Election campaign: censorship inside the country and liberalization for export
Authorities are interested in the domestic election campaign being a routine which attracts minimal attention of the population. At the same time, the fact that the CEC registered additional candidates may be used as a positive signal “for export” indicating certain liberalization in the electoral process. However, the inertia of the electoral system significantly limits the abilities of the central management to control the campaign in the regions.
During the past week, the Central Election Commission upheld complaints from 11 citizens who have previously been refused registration as a candidate, and banned elections’ boycott propaganda clips in the state media prepared by some candidates.
Decision of the Central Election Commission to override 11 decisions of the district commissions speaks, above all, about the poor quality of internal communication within the electoral system. This is a well-known feature of the district commissions’ work: they stick to prohibitive method of candidates’ registration. Since active public policy is considered a threat by the Belarusian management, the district commissions’ heads prefer not to take risks and register either few candidates or screen out the most active ones (the most dangerous).
The overriding of 11 decisions by the Central Election Commission, which would be assessed as a sign of the good will by the observers, could have an opposite effect on the entire electoral management system.
This problem was noted yet during the 2008 campaign. In particular, it was noted that regional election commissions were confused about the signals coming from the top: for example, about a more liberal approach to the votes counting, they preferred to act on inertia to reduce own risks. This is a peculiarity in the functioning of a large bureaucratic election machine, which this year engaged about 70 000 people (district and precinct election commissions) and significantly limits the central government’s ability to try new “liberal” experiments.
The CEC’s censoring of candidate’s speeches indicates that the authorities are not going to carry out this campaign in “liberal” mode, as it was in 2008 and particularly in 2010, and will try to keep domestic political activity at low profile. Therefore, the most critical of the ruling authorities, speeches by candidates will be banned from broadcasting. The CEC bases its decision on the Supervisory Board assessment, which monitors compliance with the campaigning rules in the media, and traditionally is made up from state media representatives.
Another prove of the authorities’ desire to stick to the narrow traditional campaigning framework were the arrests of political groups moderators in social networks, held in Minsk on August 30th. In general, the tactics of the authorities at this stage of the campaign can be described as strict control over all political activity inside the country and sending out very cautious signals about the possible mitigation of the game rules to the outer world.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.