Europe’s Own Voting Mess

Uh oh: looks like some funny business with the counting of the ballots. And don’t you find it a little suspicious that all the local election officials, the ones in charge of recording and counting the votes, are all professed partisans of the incumbent?

Yes folks, it’s the old bait-and-switch tactic again. All of this has truly been going on, but not (yet?) in Florida. I’m referring here instead to the recent “elections” in Belarus, commonly known as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” where to no one’s great surprise President Alexander Lukashenko managed to get passed the amendment to the Belarussian constitution that allows him to keep on running for re-election as long as he is physically able.

The key, of course, is that now that the Belarussian constitution allows him to run, it’s overwhelmingly likely that he will always win. This is not due to any special place Lukashenko occupies in the hearts of his countrymen, but rather to his efficiency in finding ways to win, irrespective of what may be the voters’ preferences. Johnni Michelsen of the Danish commentary newspaper Information managed to infiltrate the country to observe the Belarussian election process himself and send back a report: Chaotic Election Day in Belarus.


Yes, Michelsen was actually allowed to observe voting going on in several locations in the Belarussian capital Minsk. He was not allowed to question any of the actual voters – actually, for that he would have required the assistance of his Belarussian translator, in any case – because it seems that the police were especially on the look-out for anything that resembled anyone trying to do an “exit-poll.” In fact, they had simply shut down several polling places in the capital when it seemed that the opposition were trying to do just that.

But Michelsen did have access to Sergei Kalyakin, leader of Belarus’ Communist Party, who turns out to be a leading opposition figure with a good understanding of how things work in Belarus today. Kalyakin had come upon an interesting document, which he wanted to share with the Danish reporter: a paper that listed the voting results by candidate for the local district. Problem was, at the time the elections were yet to take place! Reading from the document, Kalyakin informed Michelsen that he was to be credited with 14% of the votes in that particular district, while the Lukashenko-approved parliamentary candidate would get 65%. Turnout would be 82% of the district’s eligible voters.

How could whoever wrote that paper be so sure that things would turn out that way? Easy: the local election officials (and yes, they are all members of Lukashenko’s ruling party) would go through the motions of counting the actual ballots contained within the ballot-boxes, but actually wouldn’t be paying much attention. For in the evening, after polling had closed, the real ballot boxes would be whisked away and replaced with new ones containing votes in the pre-approved proportions. And, as Michelsen also notes, the authorities were already preparing legal action in response to the leak of the paper Kalyakin quoted from: not legal action to punish the vote-counting fraud, of course, but to punish whoever had done the leaking.

Actually, it turns out that Michelsen did find the means to speak with at least one set of voters he could tell us about, a young couple walking away from the polling station who freely admitted to his translator to having voted for a candidate other than Lukashenko’s preference for parliament, and against the referendum proposal. But they were not deluded enough to believe that their votes could actually make any difference one way or another. Said one of them, “The election means nothing. If it were a fair election, Belarus would cease existing tomorrow, but unfortunately everything will remain the same as it always has been.” Still, Michelsen could also meet later with someone who plainly disagrees, namely the spokesman for Viasna, a Belarussian human rights organization, whose name he gives as Stefanovich Valiantsin (although that can’t be right, as that first name is the man’s patronymic, i.e. the name derived from his father’s name which should be his middle name). The encounter took place in the cramped kitchen of Valiantsin’s flat in one of the grey Soviet-style high-rise housing blocs on Minsk’s outskirts. Valiantsin’s tale was one of cooperating with other dissident politicians, assisting the families of those who are jailed or just disappear, and the like, but of course also of three arrests for himself by that point.


So what can and/or should be done? An accompanying article in Information by a writer who goes under the pseudonym “Peda” offers some suggestions. It is entitled A Kolkhoz Election, from the Russian name for a collective farm of Soviet times. Even though Russian is now supposedly in some grand capitalist era, those kolkhozi in effect still exist in many places out on the countryside: the top man may no longer be the ideologically-appointed chief, but he’s the company boss instead and still calls all the shots, imposing his will on the local media, banks – and politics.

In this construction, Belarus today is really nothing more than another one of these kolkhozi writ large, where “democracy” is but window-dressing directed at outside observers, and in reality the strong man is still in charge. After all, that was actually Alexander Lukashenko’s function before he got into politics and succeeded in imposing this pattern of authority on his entire country. What’s more, it seems that most of the Belarussian population recognizes and accepts this state of affairs, willing to accept and live with their average wage of €150 per month, their subsidized rent, bread, and plentiful cheap vodka. It’s mainly the young city-dwellers who will do almost anything just to get out of the country, away from this kolkhoz-writ-large and its strongman.

But that is description, not prescription. It is time for Europe to finally get truly interested in what is happening in Belarus, opines Peda, and to do something about the situation. But what? Peda correctly identifies the key: if there is to be any change here, Russia must somehow be involved. After all, trade sanctions themselves will not work against Lukashenko, since Belarus overwhelmingly conducts its trade to the East, not the West. And political sanctions such as banning top officials from visiting – basically already in effect – also will not work, simply because Lukashenko and his officials do not care.

Moscow can start to make Lukashenko care about outside reaction to the way he runs his country. And, as Peda writes, “Moscow can not accept for long that this kolkhoz [meaning Belarus, of course], that is an extremely important transit-land to large trading-partners in Germany and the EU, remains an eternal and often unpredictable brake on its own development.” Anyway, both Russian president Vladimir Putin and most liberal Russian politicians have made it clear in the past that they don’t care for Lukashenko.

But those “liberal” politicians have rather little influence these days even on policy for Russia. Putin himself is of course in a strong position, and one that is getting even stronger, as head of government. But no one would ever mistake him for a crusader for democracy; even though it’s probably true that he has distaste for Lukashenko personally, the latter’s regime is useful to him and to Russia politically, militarily, and economically. If Putin crusades for anything, it’s for having everything under control, and in Lukashenko he certainly has someone who is predictable, who apparently now is going to be around for a long time, and who keeps things over in Belarus under control.

Vladimir Putin can certainly perceive and understand the kolkhoz pattern when he sees it. Peda is to be commended for introducing this useful metaphor, but is rather more hopeful than can truly be justified in the prescriptive realm. Yes, the ultimate solution to “Europe’s last dictatorship” probably lies in Moscow; but that doesn’t mean that Moscow is going to do anything about it anytime soon.

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