Andrew Osborn








Belarus Fails Election Test --- Observers Deem Vote Count 'Bad'; Opposition Protests

The Wall Street Journal, 30th September 2008 11:33

By Andrew Osborn

MINSK, Belarus -- European observers said an election in Belarus that failed to elect a single opposition lawmaker "fell short" of democratic standards, dealing a setback to Minsk's hopes of a rapprochement with the West.

Belarus's autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko had promised Sunday's parliamentary election would be "unprecedented" in its fairness, paving the way for the lifting of Western sanctions and an end to the small country's pariah status.

But observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted only "minor improvements" since the previous legislative election four years ago.

"There were efforts," said Anne-Marie Lizin, vice president of the OSCE parliamentary assembly. "But at the same time we want to say that's not enough."

Washington, which had partially suspended financial sanctions against Minsk this year, responded quickly, saying the vote fell short of international standards. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, in a statement, noted "positive indications but also a number of negative elements," Reuters reported.

Opposition activists in Belarus called on the U.S. and Europe not to recognize the vote. The overwhelmingly negative tone of the OSCE report suggested it would be hard for U.S. and European diplomats to take significant steps to improve relations with a country that has largely positioned itself as a Russian ally. The EU had said it might ease sanctions if the election was judged to be fair.

The OSCE said the greatest problem was with the vote-counting process, which it deemed "bad or very bad" in half of the country's constituencies. It also complained that around one-third of its 500 observers were barred from watching the vote count. "Where access was possible, several cases of deliberate falsification of results were observed," the OSCE said in a statement.

"The transparency of a fundamental element of the election process was compromised," said Ms. Lizin.

The OSCE also said that while the opposition was allowed to campaign, restrictions imposed by authorities meant the campaign was "barely visible."

A spokesman for the Belarusian foreign ministry said in a statement the OSCE had failed to evaluate the significance of technical measures taken to improve the election "in full measure."

He said the main point was that the observers had recognized efforts were made and that these could form a basis for future cooperation with the OSCE.

Mr. Lukashenko is trying to kick-start a moribund relationship with the West to breathe life into his country's Soviet-style economy as he comes under growing pressure from Moscow to pay substantially more for Russian natural gas. He has released political prisoners, hired a Western public-relations firm and halted systematic harassment of his opponents.

In the wake of August's conflict between Russia and Georgia, his significance as a strategic ally -- both for the West and for Russia -- has grown. He has resisted pressure from Moscow to recognize the Georgian breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in what diplomats say appears to be a bid not to alienate the West, which strongly opposed Moscow's move to recognize them.

Both the West and Russia have indicated they are ready to improve relations, given the right conditions. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is due in Minsk next week, underlining Mr. Lukashenko's newfound popularity with foreign powers.

Mr. Lukashenko's political opponents say he is playing a cynical bargaining game in order to play the West off against Russia to ensure his own political survival as the Belarusian economy begins to wheeze.

"If you try to negotiate with him, he will see it as a sign of weakness," Igor Rynkevich, an opposition candidate, said in an interview. "Any concessions will come back like a boomerang."