Parliamentary elections took place in Belarus on Sunday 23 September, 2012, against a backdrop of widespread human rights abuses, the country’s deteriorating relationship with the EU and a diplomatic crisis with Sweden, comments Robert Hårdh, Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders, an international human rights organisation based in Sweden.
The EU has gradually imposed sanctions in protest against the dictatorship’s human rights violations. The EU must now adhere to its principles and insist on greater respect for human rights in order to stay on track. The release of the country’s most prominent human rights defender Ales Bialiatski and other political prisoners is a minimum requirement.
Those of us who have followed Belarus during Lukashenko’s years in power recognise a great deal in today’s parliamentary elections. Virtually no-one would expect a political election in Belarus to be free and fair. The election campaign has been marked by censorship of the opposition, arrests of activists and seizure of campaign materials. The regime has made minimal concessions such as giving a small amount of TV time to the opposition and allowing in observers from the European Security and Cooperation Organization, OSCE. At the same time, the opposition has been fragmented, particularly with regard to whether to boycott the elections or not.
In the 2008 parliamentary elections, none of the opposition candidates won a seat in parliament. And that will also be a likely outcome this time. The situation has been the same ever since Lukashenko came to power in 1994. Regular political elections are arranged, but the results are arranged too – the winner is predetermined and it is always Lukashenko. The loser is also a foregone conclusion and is always the Belarusian people, who do not have access to their rights or an opportunity to participate in and influence their own future. The dictator has full control over the ruling, legislative and judicial power, and, in principle, all the predominant media.
The situation has deteriorated further in recent years. There has been a marked increase in repression in response to the protests after the falsified presidential elections in December 2010. Election night in 2010 began with opposition protests against the election results which were met with violence by riot police, house searches, mass arrests and a wave of repression of unexpected intensity.
In a further deterioration, the Swedish ambassador and other Swedish diplomats were expelled from Minsk during a diplomatic crisis between Sweden and Belarus this summer. The embassy, which had been active and provided support for local human rights defenders and the political opposition, has not been able to monitor the course of events in the same way as before.
In light of this, it is important for Belarus to occupy a higher place on the Swedish agenda. The 2006 government declaration mentioned efforts to promote democracy in Belarus as a priority. When this year’s parliamentary session opened during the week, not a word was said about the situation in Belarus, even though it has so clearly worsened.
It goes without saying that there must be continuing work and a stated commitment to democracy and human rights in Belarus from Swedish and European quarters. At the same time, there is need for a strategy on how to handle the situation from a political perspective. There will be a review of the EU’s sanctions after the elections. Here, the EU must stand by its principles and previous demands for the immediate release of Ales Bialiatski and a dozen or so other political prisoners.
25th September was Ales Bialiatski’s 50th birthday. International attention and pressure is a prerequisite for Ales and all the other Belarusian citizens to celebrate in freedom one day.
Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders