"First of all we will witness a sharpening of the repression against the opposition and against human rights", says Valery Karbalevich, independent professor of Political Science.

Election Belarus Election. Return to repression

On Monday the 20th and on Tuesday the 21st Minsk was back to its normal life. The life of fear. The doors that had been opened during the month before had once more, at least for a period, been closed. In an interview the 21th, the independent professor of Political Science, Mr Valery Karbalevich comment the situation.

Published on balticworlds.com on December 29, 2010

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After an election campaign which was, measured with Belarusian standard of the last decade, fairly liberal, where oppositional candidates could at least move around freely in the country to organize their meetings, president Aljaksandr Lukashenka on the eve of the last election day, December 19, decided to brutally attack the democratic opposition and the mass of people gathered in central Minsk. The first attack came already half past six when one of the three main oppositional candidates, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu was so heavily beaten on the street that he lost consciousness and had to be taken to hospital for reanimation. Shortly after he woke up, still being given medicine intravenous, his wife Olga sitting at his bedside, new unidentified men came into the hospital at half past eleven in the evening, threw out the doctors and the nurses, kept Olga Valentinova in strong hands and carried out her husband, wrapped up in a blanket, to an unknown place. Two days later it came to be known that he had been transferred to the prison of the KGB at Akrestsin Street in central Minsk. More or less at the same time as Nyaklyaeu was taken out from the hospital – Lukashenka used a well organized provocation during which some windows and the entrance door to the governmental building at the Independent Square were broken, to give an alibi for the Spetsnaz troops, gathered inside the building, to initiate their brutal attacks. Standing just in front of two broken windows, I moved away some twenty meters to the right just in time before the first attack, which soon afterwards was followed by a second one. Many people were brutally beaten. All counter-candidates to Lukashenka, present at the manifestation were, with the exception of Jaroslav Ramachuk, imprisoned. Andrey Sannikov, the former diplomat and former deputy minister of foreign affairs running for the presidency, was brutally beaten before being dragged into a car and taken away to the KGB prison. Before sunrise on Monday morning Lukashenka had put more than six hundred people in prison, among them five of his counter-candidates.

Traveling around in the country during one week before the Election Day, attending several election meetings with the main democratic candidates, talking to people in Minsk and also in minor towns, it was easy to feel a change in the “normal” Belarusian atmosphere; one could easily feel the beginning of a new openness. People not only looked with interest at the official election poster on which the portraits and names of all candidates were presented clearly indicating that alternatives did exist to Lukashenka; they also took the leaflets in their hands, they read them and they dared to discuss in open the election campaign.

The brutal attack on the 19th of December and the continued repressions since then blocked this development in an effective way.

“I am scared”, a young student told me leaving the Independent Square when the second attack by the Spetsnaz was initiated.

“If my dean would know I am here, I would be thrown out from my studies.”

“My whole life is dominated by fear.”

On Monday the 20th and on Tuesday the 21st Minsk was back to its normal life. The life of fear. The town looked as if nothing had happened the day and night before. People discussed of course what had happened. But not any more in the open. The doors that had been opened during the month before had once more, at least for a period, been closed.

Today the Lukashenka-regime is preparing trials which may end up with tough prison sentences for at least 20 people, among them at least five of the candidates having the courage to run against him for the presidency: Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, Andrey Sannikov, Mikalaj Statkevich, Ales Mikhalevich and Vital Rimasheusi as well as the leader of the liberal United Civic Party, Anatol Lebedzka. The latter being on hunger strike since the 19th of December,  together with Mikalaj Statkevich, the candidate of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party.

The following interview with the independent professor of Political Science, Mr Valery Karbalevich, was made on Tuesday 21th of December in Minsk.

Peter Johnsson: In the presidential election in 2001 Aljaksandr Lukashenka received 73 percent of the votes, in the elections in 2006 86 percent and now, according to the official figures presented by the Central Election committee, 99,67 percent of the votes. On the other side, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, one of the main democratic opponents running for presidency and who collected more than 236 000 signatures before the registration of him as a candidate, received, according to the official figures the support of only 114 000 voters, i.e. 1,77 percent of the cast votes. Can you please comment on these figures from the Central Election Committee?

Valery Karbalevich: These figures have nothing in common with how people voted. It is important to understand that the figures given by the Central Election Committee and the real voting of the voters are two different things. They have nothing in common. The official figures are a result of a political decision taken on the highest level that is inside the presidential administration. I might remind you that some weeks before the elections Lukashenka at a press conference for Russian journalists said that he himself counted with a support from more or less two thirds of the voters. That was the signal he by this statement sent out into the country. I believe that during the Election Day itself this was the figure that was “obligatory” for those who organized the voting process and the propaganda. The exit poll which was made public during the day indicated that the support for Lukashenka was around 72 percent. Later in the evening we were told that he had got 79 percent. I believe this “upgrading” was done because of the amount of people beginning to take to the streets and moving towards the center of Minsk in order to take part in the manifestation organized by the opposition. The reason for the upgrading was the fear that did exist inside the administration of the president.

