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Presidential election in Belarus

Aleksey Svetikov, Severodonetsk
The way of life in Belarus, basing on the author’s own observations, is described in the first part of the article. It is assessed as inferior to the Ukrainian was of life. In the second part the presidential election proper is described. Lukashenko’s policy to hamper the information exchange during the election is criticized, but it is confirmed that he won the election with a great advantage.
A successful political promotion must have a certain strategy. The promotion of totalitarianism has only one strategy – systematic lies. A sample of such strategy has appeared in the Internet-space of Ukraine. This week I found a letter in my e-mail box. The letter was from an Aleksandr, a complete stranger to me, and read as follows: ‘Gentlemen! I offer to your attention information from an eyewitness of the recent events in Belarus. See’.

Being rather interested in Belarus events after a three-week sojourn to Vitebsk, I followed the advice. What I read on the site seemed very familiar to me, then I guessed what namely was familiar. State-controlled mass media in Belarus published similar texts throughout the summer. The main theses of the agitation are the following: Belarus has the best economic state among the CIS countries; Belarus is on the economic upraise; the GNP and wages increase; a record crop is harvested; the living standard of Belarus citizens is permanently growing; President Lukashenko is a successful and responsible politician, a self made man, father of the nation; the opposition is paid by the USA and Western Europe, while the supporters of Lukashenko are patriots, who do not permit imperialists to ruin the country.

The arguments are very simple, and can be understood even by an illiterate heavy-drinking peasant in the backwoods. All these arguments appeal to the people to close their ranks to protect their country against external enemies and their internal mercenaries. An appeal to start fighting was always enthusiastically accepted by a lumpen. In fact, almost all the above-mentioned are false. And these falsehoods are Dr. Goebbels style, when the facts, which men see with their own eyes, are overcome by the repetitive propaganda. This is one of the main features of totalitarianism.

Actually the economic state of Belarus is not brilliant, it is approximately on the level of that of Ukraine (or a little bit better) and much lower than that of Russia. Actually, the economic state of Belarus resembles that of Ukraine in 1993-94. Most industrial enterprises do work, but, except infrequent exceptions, unprofitably, great lots of not unsold goods feel the stores. The trade is state-controlled and would not stay any competition. Kolkhozes dominate in agriculture, which is unprofitable too. To assist agricultural workers the youth is coercively driven to kolkhozes for season works. The fuel during the harvest campaign was ‘voluntarily’ donated by oil traders.

In fact, the economic state of Belarus is the preserved state of Ukraine in 1994, and we know from our own experience that this is a very expensive affair. Certainly, when the economic is unprofitable as a whole, this deficit can be paid only from external sources. And Belarus found such sources at the expense of the collision of geopolitical interests of Russia and the West. President Lukashenko successfully used the Russian chauvinism and weak spots of Eltsin’s regime for solving economic problems of his country. For example, thanks to the treaty on customs import got to Russia through Belarus, the taxes were paid only in Belarus. What the Russian budget lost, the Belarus budget gained. Another important source of income was the re-export of Russian fuel that was sold to Belarus at much lower prices than the average. It was easily done under Eltsin’s rule. Now, when Putin came to power, such affairs became more difficult.

The West, although it seems surprising, also essentially helps Belarus. The assistance of the West to NGOs of Belarus many times exceeds that to Ukraine. Belarus journalists estimate this assistance as 1.4 billion USD.

However, the enormous sums that were expended for preserving the economic state have not led to the creation of any new tendencies. Any essential structural changes have not appeared in industry and agriculture of Belarus, the problems have been accumulating, and the external assistance may stop one day. That will be a collapse. Much worse one than that in Ukraine in 1995. It shall happen because the resources of Belarus are exhausted, and no inner productive sources exist.

Thus, the growth of economics in Belarus is a myth. Nothing permits to expect the development. On the contrary, the statistic organs of the country inform on the substantial decline of production this year. As to the GNP growth, such figures are easily fabricated in the authoritarian state and really mean nothing.

A real growth of economics is observed now in Russia and Ukraine, unlike Belarus.

The most doubtful link in the chain of arguments is the thesis about the high and permanently growing living standard in Belarus. On my first day in Vitebsk standing in a queue in a food shop I accidentally overheard a talk of two elderly women. One of them joked: ‘Because of poverty I live on potatoes only and still is buxom’. But potatoes in Vitebsk were more expensive than in Ukraine (400 Belarus rubles per kilogram, the exchange rate being HR 1=270 Belarus rubles). Almost all victuals (except milk and curds), are more expensive or much more expensive than in Ukraine. It especially concerns meat and fish. Salami costs Hr 30-40 per kilo, sausage – Hr 20-30. Besides the quality of Belarus products (especially cheese, sausage, cigarettes, vodka and butter) is very low. Conscientious sale assistants warn consumers that the cheese (sausage, etc) is locally made. Products from Russia and other countries are sold in infrequent private shops.

