For a moment during the recent presidential campaign in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, I felt like I was covering a school board election in small-town America. The scene was an auditorium at a Minsk ballet academy, where young boys in unitards lingered in the hallway. On stage stood Victor Tereshenko, one of nine men running to challenge the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko. About 20 people sat in the room, wearing expressions ranging from overly enthusiastic to moderate disinterest. There was no media to cover the event, just someone recording the talk with a digital camera.
Welcome to democracy in Belarus, which President Lukashenko has ruled since 1994. Over the weekend, he won a sham election that will grant him five more years in office, garnering 80% of the vote according to official figures. Opposition supporters who gathered in the city’s central square on Sunday evening to protest the fraudulent results were met with a vicious response from security forces. Yet while Lukashenko’s uncompromising brutality was apparent on Sunday, he had worked hard in the weeks prior to put on a show of electoral democracy for Western observers.
This year, there was a plethora of candidates (each of whom received free airtime on television and radio), a televised presidential debate (though Lukashenko declined to participate), and campaign events like the one I attended last Saturday. Even Lukashenko’s critics conceded that the campaign process was marginally more democratic than those of elections past. But far from representing real strides forward, the ostensibly liberalising moves Lukashenko made are characteristic of the “managed democracy” model of contemporary Russia.
There are three ways in which the Belarusian regime rigged the system. The first concerns media freedom. With the exception of two independent weekly newspapers (which have a combined readership of 30,000), the media lies in the hands of the state. The regime makes it practically impossible for opposition media to exist thanks to onerous registration laws, and routinely shuts down websites and newspapers. Television, where most people get their news, is state-controlled, and a recent report found that nearly 90% of political news was devoted to Lukashenko, nearly all of it either positive or neutral.
The second problem…