Minsk demonstrates progress in presidential elections for EU to suspend sanctions
The Belarusian authorities are prepared to demonstrate some progress to international observers in the organisation of the presidential elections, which will not affect the voting results. So far, the authorities have been refraining from repressions against the opposition, who are attempting to use this window of opportunity to bolster their activity and restore their influence on the Belarusian-European agenda. The authorities may keep the ongoing election campaign free from tough repressions in order to improve the relations with the European Union in the future.
The European Union is likely to partially lift sanctions against Belarus, including visa restrictions against Alexander Lukashenka and economic sanctions against some Belarusian companies.
Until now, the Belarusian officials have been satisfied with the work of the OSCE/ODIHR observation mission and have demonstrated willingness to cooperate with the long-term observers.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities may still criticise Western observers when the presidential campaign is over. For example, Central Electoral Commission head, Lidia Yarmoshyna noted, that international observers might have some comments with regard to the election campaign: “The whole Anglo-Saxon system, which is used in Europe and the United States - is a completely different format. I am afraid, that even the legal logic is different. Indeed, this creates certain problems with the understanding of ongoing events”
The Belarusian authorities seem to have instructed the state-run media to provide full coverage for all presidential candidates, including the oppositional. For instance, Yarmoshyna advised “our TV channels to provide the maximum objective picture of our elections”. This move of the authorities could be explained by the need to boost voters’ interest in the elections due to concerns about low turnout at the polling stations on the elections day.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian ideologues continue harsh criticism of the activities of the so-called coalition ‘for non-recognition’, which is attempting to use the window of opportunity to provoke the authorities to use tough measures in response to unauthorized opposition activity and disruption of the elections’ recognition by international observers. For instance, last week, the opposition held an unsanctioned rally in the Minsk centre to commemorate disappeared politicians. In the past, the authorities would respond with a crackdown and arrests of the participants, this time, however, the law enforcement officials have incurred administrative liability only against two participants.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are indirectly ‘attacking’ the opposition by speculating on anti-Kremlin phobia of the population and attempting to limit the influence of the ‘coalition for non-recognition’ on OSCE/ODIHR observers, and, possibly pave the way for harsh actions against its supporters. For instance, head of the Belarusian TV and Radio Company Davydko accused the opposition of attempts to destabilise the country, from which, according to him, only the Kremlin would benefit: “The so-called opposition is trying to destabilize the situation so that the EU does not recognise the elections. In this situation, Belarus would have only one direction – [towards] Russia. Roughly speaking, the opposition is pushing Belarus towards Russia. It is as if they are agents of the Kremlin...”
Independent media have reported that the government has prepared means to restrict activities of domestic observers from the opposition. According to Observer’s Handbook for representatives of quangos and pro-government parties, they will have to confront activities of independent observers during voting at the polling stations. In addition, pro-government NGOs will organize exit polls to enhance confidence in the election results as reported by the election commissions.
The authorities may enhance information pressure on their opponents from the so-called ‘coalition for non-recognition’, if unauthorized opposition activity increases or attracts more participants.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.