I especially surprised in shops selling industrial goods. In each big store there are big posters with so-called assortment minimums – lists of good, which must be on sale. The minimums must be fulfilled under the threat of punishment. There was a big showcase packed with socks, but I could not find a pair to match my suit and fit my feet. The prices were much bigger than in Ukraine. For example, there was not a pair of socks cheaper than Hr 3.5. We know what is inflation, but in Belarus, beside the usual substantial inflation, they have another tendency: the prices grow in the USD equivalent too. This is one of the consequences of the monetary politics of Lukashenko, in this way he tries to raise average wages up to $100.

On the other hand, communal services in Belarus are much cheaper than in Ukraine. Urban transport is very cheap (60 Belarus rubles or 22 Ukrainian kopecks), long-distance transport is much more expensive.

As to the average wages, it is about 120 thousand rubles in industry and 90 thousand rubles in the budget sphere (that is Hr 450 and Hr 300, respectively). It is a little more than our wages, but, having in mind the difference in prices, the living standard in Belarus is about the same as in Ukraine. But the quality of life in Ukraine is better, since the quality of goods and services is much better. As to pensions, my acquaintance in Vitebsk gets 40 thousand rubles (Hr 148) and says that she can hardly survive.

In general the living standard is not an absolute measure. For today’s Belarus it is essential that the living standard is lowering all the time, whereas in Ukraine it is on the uptake. A year ago people in Belarus lived much better than Ukrainians. In 1995 the average wages in Belarus were $100, whereas in Ukraine it was about $20.

The decline tendencies make citizens of Belarus dissatisfied, and the efforts of the official propaganda to convince people that they live well are not very successful.

The official method is to intimidate the population that they will live even worse, if they do not vote for Lukashenko. If an individual like Goncharik comes to power, then the country will be ruined and robbed. Propaganda created the image of Lukashenko as a successful and clever politician. In the actual fact, he is a man of moderate intellect, culture and education. Such a person would hardly do something good for the country in our times. What concerns the opposition, it deserves a special and rather difficult discussion.

One may put a question: what is the goal of Belarus propaganda’s coming to the informational space of a foreign country, even through the international net? Is it an attempt to justify the numerous violations of voters’ rights, which occurred during the preparatory campaign and actual presidential election of this year?

** *

On 10 September at 4:15 in the morning Lidia Ermoshina, the head of the Central Election Committee (CEC), declared on TV the preliminary results of the election after having got the data from 100% of polling stations. According to the Committee data, Aleksandr Lukashenko got 75.6% of the votes, Vladimir Goncharik – 15.4%, Sergey Gaydukevich – 2.5%.

At half past eight another set of data, which was processed by the public organization ‘Independent observation’, appeared. Mecheslav Grib, the head of the Club of Voters of Belarus, told that these two sets of data differ from each other by 10%, so in any way Lukashenko won the election in the first tour.

Somewhat later the official site of ‘Independent observation’ refuted this information. The site read that because of the obstacles for observers their results couldn’t either refute or confirm the CEC results of the election. The OSCE did not accept the results of the election.

Lukashenko and other post-Soviet dictators must understand that it not observance that threaten their power, but quite different processes. Independent observance guarantees the people their right for reforms through democratic elections.

Unfortunately, in Belarus the election was carried under the conditions of unprecedented pressure on the system of observance, in contrast to election-99 in Ukraine, when the observation was successfully conducted by the Committee of Voters of Ukraine. The observance system underwent especially great pressure on 9 September, the day of voting.

The day before, of 8 September, the CEC took a decision not to admit the observers from the human rights protection center ‘Viasna’. This decision concerned about 2000 persons and was taken by the CEC in connection with the complaint of 4 citizens. The complaint read that they were not members of ‘Viasna’ and had been included into the number of observers without asking their consent. Since the observers were brutally pressed (and even fired from jobs), it was not difficult to find four claimants.

On 9 September the same lot was granted to observers from the L. Sapega fund. As Mykola Statkevich, the head of the Belarus Social-Democratic party, told on 9 September, optimistic hopes of the observers failed, and many polling stations remain without objective control. According to Statkevich the power was guilty of this.

On the contrary Yuri Soloviov, the first secretary of the Belarus Union of Youth, expressed his satisfaction with the way, in which the election was carried out. In his interview to ‘Belarusska delovaya gazeta’ he remarked: ‘You say that observers were not admitted to polling stations? I know nothing about that. We had 7000 observers from our organization. We could send more, but the CEC asked us to limit the number’.

Coordinators of the program of independent observance had an especially difficult day. Some of them were detained, criminal and administrative cases were started against them. So, Sergey Malchik, the coordinator in the Grodno oblast, spent this day in the KGB cooler, he was released only after 6 p.m., so early, perhaps, owing to the interference of Russian MP Vadim Bondar.

The security services officers motivated their actions by the investigation of a criminal case about appearance of leaflets appealing to violent changes of the state order. The leaflets were signed by a non-existing organization ‘Belarus liberation army’. On the eve of the election V. Goncharik declared that the appearance of these leaflets was provocation. Yet, as it should be expected, the leaflets became a pretext for repressions of the activists of election headquarters of the only oppositional candidate and of the observers.

