MINSK, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A Belarussian parliamentary election on Sunday is likely to reinforce hardline President Alexander Lukashenko's grip on the small former Soviet country despite a boycott call from the dispirited opposition.
The two main opposition parties have urged people to go
fishing and mushrooming rather than vote in what they see as a sham exercise to
produce a chamber which largely rubber-stamps Lukashenko’s directives.
But four days of early voting by students, armed service
staff and police in the tightly-controlled country have already produced a 19
percent turnout, according to official figures, and there was no question of
the boycott threatening the overall turnout threshold and the validity of
The outcome will enable Lukashenko to present the election
as a genuine democratic process. Western monitoring agencies have not judged an
election in Belarus, ruled by Lukashenko for 18 years, free and fair since
A former Soviet state farm director once described by the
U.S. administration of George W. Bush as the last dictator of Europe,
Lukashenko cracked down on street protests against his re-election in December
Scores of his opponents – including several who stood
against him – were arrested. Many now either lie low after periods in jail or
have fled the country.
Human rights bodies say the run-up to Sunday’s poll – inconsequential
though it is – has been marked by arrests and detention of opposition
State-run TV and radio have made no mention of the boycott
call. Opposition groups have been prevented from holding street protests or
giving out leaflets to support their timid action.
“These are all banned,” said Anatoly Lebedko, head
of the opposition United Civic Party, gesturing to a pile of leaflets on his
desk which called on people to take their families to the park, go fishing or
stroll in the woods rather than vote.
Activists who had tried to distribute them were stopped from
doing so by police and the leaflets seized, he said.
His party posted a video on YouTube featuring activists
gathering mushrooms, playing chess and reading books in a park – all alternatives
to going to vote.
Lukashenko, touring farms 300 km (186 miles) from the
capital Minsk on Friday, said of the opposition: “They are afraid of going
to the people.”
He said his opponents were financed by Western groups and
did not really want power. “They have been given a lot of cash. They have
enough,” he said.
LACK OF INTEREST
While shrugging off the boycott threat, authorities have
been unsettled by a genuine lack of interest in the election, one of the most
low-key ballots in Belarus since it became independent 20 years ago.
Earlier this week Belarussian state TV rejigged its
programmes to show footage of people enthusiastically casting their ballots in
early voting which started last Tuesday.
Opposition activists say that many higher education students
were told to go and vote, sometimes under threat of losing their subsidised
Many senior opposition figures have dropped out of sight
following the 2010 police crackdown including Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy
foreign minister, and Vladimir Neklyayev who heads the Tell the Truth movement.
Both of them ran against Lukashenko in 2010 and subsequently spent time in
Another well-known political personality, Alexander
Milinkevich, who ran against Lukashenko for president in 2006, sought to
register as a candidate in Sunday’s election but was disqualified from doing so
for technical reasons.
Earlier this week, state security police broke up a small
demonstration urging people to cook borshch – beetroot soup – instead of
voting. Several activists were arrested as well as press photographers covering
the event. Some of the journalists were released after about two hours.
Analysts say that election is not likely to promote any
strong personality capable of competing with Lukashenko among the deputies.
“The opposition is virtually broken. It has few
resources and there is no real programme,” said Belarussian independent
political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.
Despite U.S. and European Union sanctions, which prevent
Lukashenko and his inner circle travelling to anywhere in the West, the small
country has weathered a currency crisis which drained it of dollars and caused
two big devaluations.
This was largely thanks to Russia, which provided $4.5
billion in loans and investments in exchange for access to industrial assets
such as pipelines pumping Russian gas to Europe.
Relations with the United States and the EU deteriorated
sharply after the 2010 crackdown, and Belarus has since moved closer to Russia
with which it has an open border and shares a common air defence network.