Belarusian authorities keep simulating democracy. The elections to the House of Representatives will be held on November 17, and voting for candidates to the Council of the Republic already took place on November 7. There is no doubt that members of Parliament loyal to President Alexander Lukashenko will have the overwhelming majority of seats. The only thing that is still highly uncertain is whether the Western-backed opposition will have more or less than two deputies in the new Parliament.
Presently, Anna Konopatskaya, of the United Civic party, and Yelena Anisim, of the Belarusian Language Society are the only pro-Western opposition members of the House of Representatives that consists of 110 deputies. On October 17 the Central Electoral Commission denied registration to both Anisim and Kanapatskaya, among other candidates, citing irregularities with the requisite signature collection. That, however, does not mean that Belarusian authorities will not allow other opposition candidates to win some seats on November 17, as President Lukashenko is attempting to improve relations with Western powers. In September, the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale met with Belarusian President, as the United States and Belarus are planning to exchange ambassadors after an 11-year freeze. Lukashenko also recently met with John Bolton, who served as the US national security adviser, and he is scheduled to meet Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, just days before the parliamentary elections.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for the past 25 years, is successfully balancing between Russia and the West. In July Belarusian leader met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the two leaders reportedly discussed the future of the Russia Belarus Union State. They failed to reach an agreement on key issues such as single currency and gas prices, as well as the common monetary and fiscal policies. The Kremlin is pressuring Belarus for deepen integration with Russia, but Lukashenko is aware that that would limit the country’s sovereignty, as well as his nearly absolute power. On the other hand, he is not willing to make too much concessions to the United States and European Union either. Western governments will not change their policy towards Belarus regardless of the conduct or outcome of the elections. Therefore, Lukashenko does not have any reasons to increase the number of the Western-backed opposition deputies, unless that way he plans to send a message to the Kremlin.
Presently, the primary goal for Belarus is to find solutions for issues such as reducing gas prices and receiving compensation for the tax maneuver which was recently introduced by Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, openly said that it is not going to provide new loans to Belarus, nor discuss possible compensation for tax maneuver in the oil sector until the two countries agree on a vision for their further integration. It is extremely unlikely that the two countries will resolve these crucial problems any time soon. Minsk and Moscow have not been able to deepen their integration for the past twenty years, and they often have trade disputes. On the other hand, Belarus is trying not to get to close to the West either, as Brussels and Washington demand far more than simulation of democratic procedures. The West, just like the Kremlin, is interested in privatization of some successful Belarusian companies and banks. They also insist on “transparent elections”, although back in 2016 the OSCE report found that the elections were “‘efficiently organized”. The official Western rhetoric on Belarus is much softer than it was in the past, even though some organizations still keep accusing Minsk of “violating human rights”, and “disrespecting freedom of speech and democracy”.
It is expected that the EU and the US will de facto recognize results of the Belarusian elections. Their reports will, most likely, have some critical points, but overall Western leaders will keep the blind eye on “lack of democracy” in the country that is ruled by the man they once called “the last European dictator”. They are aware that they have to work with Lukashenko, one way or another. Pro-Western political parties in Belarus are too weak and fragmented, and even if there were free and fair elections, it is unlikely that Lukashenko’s opponents would have won. In addition, Belarusian parliament plays a rather symbolic role, since the country has a presidential system. Also, most voters in Belarus are aware that both the West and Russia have very similar goals when it comes to their country. Both powers want to establish full control over the Belarusian economy, while Lukashenko struggles to maintain the status quo and keep as much of the country’s sovereignty as possible.
Apart from Alexander Lukashenko, at this point there is no other figure on Belarusian political scene the West and Russia can work with. Therefore, it’s expected that the Belarusian strongman will easily win the presidential election next year. That will give him another five years to balance between the West and Russia, but in the meantime he will most likely prepare the ground for his political successor. Until then, the country will unlikely change its geopolitical course, in spite of Lukashenko’s warm meetings with Western leaders.
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