18 years.

Hopes of an improvement in relations between Minsk and the West were dashed in December 2010, when police cracked down hard on people who rallied in protest at Mr Lukashenko’s allegedly fraudulent re-election.

Several opposition leaders were jailed and the EU subsequently broadened sanctions against Belarusian firms and officials and businessmen close to Mr Lukashenko.

He does enjoy widespread support in Belarus, however, particularly among older people and in the provinces. They see him as a guarantor of stability who will ensure the provision of basic payments and services while preventing the kind of upheaval seen in other ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia over the last decade.

Western states that desire change in Belarus hoped Mr Lukashenko would be weakened by a severe financial crisis that struck the country last year, but Russia stabilised the situation with a multibillion-euro loan in exchange for an opportunity to buy Belarus’s gas pipeline network.

After voting in Minsk on Sunday, Mr Lukashenko called opposition leaders “cowards who have nothing to say to the people”.