Authorities suspend repressions against opponents to boost public interest in elections
Amid deep split in the opposition, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to boost political activity in society in order to ensure the required turnout on the election day. Opposition alliances are unstable and are likely to come apart after the presidential elections. The authorities’ main challenge is to ensure the necessary voter turnout, especially in the capital and major cities, as well, to create a positive background of the presidential campaign for Western observers.
Last week, an unauthorised picket ‘For Fair and Free Elections’ was held in the Minsk centre, which was initiated by former political prisoner and ex-candidate Nikolai Statkevich.
The 2015 presidential campaign is characterised by conflicting opposition strategies. Some opposition parties and movements, led by ex – presidential candidates in the 2010 elections Nikolai Statkevich and Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, seek to put the ‘maidan’ scenario back on the agenda on the election day. However, the Statkevich - Nyaklyaeu strategy of ignoring the 2015 presidential election was not fully supported even by the ‘coalition for non-recognition’ members who do not see how it could lead to non-recognition of the elections by international observers. Supporters of the boycott have limited influence on the representatives of the OSCE election observation mission. For example, after the release of political prisoners, OSCE EOM head Jacques Faure said, “If Mr. Statkevich participates in the election campaign – as a proxy of a candidate or in any other capacity, we shall observe this”.
Supporters of the ‘Right of Choice 2015’ party observation campaign believe their main task is to disrupt the international recognition of the 2015 presidential election results. Otherwise, in their view, the opposition would lose the ability to influence the agenda of the Belarusian-European relations. Party observers will seek to achieve a transparent vote count along with the OSCE election observation, to which the Belarusian authorities are unlikely to agree.
The only registered opposition candidate, Tatsiana Karatkevich, is mildly criticising the Belarusian leadership and attempting to consolidate the part of the protest electorate, which counts on gradual transformation of the Belarusian regime without harsh confrontation with the authorities.
Now, the Belarusian authorities are demonstrating their willingness to suspend repressions against the opposition. For instance, they have not clamped down the unauthorised picket organised by Nikolai Statkevich in the centre of Minsk. In addition, the Belarusian authorities allow for higher political activity in society in order to ensure high turnout on the election day. Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities might change their tactics if the opposition manages to mobilise their supporters and bolster opposition activity.
Simultaneously, in the public space there are discussions about potential scenario of Russian invasion if the ‘Maidan’ scenario is initiated in Belarus. Target audiences of these discussions are supporters of the opposition, who are willing to sacrifice democratic freedoms to preserve the country’s independence.
The authorities are counting on ‘suitable’ assessment of the election results by international observers. Meanwhile, they have blocked all possibilities to observe/verify the voting results. For instance, not a single opposition activist has been included in election commissions in Minsk, where the turnout is traditionally lower than the national average and protest voting is quite high. Independent observers reported, that a record low number of opposition activists had been included in the election commissions all over the country.
The Belarusian authorities anticipate ensuring ‘satisfactory’ assessment of the presidential campaign by Western observers with moderate criticism and a statement of progress in the organisation of elections in order to improve contacts between official Minsk Western capitals. In addition, amid disunity of the opposition parties, the Belarusian authorities are likely to lower repressions against their opponents.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.