Belarusian authorities relax pressure on opposition during election campaign in order to normalise relations with EU and US
In anticipation of a positive feedback from the West, the Belarusian authorities have broadened frameworks for the opposition in the ongoing parliamentary campaign. Regardless of the high competition for a parliamentary seat among the opposition, the nomenclature and pro-governmental parties, Belarusian electorate remains rather passive and apolitical. Amid such a political apathy among the population, the authorities are likely to refrain from tough actions against the opposition and enable an upscale for their activities.
Human rights activists have reported progress in the registration of initiative groups to nominate parliamentary candidates.
From 479 applications to register initiative groups to nominate candidates, 445 have been registered. After the parties hold meetings to nominate their candidates, the overall number of potential candidates may increase.
Human rights defenders have marked greater democracy and transparency in the first stage of the parliamentary elections, as compared with previous election campaigns. For instance, compared with the 2012 parliamentary campaign, refusal rate to register initiative groups has dropped from 19% to 6% (from 85 to 30 cases). Meanwhile, opposition parties reported some cases of pressure on opposition activists, who intended to run for deputies, or their team members. In addition, some opposition members from Minsk and from the regions have encountered restrictions while collecting signatures.
The Belarusian leadership is unlikely to exert too much pressure on its opponents and explicitly create the difficulties, which opposition activists have faced. Most likely, election practices of the past twenty years and suppression of political activity and initiative by the authorities have resulted in self-censorship and self-restraint in the Belarusian society, which do not require direct intervention by the central authorities. Both, state and private businesses have interfered with the opposition activity in the ongoing campaign.
In the case of conflicts related to the opposition campaign events, police and election officials often were on the side of opposition activists.
Apparently, the Central Election Commission has instructed election officials on the ground to relieve pressure on opposition activists. For instance, CEC Secretary Nikolai Lozovik criticised local authorities and encouraged to remove restrictions on picketing during the signature collecting stage: "We urge to consider Minsk experience, where everywhere is allowed, except some places”.
The authorities do not hide the fact that the relaxation with regard to the opposition is due to the need to normalise relations with the West in aspiration to obtain financial assistance and establish economic cooperation. At a meeting with representatives of city and district executive committees, as well as heads of district election commissions, Central Election Commission head Lidia Yarmoshina emphasised personal liability of election officials on the ground for the excessive pressure on the opposition, "But all this is temporary, everything is postponed until the parliamentary elections. And how well we carry out this campaign, the future of our country, our economy depends on".
Opposition activists have marked low activity of the electorate, especially in the capital and major cities. Interestingly, according to observations of signature collectors, national symbols attract protest voters to pickets of opposition candidates regardless of their party affiliation. Pro-governmental candidates also use the collection of signatures for additional communication with voters, and often picket side by side with opposition campaigners. In some constituencies, several pro-governmental candidates are likely to be nominated.
Amid low activity of the electorate, the authorities are unlikely to put obstacles for the opposition in the ongoing campaign.
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.