PJ: Few people doubt that the official figures were rigged. But which support do you as an independent political scientist believe Aljaksandr Lukashenka in reality has in the country?

VK: It is a question upon which we have no definitive answer. We do not have the necessary instrument to carry out opinion-polls in accordance with normal Western sociological standards. Anyhow, there exists an independent sociological institute, officially registered in Lithuania, which carried out, as I believe, a rather reliable investigation in October, i.e. two months before the elections. It gave Lukashenka a support of 48 percent of the voters. In Minsk itself, several media, among them the independent and from Western funds financed TV channel Belsat – carried out exit polls during the Election Day. They were of course not that extensive as they ought to be. They indicated, however, a support for Lukashenka in Minsk which was below 40 percent and for an higher support for the democratic candidates all of them together. I believe that are figures reflecting the real situation in Minsk. In the regions of the country, I mean outside the capital, the situation is different and I would suppose that Lukashenka has a support of the majority of the voters there. But this does absolutely not go for Minsk. Here he for sure has the support of less than forty percent of the voters.

PJ: And if we assumed that completely free and democratic elections were to be held in Belarus, giving the democratic opposition free access to mass-media, what, according to your opinion, would be the outcome of the elections? Would the support for Lukashenka remain on the relatively high level out in the regions of the country?

VK: This is a question which creates on open field for speculations. It’s really difficult to tell what would the exact outcome. But first of all, such elections, completely free and democratic, in itself would be impossible if we not already had at least for a short period had a different history, and hence a different society, a society with an already open political discussion and with a free political competition. The reality looks different. Therefore there is today perhaps no reason to speculate on the outcome of such free and democratic elections.

PJ: In Belarus the elections have been rigged during three successive presidential elections. Which are the mechanisms used in order to falsify the elections results? How is it carried out in practice?

VK: The process of falsification includes several steps. The first stage is during the days of early voting. In Belarus the voting begins five days before the official elections day. Traditionally between 21 and 32 percent of the voters take part in the early voting. This year early voting was made by 23 percent of the voters. The voting bills cast during those days are, if so needed, changed into bills supporting Lukashenka before the Election Day. This is the first stage of the process of falsification. The next is during the counting of the votes after the voting locals have been closed in the evening. The procedure for counting the votes is such that each member of the local election committee counts only a small bunch of the voting bills which then is handed over to the chairman of the election committee who takes all the bills into another room where the summary is made before it is handed over to the district level in those cases when there are more than one election local on district level. On the level of the constituency it is so secret that not even the chairmen of different districts have any access to the results. I would guess that in several cases the chairmen of the districts do not even count the votes before they are handed over to next level in this whole process of falsification. The figures in end presented by the Central Election Committee have nothing to do with how people really voted.

PJ: Why do we not read about this, cut and clear, in the different reports made by the observers from OSCE. They never talk about straight out falsification of the election result?

VK: But OSCE has always during those years, in their reports from the elections in Belarus, come to the conclusion that the elections have not fully filled the necessary norms in order to be classified as democratic elections by western standards. OSCE has also in its reports negatively assessed the democracy during the elections campaign and they have criticized the system of voting inside closed communities, as for instance inside the prisons or in the army, where traditionally the reported support for Lukashenka has been over 90 percent. All together OSCE has stated the elections have not been democratic. We have to accept that OSCE uses its terminology and it is true that the word “falsification” does not appear in their reports. OSCE only states whether an election lives up to the norms and principles stipulated by OSCE in order to be considered as democratic. That is all.

PJ: And why did Lukashenka decide to attack the demonstration and the leaders of the opposition with such brutal methods as he did on the evening of 19th of December. Where do we find the rational political explanation for this his behavior?

