Last Sunday Belarusians cast their votes in a highly charged and contested presidential election. After several opposition candidates were prevented from participating and others were arrested, the election came down to a contest between incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, in office since 1994, and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
In contrast to previous presidential elections, neither the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) – Europe’s leading intergovernmental election-monitoring body – nor other credible international organisation observed the election. According to ODIHR’s Director at the time, the lack of a timely invitation more than two months ahead of the election reflected a lack of commitment on the part of the Belarusian authorities to co-operate with ODIHR election observers as envisaged by OSCE commitments.
According to a civil society assessment of media conduct, throughout the campaign state-owned media overwhelmingly supported the incumbent president, forcing the opposition, who were denied fair access to radio and TV channels, to rely on social media. This finding, prepared by Memo 98, the Eurasian States in Transition (EAST) Research Center and Linking Media, was one of many elements leading to the conclusion that the election never had the semblance of an honest, competitive vote.
Widespread protests erupted across Belarus after the first official reports indicated that Lukashenko had won a landslide victory, with Tikhanovskaya coming third after the “reject all candidates” option. People have taken to the streets in large numbers to peacefully protest that the election results were rigged. These protests were met with a brutal response from the authorities, resulting in injury and a number of deaths.
Fearing for her safety, Tikhanovskaya has sought sanctuary in Lithuania after apparently being forced to record a video accepting the official results and calling for demonstrations to stop.
Belarus has a history of fraudulent elections, which have been heavily criticised by the OSCE/ODIHR and other international observers since the mid-1990s. Both the framework and conduct of elections are deeply flawed. They would require a comprehensive overhaul to bring them in line with international obligations and standards for democratic elections.
Belarus has long been of interest to the European Union (EU), demonstrated by its inclusion in the Eastern Partnership programme, which aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the EU and its six Eastern European neighbours. Until 2015, the EU maintained an array of sanctions on senior Belarussian officials and businesses and the human rights, democracy and rule of law situations in the country were a regular focus of EU external policy, with the EU spearheading initiatives such as resolutions on human rights in Belarus at the United Nations.
Since 2015, the EU has suspended sanctions and lifted the pressure on the Belarusian government as the Lukashenko administration softened its stance towards the opposition and engaged with them in a more constructive dialogue. This approach appears to have initially seen success, but their actions surrounding the presidential election indicate that the Belarusian authorities have reverted, once again, to authoritarian crackdown on democratic dissent.
The situation in Belarus is not only of concern to its immediate EU neighbours Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. It also concerns the EU’s ambition for global geopolitical relevance. EU’s core external policy documents: the 2012 Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, the 2016 Global Strategy and the 2020 Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy all mandate the EU to work on strengthening of democratic processes and respect for political rights: the right to vote and stand in elections, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of association and the freedom of expression and the media worldwide.
Many states, including Belarus, have freely committed to respecting obligations of democracy and genuine elections, as outlined in our 2012 policy paper: Overview of State Obligations Relevant to Democratic Governance and Elections.
Right next door to the EU, people’s democratic aspirations are being crushed. It is important that, at this moment, the EU steps up to offer support in the spirit of the democratic and human rights principles it espouses.
We urge that consideration be given to the following actions:
- Establishing an immediate independent investigation, possibly involving the European Parliament, to review and report on the significant flaws of these elections, including the on-going post-election phase. The Belarusian authorities did not allow credible international election observation, but the events can still be investigated.
- Reinstating previous sanctions on senior officials, and businesses as well as imposing new ones, including asset freezes and restrictions on movement across the EU, targeting Aleksander Lukashenko, his inner circle, senior election officials involved in fraud, and entrepreneurs linked to the government. Yesterday’s statement by the EU’s High-Representative already raised this possibility.
- Providing support to politicians, supporters, civil society actors and their families who fear for their safety and seek refuge in the EU Member States.
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Photo caption: Rally in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanoŭskaya, 30 July 2020, Minsk, Belarus
Photo credit: Homoatrox, CC BY-SA 3.0