The above mentioned elections would be of no value if the electoral process in Belarus was fraudulent. In fact one of the main reasons for criticism of Belarus is the accusation of electoral fraud.
However the reality is different. First hand observation of elections in Belarus reveal a system that is open and fair. Even the most hostile ant-Belarusian media often concedes that Lukashenko would not need to cheat in an election to win.
For the 2006 presidential election the Belarusian government invited over 30,000 election observers to monitor the poll, including a delegation from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE had previously declared the 2000 parliamentary elections to be neither free nor fair, despite not actually observing the vote. This was again the case with the 2001 Belarusian presidential election, despite an admission from the head of the OSCE’s office for democratic institutions and human rights, Gerald Stoudmann that there was “no evidence of manipulation or fraud of the results”.
During the 2001 presidential elections Hans Georg Wieck headed the OSCE permanent mission in Belarus. He formed a very close working relationship with US ambassador Kozak and was key in the establishment of a ‘unified’ candidate for the Belarusian opposition. This of course is
a perversion of the democratic process.
The OSCE again dismissed the result of the 2006 presidential election but this time did monitor the vote. Amongst the criticisms raised by the OSCE (interim report 2) was that all the candidates were allocated an equal amount of money for campaigning. The OSCE was criticised for neglecting “the opinion of their own observers while formulating the findings and conclusions”
The CIS mission was disregarded by Western governments and media as being biased simply because they found the electoral process to be free and fair. However independent observers agreed with the CIS opinion and not that of the OSCE. This is best summarised by what was said by Belgian senator Frank Creyelman: “When I was going here I expected to see a different picture which I formed relying on the information in Western mass media: that every voter would have someone behind his back who would control his vote. The things I have seen have U turned my impression about Belarus”.
Why do Belarusians support Lukashenko?
Alexander Lukashenko has won presidential elections with significant margins, and in parliamentary elections those in support of the presidential position have been elected. The reason for this has been indicated above; Lukashenko by asking the people in referendums, is actually carrying out the people’s popular will, and not pursuing purely personal goals, nor does he have any ‘sponsors’ interests to look after.
As such, Belarus has a particularly strong social policy, in fact its economy is termed as being ‘socially orientated’. This means that the Belarusian system allows the economy to work for the people instead of the other way around.
Social programmes abound with free healthcare and education guaranteed by the constitution. Belarusian unemployment by late 2006 stood at a mere 1.6%, and at no cost to productivity, whilst real wages, and pensions have all steadily increased.
In education Belarus spends more of its available GDP than does all of the CIS countries, and even more than many Western countries (including the USA and UK). Belarusian students receive state grants, and even qualify for the same maternity and childcare rights as those in work.
In terms of healthcare Belarus allocates a great share of state resources. Belarus has more doctors per 100,000 people than does its neighbours and again, the USA and UK. This results in comprehensive health protection and disease prevention programmes. Belarus also has the highest rate of child immunisation in the world.
Even the World Bank acknowledged in 2004 that Belarusian social policy was progressive and noted that “Belarus can be justifiably proud of the elaborate system of social services it provides to its population. The ability of households to access quality education, health and social protection services makes a large difference to their living standards in the present, and their prospects for the future”.
This progressive policy has also seen greater representation of women at all levels. According to the Inter-parliamentary Union report, published in 2006, Belarus ranks 21st in the world in terms of share of women in legislative bodies, surpassing such countries as Switzerland (28th), Australia (29th), Canada (44th), Poland (46th), United Kingdom (50th). United States, Russia, France, Italy, Japan are not even among 50 leading states of the world. Some 44% of parliamentary deputies elected in 2007 were female, whilst women represent 46% of judges and 62% of lawyers.
It is important to note that the UN and institutions such as the World Bank acknowledge the successes of the Belarusian system. Thus it is not surprising that the majority of Belarusians support the president who has overseen and directed this programme out of the chaos created by the collapse of the USSR.
Who are the Belarusian opposition?
The term ‘opposition’ is actually a simplification of a very complex issue. In Belarus the term has become used to mean any group or organisation that oppose President Lukashenko personally. The Belarusian opposition is not a unified group with the same aims goals and ideals, but rather a span of political opponents ranging from anarchists to fascists.
The most prominent opposition to Lukashenko originally came from the nationalists of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF). Who were a very vocal group but did not have a large base of genuine popular support. The BPF continue to oppose the current Belarusian government despite their leader Zyanon Paznyak living in self imposed exile in the USA. (Paznyak stood for the presidency in 2006 but failed to gather the required number of signatures of support).
