Since President Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, no elections in the country have been considered free and fair by the outside world, writes Goran Miletic. Photo: Russian Presidential Office (CC BY 4.0)

Guest chronicle

The outside world should keep an eye on Belarus

The Belarusian parliamentary elections two weeks ago confirmed what many of us already knew - the country has a very long way to go in terms of democracy. This year's election results - where no one from the opposition was elected to parliament - give the outside world further reasons to monitor developments in the country ahead of next year's presidential election.

The general human rights situation in Belarus (formerly Belarus) has not changed significantly in recent years. The country has not seen any improvement, and although some periods have been fraught with increased repression of dissent, no major setbacks have taken place either. Most often, it is precisely in an election that the oppression of those in power increases, mainly because that is when the country's leaders are worried that the control they have over the citizens will be challenged.

The oppression goes in waves

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus has said the human rights violations in the country are of a "cyclical nature". Even though the repression is going in waves, few expect as violent attacks from those in power as those that took place in connection with the presidential election in 2010. At that time, more than 700 people were arrested.

The events led to deteriorating relations between Belarus and the West, and the EU imposed sanctions on 170 people. Among other things, against high-ranking government officials and companies connected to them. In recent years, instead, the repression of opposition and dissent has taken place in a more discreet way, in order to avoid international attention and the risk of new sanctions.

Most of the EU sanctions were lifted in 2016 in connection with the release of a number of political prisoners and the fact that the election held in 2015 went smoothly. The country's authorities also became more involved in the dialogues with the EU, especially those on human rights, which also helped.

Since then, it seems that one has understood where the border of the Western world goes, and therefore adopted a softer attitude towards civil society, the media and the opposition. However, with the exception of the mass arrests that took place in connection with the protests against a tax for the unemployed in 2017. This type of event shows that repression can return because no systematic changes have been implemented. The restrictive legislation can be abused by those in power at any time.

Candidates were not allowed to register

This year's parliamentary elections were held under just such "softer repression". Those in power did not use mass arrests or fabricate criminal acts, but prevented many opposition candidates from even running in the elections. Among other things, by not allowing candidates to register, or by withdrawing registrations as soon as a candidate has declared himself too outspoken about the regime. Some candidates were also not allowed to participate in state media, even though they have the right to do so by law.

Since President Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, no elections in the country have been considered free and fair by the outside world. It also did not look bright before this year's election. However, many hoped that more opposition candidates would be allowed by the regime. However, hopes were dashed and all 110 seats went to candidates loyal to the president. The two opposition candidates who sat in the previous term were not even allowed to stand. The last election gave a slight hope that a few opposition members would be allowed to sit in parliament, but this did not happen.

The EU should continue to demand change

The latest developments could lead to the Western world and the EU reviewing their attitude towards the country. In recent years, the EU has reiterated that "clear steps towards respecting universal rights, the rule of law and human rights will continue to be fundamental in shaping the EU's future policy towards Belarus".

Ann Linde similarly reiterated that she will not compromise on human rights, democracy and freedom of expression, ahead of her visit to Minsk last week. The visit was the first made by a Swedish foreign minister since 1992. Despite the ambitions, however, it is difficult to see how the Western world will succeed in achieving any concrete changes in the near future, as so little has happened so far.

Of course, it is important that the outside world continues to monitor the human rights situation in Belarus, in order to counteract a new wave of oppression and ensure that those in power understand where the outside world's border goes. The coming months will show how the regime is preparing for next year's presidential election. Right now it looks like they will not even pretend that it is a fair approach.

The Swedish government, together with the EU, should continue to demand change before the presidential election next year. Above all, the attention of the outside world may prevent the regime from behaving in the same way as it did in 2010. Whether the EU's work towards Belarus will generate any concrete changes remains to be seen, but in the eyes of the outside world at least the risk of the situation escalating again.

This is a chronicle. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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