It takes a lot of effort to fake a democratic vote. Sure, there are some outstanding examples, such as the 100% victory of Saddam Hussein in his 2002 election, or one of Fidel Castro’s many victories at the ballot box in excess of 99% support which make it look like a breeze, but these heroes of imitation democracy were unfettered by such troublesome issues as “open access to candidacy” or “mathematical impossibility.” In other words, it really only works to go to the trouble of holding an open vote when you have already essentially criminalized any attempt for the opponents to participate in the process – hence the many problems being experienced by Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus in the wake of his declared “victory” of 79.7% of the votes at the polls this weekend.
When the election results were announced on Sunday, an impromptu demonstration of thousands of angry voters was staged in Independence Square in Minsk, denouncing the alleged rigging election process. They were met with appalling violence from the police and mass arrests of 639 people, including most of the individuals brave enough to have run in the election as opposition candidates. The candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was badly beaten during the crackdown, and then, while receiving medical care for his injuries, was dragged from his hospital bed and placed under arrest and absconded to an unknown location by plainclothes security agents.
Everybody watching this mess unravel was suitably horrified. “The violent attacks and arrests of most of the presidential candidates, as well as hundreds of activists, journalists, and civil society representatives, is the backdrop against which this election will now be judged,” said Tom Lloyd of the OSCE observer mission. “The people of Belarus deserved better.”
In the lead up to this election, it was clear that Lukashenko was attempting to institute some cosmetic changes in order to gain some support from the West and purchase some leverage for more concessions from Moscow. A few political prisoners were released, some new investments were offered up, opposition newspapers were allowed to print, and “consultative counsels” were founded to give citizens an opportunity of minimal participation in civic affairs.
But one problem of course was that these changes were only meant to look, feel, and smell like a democratic opening – especially to the exterior – while the same rotten core reasserted its grip on power through the legitimation of a fake popular mandate. Opposition journalist Andrej Dynko told the Guardian, “Lukashenko tried to make cosmetic changes and pretend he was liberalising Belarus – but he slipped back into his old, repressive ways.”
True to his roots, the election results were handled by Lukashenko’s government in manner that falls far short of basic standards, with non-transparency in the vote counting process rendering the results essentially null and void in the perspective of both voters and election observers. While the election commission claimed that nearly 80% of the country voted for Lukashenko, an independent opinion poll taken before the election showed 35%. What is all the more amazing about the crackdown is that Lukashenko probably could have won a real election in a run off vote, as the Belarussian opposition is even more disaggregated than their Russian counterparts, however he apparently couldn’t stand the idea of a more modest number and the process of a run-off. In his eyes, the poll numbers had to be robust – a firm mandate to legitimize his permanent presidency.
A lot of Lukashenko’s troubles come from an imperfect copying of the Russian model. Had he asked Vladimir Putin for some advice (unfortunately, Putin is said to loathe Lukashenko), perhaps we would have created his own managed opposition party to compete against, much like A Just Russia, and then come up with legalistic technicalities to bar any other serious candidates from running. He wasn’t smart enough to cut off the funding to their organizations, and maybe even conduct some office raids claiming to look for pirated software. As for the rallies of hundreds following the vote, a more accomplished and subtle authoritarian would arrange bus in thousands of his own paid supporters from the regions and hold a concert there. Most critically, Lukashenko had OSCE observers on the ground, which raised many hopes that the vote would actually be genuine – but something tells me that Lukashenko is unlikely to be the last victim of rising expectations.
However the biggest disappointment has been Russia. For a government that claims as often as it does to be a regional if not global leader, in charge of its periphery and ready to play the role as arbitrator between disputing parties in the neighborhood, handling Lukashenko has been an embarrassment. President Dmitry Medvedev made supportive statements about the election, remarking that he hoped it would bring about the development and practice of democratic values. But then he reversed course and went straight back to the favored doctrine of non-interference. “Elections in Belarus are Belarus’s internal matter,” Medvedev said. “What is happening there is, in the final analysis, the internal matter of a neighbouring state.”
Just in case it would be any other way, Lukashenko was wise to make an agreement in early December to scrap oil duties with Russia in early December – a little $4 billion gift to the Kremlin to let him run his thiefdom. This measure was of course only made possible because of the huge lift given to Lukashenko’s power by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who in October agreed to ship them about $20 billion worth of oil over the next three years.
There is hardly anything about the Lukashenko regime that is consistent with Russia’s interests in the region, apart from the mere benefit that he is relentlessly predictable. In the thinking of the siloviki, it’s always better to have a manageable problem than an unknown quandry. Had Moscow thought through a more long-term strategy in Belarus, they may have supported a transition to democracy at the risk of creating an example a feared example for their own people. At present, Russia appears to be working hard to earn the scorn and distrust of the suffering Belarussian voter.