The 2001 and 2006 presidential election saw candidates representing the ‘unified opposition’ this being a loose coalition of parties who agreed to fall in line behind the selected leader. The candidates in question however were primarily chosen not by the Belarusian parties, but by their sponsors. The vast sums of money made available to the opposition from the USA and EU is generally channelled through the approved candidate in an attempt to avoid the misappropriation of funds, and to maintain a degree of consistency in policy. This however has not been entirely successful with the opposition becoming something of a competitive industry particularly in terms of youth groups vying for funds and recognition. After the disastrous 2001 campaign many activists and analysts were left asking “where has all the money gone?”
As if to rectify this, the unsuccessful candidate Vladimir Goncharik was quietly dismissed, and following a meeting with US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the new ‘unified candidate’ emerged as Alexander Milinkevich. In case there was any doubt as to who was ‘pulling the strings’ Milinkevich’s campaign adviser was Terry Nelson, the man who had managed George W Bush’s campaign in 2004.
One opposition politician who seldom gets termed so is Sergei Gaidukevich, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus. Gaidukevich stands out as he refuses to deny the achievements made in Belarus since 1994. Gaidukevich however was privy to the machinations of the OSCE mission in Belarus and the US embassy in their attempts to influence the democratic process in Belarus. He reported that he could have been the unified candidate himself in 2001 “if he had been prepared to rubbish Belarus”.
It is of note that only Gaidukevich and his party have stood the test of time in Belarusian politics. The ‘unified candidates’ and other opposition figureheads have either been dropped by their sponsors or, as in the case of Alexander Kozulin, gone too far and been arrested (for attempting to storm a police station and calling for Lukashenko’s death).
Youth groups such as Zubr, and the ‘Charter97’ movement have also acknowledged foreign support. Zubr leader Alexei Shidlovsky himself commented that “We have relations with the Western embassies we tell them what we are doing and planning”.
This has become the pattern of ‘opposition’ in Belarus. The real political situation and dialogue being overwhelmed by outside meddling and interference, which if anything is stifling democracy in Belarus. The Belarusian people by having candidates picked for them, are being pushed into polarised positions, and ultimately the elections become a show of support for Lukashenko, and a rejection of outside meddling.
Political debate and dialogue are essential in any democracy, and naturally not every Belarusian supports Lukashenko on every issue, but the myth that the unified opposition represents the real opinion of the people is as manufactured as their candidates; and is primarily intended for consumption in the nations providing the money for such endeavours.
High Profile Disapearances
The most significant accusation of human rights abuse in Belarus is that of ‘missing people’. The opposition, and even the US government, presume that certain missing people have been murdered at the order of Lukashenko. How far they actually believe this, and how far it serves as a useful political lever is open to debate. One of the first high profile cases was that of the former head of the Belarusian National Bank, Tamara Vinnikova. She was charged with embezzlement in 1999, before being reported as missing. The Belarusian United Civil Party website still (2007) considers her to be dead, executed by Lukashenko’s police (apparently having been drowned). This is in spite of the frequent interviews she has granted to the press from her new home in London since 2000. In fact Interpol and the Belarusian authorities were aware of her whereabouts and were seeking her extradition to face prosecution for the crime of grand larceny. Despite Vinnikova informing an opposition newspaper in December 1999 that she was alive and well, and determined to continue in politics, she is still used as an example of the use of ‘death squads’ by Lukashenko. She clearly was of greater use to the opposition as a possibly dead disappeared person, than as a very much alive spokeswoman awaiting trial over corruption charges.
Another of the ‘disappeared’ is former interior minister Yuri Zakharenko. He had worked in the campaign team of Mikhail Chigir during the previous election campaign, and had gone on to resign from his post over disagreements on policy with Lukashenko. The Zakharenko case is certainly different from that of Vinnikova, as foul play certainly seems to have taken place. On the evening of his disappearance he had telephoned his wife to say he would be home in ten minutes, but never arrived. He also had reportedly spotted people following him in new, foreign cars, prior to his disappearance.
It is important to note the reason for Zakharenko’s resignation was not one of moral indignation as has been claimed. Lukashenko had decreed that there was to be an end to special privileges for Ministry of the Interior personnel, that they would have the same access to services and pensions etc. as every other Belarusian citizen. Zakharenko himself was also allegedly involved in a business scam regarding the importation and sale of second hand cars.
The public commission set up to investigate this case reported that Zakharenko had been set upon by “several civilians who pushed him into a Zhiguli [Lada] car with no licence plates, then drove away”. The result of this public commission, and further intelligence was that ‘traces’ of Zakharenko had been found in Ukraine. The Belarusians also applied to the Ukrainian legal bodies to further investigate this lead. There had also been reports that Zakharenko managed to escape and was alive and living in Berlin. Importantly Zakharenko’s family made a successful application for political asylum in Germany in 2000.