VK: Out of fear. From the beginning of this election Lukashenka was concerned about the election being recognized by the EU as democratic and he accepted that the elections campaign was organized in way that was acceptable for the EU. Therefore the election campaign was, measured with Belarusian criterions, exceptionally liberal. Everyone was allowed to run who was able to collect the minimum of 100 000 approved signatures. The candidates had the possibility of carrying out a relatively undisturbed campaign and they were even able, each of them, during one hour in the state controlled TV-channel present their programs. That decision of Lukashenka, connected with the campaign, was directed towards EU. Inside Belarus the effect was that people began to lose their fear. People began to think that perhaps there exist alternatives to the reign of Lukashenka. A new discussion began to appear in the society and this created fear by Lukashenka. He himself very well remembers Soviet Union during the days of Gorbachev and what the result of the Glasnost he initiated became. Lukashenka remembers this very well. That was the period when he himself entered into politics and made a career in Belarus. And he therefore did understand that the same scenario could now be repeated in Belarus removing him from power. Lukashenka was scared already during the campaign. Then come Sunday evening. People began to take to the streets. Not so few people. And more and more came. Therefore he decided that using force was the only solution for him if he should not lose the control over situation. There he did choose force as his ultimate solution. He said afterwards that he had not slept during three nights. This man did not sleep during three nights! But why? A president who has the support of 80 percent of his people is not able to sleep? I would say, with such a support he could really sleep peacefully. But he could not. The reason was of course his fear. His way out was to show his strength by using force.

PJ: According to the official figures the turn out during the elections was 90 percent. How big do you believe it was in reality?

VK: The 90 percent given by the Central Election committee does absolutely not reflect the real turn out. I myself voted late, at six a clock in the evening. I had a look at the register of voters when my name was marked of and for what I could see half of the voters from the area I live had not by than voted at all two hours before the closing of the voting local. I would presume that here in Minsk actually less than fifty percent of the voters voted. In the regions it was for sure different and a higher turnout. But I do not for a moment believe in the officially given figure of 90 percent.

PJ: Looking at how the manifestation Sunday evening was organized by the opposition it is difficult not to state that the organization was weak. It gave the impression of being not too well prepared. I tell this as a foreign correspondent with experience from the last three decades of history, besides Belarus, in countries as Poland, Ukraine or Lithuania. For me, the opposition in Belarus has always seemed to be not only weaker, but also less capable in organizational matters than it has been in the neighboring countries. Sunday evening there was no leader and no one able to control the masses of people and avoid the provocation that took place. How to explain this?

VK: First of all we have to understand that in such an authoritarian country as in today’s Belarus it is very difficult for the democratic opposition to be strong. Secondly, the opposition in Belarus is not united. In the elections seven different democratic opposition politicians took part. There was no real unity among them. They had a common general scenario to gather together with people supporting them at the October Square in the evening. People came to support their different candidates. They came from different directions and marched in different columns. This was, that is for me clear, a problem: they had not been able to agree upon and prepare a well defined scenario. Thirdly, when people began to gather at the Square, they had no instrument to organize the meeting. The Spetsnaz had brutally attacked Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu and his cars on their way to the Square, beaten him and expropriated the system of loudspeakers. They did not even have megaphones. During more than 30 minutes they could not communicate with the masses of people gathered at the Square. This was a weakness and it facilitated for the regime to organize its column of well prepared provocateurs. According to me the mass of the people was already split by the provocateurs when moving from the October Square up to the Independent Square with the buildings of the parliament and the government.

PJ: What will happen now? The next months? The next year?

VK: First of all we will witness a sharpening of the repression against the opposition and against human rights. Mass media will be even more controlled by the regime. Lukashenka has already stated that journalists will be made responsible for every world they write. The Internet will be even stronger controlled. The freedoms we saw during the election campaign will disappear and the country will return to a state perhaps even worse than before. A different thing is that the country needs foreign credits and foreign investments. For that reason Lukashenka is forced to introduce certain economic market reform necessary in order to attract some foreign capital.

PJ: And do you believe it is possible for Lukashenka to attract foreign capital from Western countries?

VK: That is another question. To which extent he will be able to attract foreign capital is difficult to say. Without a thorough privatization process I do not believe it is possible at any greater extent. But do think that the dialogue between Lukashenka and the European Union will continue. Both sides will prefer that and even after what has happened the last days the dialogue will continue. 

PJ: And what is your opinion? Is such a continuation from the side of the EU to prefer for the democratic opposition in Belarus instead of a return to even more sharp sanctions against Belarus and the leaders of Lukashenka administration?

VK: What I think and what I would propose is without significance. I am speaking about the reality. And the reality is that the European Union will decide to continue the dialogue with Lukashenka. That is for several reasons. There is the economic factor. Several countries, among them the Baltic countries and Poland, are deeply interested in an intensified trade with Belarus. Secondly, we have the geopolitical factor. Belarus is situated in a political field of force between the EU and Russia. Those two factors, the economic one and the geopolitical one are more important for the policy of the EU than the questions concerning democracy or the human rights. Lukashenka, on the other hand is also interested in deeper trade with West. For the first time his country is also beginning to produce commodities of interest for the Western countries. Politically he will continue to try to balance between the EU and Russia and try to receive “dividends” from both sides of the political field of force in Belarus is situated.

PJ: So for how long will Aljaksandr Lukashenka stay in power?

VK: At this moment I do not think anything or anyone does pose a threat to him.

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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