Monday, December 20, 2010

Belarus: Democracy snuffed out before it could even begin

Some avid news watchers will have noticed lately some of the hubbub surrounding the recent elections in the tiny Eastern European nation of Belarus, one of the former SSR's that is often characterized as "Europe's last dictatorship," due to its rule by strongman Alexander Lukashenko, or as he's known widely in Belarus, "Batka," or "Little Father." Lukashenko has run the country since 1994, taking the reigns from a chaotic caretaker administration after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Obviously, he's never lost an election, and none of Belarus' elections have ever been declared valid by the international community. Even Russia, often called out for its similarly strong-armed voting process, gets better marks from the OSC.

So when Batka seemingly started to loosen his grip on the country's electoral process, allowing opposition candidates live forums on TV and demonstrations against his government to go unpunished, some people, including myself, thought that maybe Lukashenko was starting to feel the heat. After all, Belarus has suffered greatly from the Great Recession, and it's government, nearly bankrupt, can't afford the generous Soviet-style safety net they currently run for much longer. The European Union has offered to almost erase those problems by promising 3 billion euros in aid, if they can hold a valid election. Even their larger, influential neighbour, has tired of Lukashenko, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly calling Lukashenko out on his authoritarian rule. Pot calling the kettle black, maybe, but a very surprising call indeed.

Many had hoped that, even if Lukashenko could not be defeated in a fair electoral fight (it's expected he would win, because of strong support among pensioners and rural voters), it would be a tight enough race to send a message that times were changing in Belarus, and that the people's voice was starting to break through the shroud of authoritarianism in the country. There's no shortage of opposition to Lukashenko in Belarus, so clearly it must show up in the results in a fair election, right?

Well, our hopes have been decidedly dashed. Lukashenko managed to win with 79.7% of the vote, down from the 82.6% he won in 2006. Accusations of voter and candidate intimidation abound, and in the ensuing protests after the result, seven of the nine of the opposing presidential candidates, some not anywhere near the protests, were arrested, beaten, and are still currently detained. While election monitors are doubtful going to claim the election was anything near valid, they did note that the campaigns themselves were more open than they were in the past. That's great and all, but clearly, it was simply Lukashenko adding a shiny new veneer to a rusted piece of junk - nothing has really changed, it just looked slightly prettier. Democracy, it seems, will not come to Belorussians any time soon.

For his part in all this, Lukashenko is quoted by the BBC as saying "... there will definitely be political changes... but no change of power in Belarus". He's also said that he will not be removed from power, by the ballot or any other means. His grip remains tight on his country, on his people, and on his rule. So long as Lukashenko is around, Europe's last dictatorship will be around for awhile yet. It's a depressing thought, how easily the dreams of democratic legitimacy and freedom are destroyed by a man unwilling to let go of his power.

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