What is important in this case is that it is not clear exactly what did happen to Zakharenko, he apparently was kidnapped, but by who and why can only be speculated upon. The case was unquestionably investigated despite opposition claims that it was not, also possible Mafia connections and corruption were investigated. This was much to the displeasure of Zakharenko’s family, but certainly was a probable avenue of investigation in light of his widely rumoured involvement in dubious business practices.
The next ‘disappearance’ occurred only four months after Zakharenko. In this case it was Belarusian MP Viktor Gonchar and his associate Anatoly Krasovsky. The two men went missing following a visit to a sauna in Minsk. Gonchar was an outspoken opponent of Lukashenko, and as a Member of Parliament, he had a high profile. However this profile does not necessarily translate into popularity or influence. It ought to be acknowledged that the parliament in the first years of Lukashenko’s presidency had been one that was widely considered in Belarus to be obstructive and even obscurant.
After reporting her husband missing to the Belarusian KGB, Irina Krasovsky proceeded to visit a number of foreign embassies to try and gain assistance in the search. Soon afterwards Viktor Gonchar’s wife wrote a letter to the OSCE commission accusing the government of complicity in her husband’s disappearance. This case was certainly of concern to Lukashenko, and potentially embarrassing for him and the government. Belarusian TV reported on the case and Lukashenko had demanded hourly updates on any progress. Despite this, the US ambassador announced that the West was “carefully following the investigation” whilst his German counterpart expressed concern over the “reluctance” of the authorities to investigate.
The police investigation was unable to trace the Jeep Cherokee that the pair had been using, whilst Gonchar’s driver reported that some of Gonchar’s friends had actually found the jeep, but would not share this information with the authorities. The police investigation, headed by Valentin Potapovich concluded that there were three possible explanations for the disappearances. Firstly that the pair had been the victims of street crime, secondly that they had engineered their own disappearance (this was around the same time as the KGB discovered Vinnikova to be living in London), and finally that the two had been abducted in relation to Krasovsky’s financial activities. On the 25th of September it was reported in the Belarusskaya Niva newspaper that Gonchar had actually been seen in Lithuania in conversation with the self-exiled former speaker of the parliament Semyon Sharetski. The Inter-Parliamentary Union noted in 2006 that there were grounds for suspecting a financial motive behind a possible ‘self disappearance’. Reporting Mr. Gonchar to be “heavily indebted because of his business in the Russian Federation, and Mr. Krasovsky had been summoned to appear in court on a charge of tax evasion”. It was also noted that Mrs. Krasovsky had apparently refused to co-operate with the Belarusian investigation, and was now living in the USA. Contrary to the claims of the opposition, and indeed the concerns of Western governments, the case has not been ignored or closed. In fact the investigation has been reopened seven times, and the prosecutor general still reports on it to the Belarusian parliament. The timing of these disappearances was also crucial coming as they did at a time of increased external interest and interference in Belarus in the run up to parliamentary elections.
One of Lukashenko’s aides, Mikhail Sazonov wrote a letter to the OSCE chief in Belarus, Hans Georg Wieck, expressing frustration at these events. He noted that the disappearances had come at a crucial time in attempts at establishing a government – opposition dialogue. In the letter he wrote that Lukashenko was “extremely worried about what has happened to Gonchar” and all necessary steps were being taken to find him. Sazonov continued that “there are forces that are interested in breaking the emerging dialogue. We believe that whoever organised and carried out Gonchar’s disappearance did so with this goal in mind”.
What is of prime importance in the cases of Gonchar, Krasovsky and Zakharenko, is that not only would their murder or kidnapping by the Belarusian authorities have been counterproductive, but also exceptionally difficult to achieve. Particularly in the case of Zakharenko, who as former head of the Interior Ministry was both popular and familiar with those who would have been charged with such a task. As mentioned earlier Zakharenko resigned over the withdrawal of privileges for his personnel, and even the opposition’s United Civic Party admitted that: “The involvement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is out of the question. Firstly, it would have been unethical. Secondly, there would have surely been a leak from them by now. The possibility of KGB involvement is also minimum, as Lukashenko had not ruined its apparatus. They still have seasoned staff members there, who know what it might lead to”.
Not only then would the security services have been unlikely to carry out the acts, but also would have thoroughly investigated them. As acknowledged above, Lukashenko did not have unconditional support from these forces. The Belarusian MVD (interior ministry) and KGB troops would be the very people most able to overthrow any president, particularly if he attempted to use them to first ‘disappear’ someone (especially their former head) and then have this covered up. The notion of a death squad formed by the presidential administration that could outsmart the professionals in the MVD and KGB is also particularly implausible.
