Belarus Opposition Returns to Parliament After 12-Year Exile

  • International observers call elections partially transparent
  • Dissenters claim seats as Belarus seeks better ties with West

Opposition groups in Belarus, a country once dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” by the U.S., won seats in parliament for the first time since 2004 as President Alexander Lukashenko seeks to mend ties with the West to help his battered economy.

Allies of Lukashenko, who has wielded an iron grip in the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million since 1994, still dominated Sunday’s election, taking 108 of parliament’s 110 seats. Opponents of the government -- a member of the pro-Western United Civil Party and an independent from the non-governmental Belarusian Language Society -- won a mandate each. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe saw some limited progress toward a more democratic election compared to previous campaigns.

“It remains clear that Belarus still has some way to go to fulfill its democratic commitments,” Kent Harstedt, head of the short-term OSCE observer mission, told reporters in Minsk on Monday. “The authorities made a number of promises regarding the transparency of the process, on which they delivered partially, but insufficiently.”

A few critical voices in the assembly will do little to challenge the 62-year-old president, who expanded his powers in 1996 to weaken parliament’s ability to influence policies. Still, the opposition’s gains are a nod to Lukashenko’s efforts to improve relations with Western countries as Belarus struggles to recover from an economic crisis that has hammered its ruble, fueled inflation and triggered a recession.

“There are no free and fair elections in Belarus,” Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party, said by phone. His group will decide by Tuesday whether member Anna Kanopatskaya accepts her mandate or declines it in protest, he said, adding “the authorities were in full control of the voting process.”

Economic Crisis

Buffeted by the downturn in Russia, its major political ally and economic partner, Belarus secured a $2 billion aid lifeline earlier this year. Its economy shrank 2.7 percent in the first seven months of 2016, according to the National Statistical Committee. The Belarusian ruble was at 1.9595 against the dollar at 12:21 p.m., 9.1 percent weaker from a year ago.

Belarus has tried to present itself as a beacon of stability amid geopolitical uncertainty. While Russia clashes with the European Union and U.S. over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and what they say is its support for anti-government rebels in that country’s east, Lukashenko has won plaudits for hosting talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Opposition parties in Belarus, which borders three EU members, had been sidelined since 1995, when they collided with Lukashenko’s plan for a referendum granting him the power to dissolve parliament. Special forces troops stormed the assembly that year, beating protesting deputies. After two referendums in 1996, a new constitution was adopted, the chamber was dissolved and the House of Representatives was established.

Easing Ties

Since 2004 elections, parliament has included no one who would openly describe themselves as opposing the president. That helped prompt then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator” in 2005. Belarus’s ties with the West have since improved, with the EU dropping sanctions against 170 people, including Lukashenko, as well as three companies in February.

“I want the opposition to exist and be constructive,” Lukashenko told reporters after casting his vote. “I don’t want the opposition to be a fifth column in the country.”

The London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said this week it will resume direct cooperation with Belarusian authorities for the first time since 1996 as the country has become more “internationally open.”

“This is a game the regime of Lukashenko plays, making small steps toward demands from the West and expecting the West to do the same,” Igar Gubarevich, senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Center, a London research group on Belarus, said by phone.

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