Dictating democracy in Belarus

The European and US authorities' attempts to 'assist democracy' in Belarus had the opposite effect - patronising voters and limiting their choices.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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Belarus president Alexander Lukashenka is often portrayed in the West as ‘the continent’s last hardline communist dictator’, who rules in a ‘Soviet time warp’ (1).

His ‘landslide victory’ over the democratic opposition forces in Belarus’ election on 9 September confirmed for many that he is an old-school Cold War Stalinist, who even fiddles elections in order to stay in power.

Lukashenka’s party won 75 percent of the vote, the unified opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik polled 15 percent, and the Liberal Democratic Party leader Sergey Gaidukevich got just 2.5 percent. It didn’t take long for opposition parties and independent NGOs to call for the election results to be annulled, on the grounds that there had been ‘unprecedented falsification’ and ‘gross violations’ – while the USA and European governments denounced the election for falling short of international democratic standards.

But having observed the Belarus elections with the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, I found a different reality to that portrayed in the Western press.

I observed the count in Minsk, where the opposition had most support, at one of the only polling stations where the election committee was made up of Goncharik supporters from the Trade Union Federation. Domestic NGO observers were genuinely disappointed that even at this polling station – where there could have been no manipulation or fraud – Lukashenka won 61 percent against Goncharik’s 35 percent.

This result, considering the much lower support for the opposition candidate outside Minsk, fitted with the results claimed by the Central Election Commission for the country as a whole. Gerard Stoudmann, head of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), claimed to have no evidence of manipulation or fraud of the results. Similarly, the Association of Central and East European Election Officials described the election as ‘free and open, and in compliance with all universal democratic institutions’.

The lack of evidence of election fraud, and the absence of any popular protests against Lukashenka, stood in sharp contrast to the exaggerated fears of Western commentators.
But this was hardly surprising, as Western commentators’ depiction of the election as an historic one between democracy and dictatorship was misleading: Lukashenka is hardly an old-fashioned dictator and the opposition ‘democracy’ campaign had little to do with democracy.

Lukashenka may be seen in the West as an old communist – but in truth, he is neither old nor a communist. At 47 years of age he was 15 years younger than the main presidential challenger. And he is an opponent of the old Communist nomenklatura – in fact, the Communist Party of Belarus played a high-profile role in the united opposition campaign to unseat Lukashenka.

Lukashenka is essentially a political pragmatist. With minimal foreign investment and restricted export opportunities to the West, he has been forced to play on the importance of trade links with Russia and to advocate a gradualist approach to economic reform. This approach has won widespread support within Belarus itself, particularly among those who rely on state subsidy – like pensioners, who account for almost a third of the Belarus population, rural workers, and those reliant on public-sector employment.

Many Belarusians count themselves lucky to have regularly paid wages, high levels of employment, and state pensions and subsidies – as well as few of the social problems that beset their neighbours in Russia, like drugs and crime.

The Western media’s coverage of a struggle between ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ had much to do with the fact that the Belarus opposition united around a single ‘democracy candidate’. Following the parliamentary elections of 2000, which some opposition parties boycotted while others took part, the head of the OSCE permanent mission in Belarus, Hans-Georg Wieck, worked closely with the US ambassador Michael Kozak to ensure that the opposition put up a ‘unity’ candidate this time around.

Wieck laid out the OSCE’s strategy for ‘democratising’ Belarus’ presidential elections in an article at the end of 2000:

‘A review of opinion polls tells us that… between the hard core support at both ends of Belarus society, for the president and the parties of the right wing, there is a large percentage of voters who need to be attracted and forced into a specific voting decision.’ (my emphasis) (2)

Wieck and Kozak’s strategy was to select a unity candidate who would most successfully win support away from Lukashenka – and Vladimir Goncharik was considered the ‘safest’ option, with his support base of the centre-left coalition of trade unions and social-democratic parties. But Wieck and Kozak didn’t find it easy to sell their idea to the opposition parties.

According to opinion polls, the most popular opposition candidate was Semyon Domash – who had the backing of centre-right forces, including the moderately nationalist Belarusian Popular Front, the liberal Civic Party and some youth opposition groups. For many opposition parties, Goncharik – with his low public profile and the fact that he is 61 years old and in poor health – was just too unlikely to unseat Lukashenka. But the US and OSCE authorities were keen to force their strategy through – so the five main opposition leaders were called to the US embassy, where Kozak managed to ensure that Domash stood down and accepted a coalition. Two days later, the opposition parties were all backing Goncharik.

This kind of democratic ‘assistance’ provided by the OSCE’s permanent mission and the US State Department did little for democracy – and little to change the political climate in Belarus.

First, the fact that the opposition received close support from the international community inevitably encouraged it to hope to win the elections by relying on international pressure rather than domestic support.

From the outset it was obvious that the ‘democratic’ campaign was relying on getting the election results overturned and having the international community refuse to recognise Lukashenka’s victory as legitimate. Rather than campaigning for votes, the opposition campaign team focused its attention on the Western media – quoting to Western journalists unconfirmed ‘reliable sources’ that the election would be rigged. So on the last day of campaigning, while the other presidential candidates were out mobilising votes, Goncharik spent the day at the Hotel Planeta putting his case to the parliamentary delegations from the OSCE, Council of Europe and the European Union.

Second, the pressure to unite around Goncharik, in order to ‘force’ voters into a ‘specific voting position’, cut down the choice and the democratic discussion available. This internationally enforced policy was particularly unfortunate, because if there had been a number of opposition candidates to choose between and Lukashenka had won less than 50 percent of the votes, the election would have gone to a second round and the opposition parties could have chosen which candidate or platform to support.

But unfortunately, in rejecting their ‘democratic’ choice, the voters of Belarus have probably only confirmed the OSCE’s patronising view that they need more ‘assistance’, not less.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    Read on:

    Third time wrong, by David Chandler

    Kosovo elections: who’s failing the test of democracy?, by David Chandler

    (1) ‘Belarusian Bullying’, The Times, 10 September 2001; Ian Traynor, ‘Reign of Terror in a Soviet Time Warp’, Guardian, 7 September 2001

    (2) Hans-Georg Wieck, ‘Belarus Within Europe: EU Enlargement and its Consequences for a New Neighbor’, November 2000. Click here to download a copy of this document in .pdf format

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


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