‘Along with the detentions of the activists the security services conduct searches in the offices of democratic organization and political parties’, the press-center of V. Goncharik stated in its declaration of 9 September.

At the time, when Malchik was released, other two coordinators, Svetlana Nekh and Vadim Saranchukov, remained in the captivity. Coordinators in Minsk were also detained.

Since the evening of 8 September ‘problems’ with the Internet began in Belarus, e-mail stopped to function in the domain .by. Most sites were also inaccessible. E-mail could not pass to some addressed abroad. This attack lasted during the whole day on 9 September: at 13:00 local time the Belarus monopolistic provider ‘Beltelekom’ blocked the access to social and political sites, which elucidated on-line the course of the presidential election. Sites of ‘Charter-97’, radio ‘Liberty’, newspapers ‘Nasha volia’, ‘Belaruska delovaya gazeta’ and ‘Belaruskaya gazeta’ were blocked, at 16:30 other sites were cut off: site of the public organization ‘Independent observation’ that presented the information about the numerous violations of the election laws, sites of the information agency ‘Belapan’, radio ‘Ratsia’ and V. Goncharik.

In the evening, before the votes were counted the telephones were cut off in the headquarters of the observers. In Vitebsk all the telephones of the oblast headquarters of independent observance and the election headquarters of V. Goncharik were cut off about 7 p.m. In this way the transmission of practically all information on violations of the election laws was blocked. In Grodno the telephones were cut off not only in headquarters, but also in private flats of its members and observers.

About 8 p.m. the both telephone lines were switched off in the editorial board of the newspaper ‘Rabochiy’, where the press service of ‘Independent observance’ operated. The logic was simple. The most active work of the press center had to begin at about 8 p.m., when the count of votes began. At 10 a.m. the connection with the coordinator of the Gomel oblast was not yet restored, so the independent observance could give the final results.

Perhaps, such a pressure on observers has never been exercised in Europe.

But the final result of an election is defined not by observers, but by voters. The election in Belarus was lost not by observers, but by the opposition. All the election campaign was disorderly, unprofessional and passive, especially in the night after the election.

At about 9 p.m. several events were occurring in Minsk.

The CEC counted votes, by 23:00 25% of the bulletins were processed. But in the headquarters of the LDPB the results were already known, so they quietly celebrated the end of the campaign. They filled their glasses with good 10-year-old whisky and Oleg Markevich, the deputy head of the party, summed up their efforts. ‘Let us be realistic’, he said, ‘it was very difficult to win. However, at the next election we shall have no troubles in making our candidate known. We have worked for the next election’. At 22:30 Gaydukevich planned to go to the CEC, but, having learned the results, he changed his mind.

The peace and assurance reigned in Lukashenko’s headquarters, they were sure of the victory.

Meanwhile the opposition conducted the meeting on the Zhovtneva Square, where they protested against the falsification of the results. The number of the participants of the meeting was 3-5 thousand. Vladimir Goncharik arrived at 21:30.

Six trucks with armed OMON servicemen went toward the square, two more OMON companies were positioned near Volodarska prison. The servicemen armed with shields and clubs occupied six small buses, three wagons and one big bus.

In spite of the appeal of an opposition leader to remain on the square until morning, by 23:00 only about 15 hundred people remained. Mainly it was youth, members of the movement ‘Zubr’. Slogans were proclaimed: ‘Long live Belarus!’, ‘Independence!’ and ‘Down with Lukashenko!’ Militia was vigilant, but did not interfere.

People were dispersing. At 2:40 about 200 participants remained on the square, and they intended to leave. Goncharik stayed on the second story of the building of the Federation of trade unions of Belarus and was expecting the results of the parallel count of votes. Goncharik intended to use these data at the press conference appointed at 10 a.m. Pavlo Severinets, the leader of ‘Young front’, was disappointed since the action on the Zhovtneva Square failed to be massive.

As to the four columns that must come to Minsk from the four towns of Belarus, they would be a decoration at best and will be unable to change anything. The atmosphere of the failure got palpable.

Vladimir Nekliaev, a well-known Belarus poet, waited in the hall of the building of the Federation of trade unions. The poet now resides abroad, but he came to Belarus on special purpose to support the opposition at the election. He was disappointed by the fact that Valentina Polevikova, the head of Goncharik’s headquarters, was not present in the place, where their supporters gathered. In his opinion, this happened also in the times of Semen Sharetskiy, when the old nomenclature appealed to people to go to meetings and marches, but they themselves refused to participate.

At 5 a.m. some activists of ‘Zubr’ and ‘Young front’ climber on the roof of the trade unions building and put there a red-and-white flag. But the flag streamed over the roof not more than five minutes. Militia rushed into the building, the youth panicked. They had to put down the flag. The activists themselves affirm that the flag was taken down by some provocateurs, while the real patriots were preparing for the battle.

That doubtful statement was a proper end of this stillborn election campaign.

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