Sergei Kuznetsov in Minsk -
Belarus will hold its fifth presidential elections since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union on October 11, with its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko expected to win a fifth consecutive term by a strong majority.
A slackening of EU sanctions on the republic is possible if the elections are deemed clean by international observers and are not followed by a clampdown. Imposed over repression of political opponents during Lukashenko's 20-year rule, the sanctions may undergo a trial suspension after his release of a number jailed political activists in the summer.
"The Ukrainian crisis and the problems that we are going through were, as I see it, a certain jump-start to meeting Belarus halfway and recognising the fallacy of sanctions,” Lukashenko, 61, said during the October 6 start of preliminary voting for people unable to attend the main day on Sunday, BelTA news agency reported.
Three other candidates are running for the presidency: opposition activist Tatiana Korotkevich; the head of the little-known Belarusian Patriotic Party Nikolai Ulakhovich; and the head of the pro-government Liberal-Democratic Party Sergei Gaidukevich.
However, pre-election surveys show overwhelmingly strong support for Lukashenko among the country's nine million citizens. As well as his government's committed maintenance of state benefits and subsidies for the population, this stems from the lack of strong opposition as a result of oppressive government policy, and fears that upheavals in the political elites could lead to turmoil and even armed conflict as in neighbouring Ukraine.
Lukashenko rejected claims that Ukraine's misfortunes have been a windfall for Belarus by softening the West's stance towards him and his government, who have helped mediate in resolving the armed conflict. The bloodshed had "shown how fragile peace is and that if you start doing thoughtless things here in Belarus the country may 'burst into fire' as well", he added, according to the presidential media centre. "It is in the centre of Europe. Suddenly everyone has sobered up."
The former state farm director came to power in a free and fair presidential election in 1994 after campaigning with an anti-corruption agenda. However, he has since steadily consolidated his authority and altered the constitution to extend his term in power. Subsequent elections were deemed rigged by Western observers, while opponents have been jailed and harassed and the press muzzled.
Sanctions on the scales
Early voting started on October 6 for citizens who will be unable to participate in the main vote on October 11. The facility was previously criticised by international and local observer because of alleged manipulations with ballots. During the first three days, almost 19% of voters came to the polls, the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Belarus reported.
The elections could mark a turnaround in European Union (EU) policy towards Lukashenko's government. According to multiple signals from Brussels, the EU is ready to temporarily suspend part of its sanctions against Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, imposed as an response to human rights violations in the country.
The EU will probably welcome the elections if peaceful and fairly conducted, and a formal decision on the asset freezes and travel bans will come later in October, "assuming Lukashenko doesn't organise a clampdown on political dissent after the elections", Reuters reported on October 9, quoting unnamed diplomat in Brussels. The sanctions would initially only be lifted for a trial four-month period, the diplomat said.
The EU also plans to lift sanctions agains some of around two dozen Belarusian companies, but Brussels is not ready to exclude Beltechexport, the republic's chief military equipment and weapons exporter, from the sanctions list.
The EU's potential move is triggered mainly by the fact that Lukashenko in August pardoned six jailed opposition activists, including Nikolai Statkevich, who was imprisoned for six years in 2011 after running for the presidency in late 2010.
The politician was accused by the Belarusian authorities of plotting to riot on election night and found guilty by a local court soon after. During his detention, Statkevich refused to write a plea for a presidential pardon as other opposition politicians did, saying this would be an admisiion of guilt.
Over the past two weeks, Statkevich called two rallies in Minsk to criticise the lack of transparent and free election campaigning in Belarus. However, he and other opposition leaders were able to mobilise only around 400 supporters
Who will monitor?
For the improvement of relations with the EU, the assessment of the election by Western observers will be critically important, above all by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
The OSCE/ODIHR mission, headed by Ambassador Jacques Faure, consists of 11 international experts based in Minsk. In addition, 34 long-term observers will be deployed throughout the country from September 2. In addition, 400 short-term observers will observe voting, counting, and the tabulation of results on October 11.
The day after the elections, ODIHR will issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions at a press conference.
The Information and Analysis Center under the presidental administration unveiled an opinion poll on October 5, according to which as many as 68.5% of the voters believe that results of the presidential elections "will be recognised by the OSCE observers". This information, widely spreaded by the country's state-controlled media, that the authorities believe the elections will be recognised by the West.
In September, the Belarusian authorities already welcomed the possible suspension of sanctions imposed by the EU against Belarusian officials and companies. "We hope that the authorities of the EU structures and the EU member states will soon understand the futility and lack of prospects of sanctions and restrictions against our country, and will take the corresponding decisions to lift them in the near future," Foreign Ministry spokesman Dmitry Mironchik said.
Lukashenko, who recently met with US President Barack Obama for talks he described as "positive", has meanwhile indicated that his country is willing to make concessions but will not be ordered around.
"We have our own state, we have our own national interests which we did not trade off even in difficult times, and are not going to,” the Belarusian leader said. "We are willing to learn. But if you are going push us all the time, then nothing will come out of this."
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