Sunday, September 28, 2008

Belarus has a Parliamentary election

Today's election in Belarus - Europe's last dictatorship - will have observers and opposition candidates. Some political prisoners have been freed and some opposition politicians have been given TV coverage on the monopoly state media. Alexander Lukashenko says the elections will work according to the "rules of the West", I doubt he will be kidding anyone.

It is a little less oppressive, but political prisoners remain in Belarus. There are limits on how candidates may campaign, with only small noticeboards allowed and a limit of £400 in spending. This, naturally, benefits the incumbents in the Parliament. 41 of the 110 Parliamentary seats have no opposition candidates. All seats in Parliament are held by Lukashenko's supporters, in a classic communist style rubber stamp assembly.

So with the state controlled media, candidates barely able to campaign and Lukashenko running his own small personality cult dictatorship, the chances of change in Belarus are next to zero. Even Vladimir Putin thinks he is too much of a dictator.

Having said that Lukashenko has managed to hold onto power by maintaining internal stability - dictatorships can be very good at controlling crime, because the state doesn't like any competition. In addition, Belarus's close relationship with Russia has seen it continue to get heavily subsidised gas and oil from its neighbour - which it then rations to its population, reselling the rest at market prices to the West. As a result, if the election IS deemed fair (in that the votes cast are reflected in the result and there is little overt intimidation), Belarus 's dictatorship will demand legitimacy from the West - because democracy is king, right?

The Sunday Telegraph has a two part report report from its correspondent, Colin Freeman.
Part one notes on Lukashenko "Cameramen have reportedly been sacked after showing his bald patch on TV, and until recently, there was even an official ban on cracking jokes about him"
Part two he meets a dissident, arrested for advocating closer ties to the European Union. He said "They chuck you in a jail for ‘administrative detainees’, where there are usually about 20 people in a tiny room with hardly any space to move around... You got no exercise, not even for 10 minutes a day, and you’re not allowed any visits or food from relatives, and the food gives you diarrhoea. Even a fortnight inside, he adds, leaves you weak and “half-brain dead”.

The simple point is that Belarus should not be rewarded for "democracy", it should be rewarded for freedom. That means a free and open press, the right to protest, the right to criticise the government, and to hold government accountable through an independent judiciary, and constitutional courts. Belarus is a very long way from that. To let Belarus off after this facade of freedom would be a travesty to those Belarussians who have been imprisoned, tortured and murdered by Lukashenko's goons since Gorbachev let Minsk go its own way.

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