The other high profile disappearance of note is that of Dimitry Zavadsky. What sets this case apart from the previously mentioned ones, is that the Belarusian authorities have actually charged and imprisoned people over the abduction. Zavadsky was a cameraman and journalist with the Russian ORT network. He had covered the war in Chechnya and had press accreditation with the Belarusian presidential administration.
Zavadsky went missing on July 7th 2000 on his way to Minsk international airport to meet a colleague. The opposition and Western governments were quick to add Zavadsky’s name to the list of political disappearances in Belarus, despite there being no obvious reason why Lukashenko may want rid of him. Zavadsky’s wife and the colleague he was supposed to meet at the airport, Pavel Sheremet, provided the first clues in the case. They reported that he had been receiving threatening phone calls after he returned to Belarus from reporting in Chechnya. In the documentary film that Zavadsky worked on, it was alleged that former Belarusian military and security personnel hired as advisors by the Russian forces had also been illicitly training the Chechen rebels. According to the investigation, Zavadsky had actually filmed the arrest of one of these men, Valeri Ignatovich. Zavadsky had also gave an interview to a Belarusian newspaper claiming that a small group of Belarusians had even been fighting against Russian forces in Chechnya.
In August 2000 Belarusian police confirmed that Zavadsky’s disappearance was being investigated as a premeditated crime, and that there were actually five suspects. The following May at a press conference the deputy prosecutor general and the head of the investigation announced that there was enough evidence to charge two men with Zavadsky’s abduction. Ignatovich was one of them, together with another man, Maxim Malik. Both of these men were former members of the elite ‘Almaz’ (Diamond) Belarusian police unit.
Since leaving Almaz, Ignatovich had established a criminal gang, and had also been involved in the purported military assistance to Chechen rebels. The gang was linked to seventeen crimes, one of which was the abduction of Zavadsky, in reprisal for his newspaper interview. Police found a shovel in Ignatovich’s car that had Zavadsky’s blood on it, however his body was never found.
Lukashenko took a personal interest in the case, as Zavadsky was considered to be a colleague. In July 2000 he promised to “wring the necks of those responsible” for the disappearance. It appears that the abduction was possibly originally intended as a ransom plot as opposed to a simple murder. Lukashenko discussed this with ORT journalists. Saying their bosses had “a lot to disclose about Zavadsky”. Lukashenko claimed to have information that ORT had been asked to pay a ransom for Zavadsky’s release, this was later confirmed by ORT director Konstantin Ernst.
On March the 14th 2002 Ignatovich and Malik were sentenced to life imprisonment for the abduction of Dimitry Zavadsky as well as one other murder and a series of armed assaults and robberies.
Despite this, and the lack of a credible reason as to why Lukashenko should want Zavadsky murdered, his name was still included in the list of politically motivated disappearances that justified the US Belarus Democracy Act. In fact one of the more common allegations is that there is a connection between Zavadsky’s disappearance and a broader repression of independent media in Belarus. Yet as seen earlier independent media proliferates in Belarus, and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists international report of 2006 of the 134 journalists in prison worldwide, not one was Belarusian.
The issue of the ‘disappeared’ was discussed with Lukashenko in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. It was noted that in Belarus in 2001 around 1,200 people were reported missing (the lowest rate per head in the world) and more than 800 of these had been found. Of the claims of ‘death squads’ Lukashenko commented that there “are about 1,500 people in the Belarusian opposition movement. They cannot endanger the present government. Even if there was any dictatorship in our country, it would be clear for a most vehement dictator, that barbarian methods of dealing with the opposition do not make any sense”.
Lukashenko has also questioned the motives and methods of the opposition who highlight the cases of the ‘disappeared’. He noted that one man who has disappeared, the pro-Lukashenko artist Andrei Bubashkin, is never mentioned during opposition ‘vigils for the missing’. However the reverse is true for political scientist Anatoly Maisenya who was killed in a car crash in 1997, and MP Gennady Karpenko who died in hospital the same year following a brain haemorrhage. In 2001 opposition activists were still carrying portraits of these two men as ‘disappeared’.
The question of ‘disappearances’ is certainly an important one, and also represents a serious threat to the credibility of Lukashenko and his government. However in order to establish guilt there usually has to be evidence that puts a case ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. Clearly there is a lack of reliable or overwhelming factual information to say that Lukashenko was involved in any of the above disappearances; if indeed they did ‘disappear’ at all.