ELECTION observers have returned home from Minsk denouncing the October 17 Belarusian parliamentary elections as fraudulent and criticising a constitutional referendum that would allow Alexander Lukashenko to extend his authoritarian rule.
According to observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the democratic watchdog organisation that sent 300 election observers to Belarus, the elections took place in "a chilling climate of fear".
Alexander Lukashenko is one of the last hard-line Communist dictators still in power, having risen to top ranks in 1994. Although Lukashenko maintains that an overwhelming majority voted him in as president October 17, the OSCE insists that the Belarus elections fall drastically short of international democratic standards. Balázs Jarábik, one of five Slovak observers sent by the OSCE to monitor the elections, told The Slovak Spectator that Lukashenko's totalitarian method of choice is to keep people afraid.
"One of the most important things supporting the false [electoral] structure is fear," he said.
Nevertheless, 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest what they called rigged elections that prevented the participation of opposition parties.
The day after the election, the Belarus KGB seized Anatoly V. Lebedko, chairman of the United Civic Party, one of a coalition of parties that unsuccessfully sought to win seats in parliamentary elections on Sunday. According to international news sources, Lebedko was seriously beaten during his arrest. Shortly afterwards, an opposition journalist was found murdered in her apartment.
"It is important to understand that there is a strong virtual reality created by official propaganda," Jarábik, who works for the Pontis Foundation, told The Slovak Spectator. He said that the Belarus state-run media has painted Lebedko as a traitor, claiming that he is in league with the United States and other intelligence agencies of the West.
Marek Mračka, another Slovak monitor working for the OSCE, agrees that the Belarus media is woefully unbalanced. He put it more delicately than Jarábik, however: "[The media] were giving a disproportionately large space to President Lukaschenko," he told the SITA news wire agency.
Jarábik talks about systematic harassment of the opposition candidates, the independent media and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Minsk, the capital, to observe the elections. He tells of police raids on their offices, confiscation of opposition campaign materials and other forms of repression, such as a smear campaign against the OSCE in local papers.
A year ago, Lukaschenko issued a presidential decree putting all state employees on one-year contracts ending November 1, 2004. Given that state employees sit on election commissions, Jarábik says that the OSCE "can get a clear picture of this [election] falsification."
The state-run media failed to report the OSCE mission findings. However, in an attempt to lend legitimacy to the elections and the ensuing referendum, the media gave space to those "election monitors" who came to Belarus at the invitation of the Belarusian parliament.
Slovak independent deputy, Ivan Hopta, a former member of the Slovak Communist Party, was among those invited by Lukaschenko to observe the elections. Hopta was shown on Belarus television hours before polling stations closed saying that, in his estimation, the elections were "fair" and "free".
Hopta's mission to Belarus surprised and annoyed many Slovaks. The speaker of the Slovak parliament, Pavol Hrušovský, emphasized that Hopta was in Belarus on private business, not as a representative of Slovakia.
The Slovak parliament sent Smer's deputy, Maroš Kondrót, to Belarus to observe the elections.
According to the OSCE, one of the biggest problems that election observers reported was a long delay - five days - between the early voting process and the election day itself.
Early voting results showed overwhelming support for Lukaschenko and the candidates supported by the current administration. However, exit polls conducted by Gallup organisations on election day showed greater support for independent or opposition candidates.
Gallup results, says Jarábik, prove that Lukaschenko's opposition has large support, contrary to what the state-run media and official statements report.
Both Slovakia and Lithuania provided key field support for the exit poll project.
The Lukaschenko government increased voter turnout by mandating that students, military personal and state employees vote. It also determined who would be eligible for the early voting process. Moreover, in many constituencies, commission members doctored the results of the early voting process with police assistance, as both election observers and journalists reported.
Election monitors were put ten metres behind the area where votes were being counted. Jarábik says that district election commissions had no idea how to fill in their protocols.
"The whole thing was close to a show for foreigners than real elections," Jarábik told The Slovak Spectator.
Observers' accounts and post-election violence prompted Slovakia to voice its concerns. The Slovak government has postponed the planned January opening of an embassy in Minsk.
Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan defends the establishment of an embassy in Belarus saying it is necessary to plug Belarus into the European dialogue. However, the minister showed obvious displeasure with Lukaschenko's regime.
"Recent events will certainly not accelerate our plans to send an ambassador to Minsk. In fact, we have to say with regret that [the referendum and the elections] failed to bring a desired shift towards democratic development, and rather than dispelling fears, the elections have simply confirmed the concerns voiced before the vote," Kukan told the press.
Kukan added that if young Belarusian's are expressing their will in a democratic manner and the police take brutal action against them, it is "very, very bad".
However, the minister still considers Belarus, together with Ukraine and the Balkan countries, as the new priorities of Slovak foreign policy.
The Slovak government has allocated Sk10 million (€250,000) this year to help Belarus reengage with democratic countries. Slovak NGOs got a portion of these funds to use on projects supporting civic society in Belarus. Some of the money was used to help Belarusian NGOs increase voter turnout for the October 17 elections.
Interior Minister Vladimír Palko promised to extend support to Ales Michalevic of the Belarusian National Front, a democratic opposition party, who visited Slovakia after the elections.
The daily SME reported that representatives of Lukashenko's regime also came to Slovakia. Štefan Štefanec, the leader of the regional government in Trenčín, Slovakia, played host to two of Lukashenko's colleagues: Konstantsin Piachko of Brest Oblast, and Henadzi Prarouski of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce.
Jarábik confirmed that both guests of Štefanec belong to Lukashenko's team of "strong men". Štefanec said that he refrained from political discussions with Piachko and Prarouski, as they were representatives of a local government.
Ignoring or downplaying Belarusian violations of democracy sends a very bad message to Slovakia's foreign partners, Jarábik says. Political scientist Ľuboš Kubín agrees that Štefanec's decision to host Lukashenko's henchmen is "scandalous".
"It plays into the hand of Lukashenko, who can now claim that his presidency has been accepted in Slovakia," Kubín told the SME daily.
Now that the elections in Belarus are over, renewed focus is on the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine.
With the October 31 elections just days away, the Ukrainian authorities have closed down the private television station that is known for its pro-opposition orientation. The publisher of a respected Ukrainian economic daily has been arrested.
Ukrainian NGOs are facing police raids on their offices and house searches.
In June, Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda reminded Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma of the importance of democratic presidential and general elections in his country.
Kuchma's name has been linked to human rights' violations as well as to the murder of an independent Internet reporter. Former Slovak President Rudolf Schuster suffered criticism for his close ties to Kuchma, but had always downplayed the relationship.
1. Nov 2004 at 0:00 | Soňa Balážová