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Everything But Fair?

DW staff (ls)September 27, 2008

Ahead of Sunday's elections in Belarus, the country's autocratic president hopes to move closer to the EU and has promised fair voting. But German EU parliamentarian Elmar Brok says that's unlikely to happen.

Belarusians cast their ballots during an election and referendum on presidential term limits at a polling station in Minsk, Oct. 17, 2004
Lukaschenko is promising the nation a democratic electionImage: AP

A diplomatic ice age currently exists between the EU and Belarus. Alexander Lukaschenko has been ruling the country autocratically for 14 years. After the presidential elections in 2006, which were classified by election observers as manipulated, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus. Since then, "Europe's last dictator" has been denied entry into the EU.

This could change on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008, when a new parliament is elected in Belarus. Lukaschenko has promised a transparent and democratic election. The Belarus government has even invited the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the polls. Some 300 OSCE election monitors will be on site on Sunday.

Doubtful promise

The Belarusian opposition does not trust Lukaschenko, though. It is taking part in the election -- but only in order to be able to document manipulation. The EU is also skeptical. It is expected that the elections "will be pluralistic and will represent a real advance on the way to respecting international and European standards," EU foreign minister said in a statement.

EU parliamentarian Elmar Brok
Brok is adamant that the EU won't recognize an unfair electionImage: Presse

European parliamentarian Elmar Brok, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, had greater doubts.

"The term 'fair elections' cannot be used here, not only due to the opposition's lack of information sources, but also on account of the political pressure on the opposition," Brok told DW-WORLD.DE in an interview. "The opposition is in a much worse starting position than the government."

Tactical games?

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko (right) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Minsk
Smart tactics? Observers think Lukashenko will cozy up to Russia if his attempt to get closer to the EU failsImage: AP

Lukaschenko has assiduously presented himself as a democrat. In one of his very few interviews with the Western media, he recently emphasized that he has no dictatorial ambitions but rather puts his trust in the will of the Belarusian people.

"I would be happy if you could deliver this honest message to the people in Europe," Lukaschenko told the British Financial Times and the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

At the same time, Lukaschenko threatened to break off all connections with the EU. If the EU doesn't relax its strong position, Belarus will look for other allies, he said, naming Venezuela and Iran in particular. Russia, whose approach in the Georgian war was recently applauded by Lukaschenko, is a traditional ally.

Up to now Belarus has yet to recognize the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The new Belarus parliament will decide on this, Lukaschenko said. Observers see this as a sign that Lukaschenko is trying to get closer with to the West, but is still keeping a back door open to Russia.

How is Europe reacting?

After the elections the EU will also have to decide if it wants to uphold its sanctions against Lukaschenko. In principle, the EU is ready to "review its restrictive measures against the Belarusian leadership and take positive and concrete steps, which could lead to a gradual rapprochement with Belarus," EU foreign ministers said. A requirement could be that the appropriate standards with regard to the election are adhered to.

Brussels was also pleased that Lukaschenko released three prominent dissenters in August. Among them was the former presidential candidate Alexander Kosulin. After the 2006 elections he was sentenced to five and a half years of imprisonment. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament has nominated him for this year's Sacharow prize for human rights.

Alexander Kosulin
Alexander KosulinImage: AP

"He sat in prison, he showed courage against this repressive, authoritarian regime," said Brok, who is a member of the committee. The prize winner will be decided upon in October by the Executive Committee of the European Parliament.

Brok rejects Lukaschenko's threat to sever all ties.

"The EU cannot let Lukaschenko dictate what the EU views as standards for a democratic election," he said, adding that the EU should only accept elections which are considered as fair by the OSCE.

"We will not change our standards on democratic elections based on tactical, opportunistic reasons," Brok said.