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CIS and OSCE Observers in Belarus

by Joseph W

Timothy Garton-Ash has a must-read article in the Guardian about the recent elections in Belarus, and the oppression of the opposition figures, voters, and demonstrators.

He notes:

Yet Europe’s Mugabe only dared to act in this way because, 10 days before the election, he unexpectedly secured a deal with Russia. This once again gives him subsidised oil, which he can sell on at a profit. For his part, he agreed the terms of a “single economic space” with Russia and Kazakhstan.

Before that, the boot had been on the other foot. Russia seemed to have had enough of Lukashenko: a Russian TV channel owned by Gazprom even aired a four-part series attacking him as a corrupt godfather. Meanwhile, the Polish and German foreign ministers had flown to Minsk with a bold offer. If Lukashenko held a reasonably fair election, his country could be set on a glide path back to European civilisation – and the EU would aid him down that path with a package of grants and loans worth more than €3bn.

This offer was always a gamble, but one worth taking in the circumstances prevailing at the time. Now, however, with Russia apparently back on side, and having made a cold neo-Leninist assessment of the foundations of his own power, Lukashenko has decided to beat his own people over the head with a stick – and tell the EU exactly where it can put its carrot.

Officially, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is refusing to comment on the arrests in Belarus, calling the elections an “internal matter” for Belarus.

Meanwhile, it seems like Lukashenko and his allies are making a deliberate point to Europe and the West.

The USA outright refuses to acknowledge the results of the Belarus election, with the White House stating:

The United States strongly condemns the actions that the Government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process and use disproportionate force against political activists, civil society representatives and journalists, and we call for the immediate release of all presidential candidates and the hundreds of protestors who were detained on December 19 and 20.  The United States cannot accept as legitimate the results of the presidential election announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission December 20.  We regret, as the OSCE’s election observer mission assessment made clear, that limited progress in the political environment prior to yesterday’s elections did not lead to a free and fair outcome or a transparent vote count.   We are also concerned by indications that independent internet media have been disrupted and call on the Government of Belarus to take measures to protect its citizens’ right to free media.

The White House makes reference to the OSCE observers, whom the EU sent to be present at the Belarus elections.

The OSCE quotes its delegate Tony Lloyd as saying:

“This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better. And, in particular, I now expect the Government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists,”

OSCE  observer Geert-Hinrich Ahrens comments:

“I had very much hoped that this time we would be able to make a more positive assessment. Unfortunately, this is not possible in light of the flawed vote count and the authorities’ heavy-handed response to yesterday’s demonstrations”

Observers also came from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The executive secretary of the CIS is Sergei Lebedev, a former KGB operative who directed Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Services from 2000-2007.

Naviny reported on Monday:

Mr. Lebedev hailed the Belarusian election campaign. “All necessary conditions for observation were created, which is evidence of a democratic and transparent election process,” he said. He claimed that observers of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights shared the opinion about favorable conditions for observation.

The central election commission “provided all assistance needed and was open to constructive cooperation,” he said. “We had an opportunity to monitor all stages of the election campaign.” He said that CIS observers had recorded only minor irregularities incapable of affecting the election’s outcome.

“The CIS mission hasn’t established any facts that could question the legitimacy of the election,”  [...]  The Belarusian election was “open and in line with the country’s national regulations and universally established democratic standards,” the official said.

The following day, ISRIA reported a meeting between President Lukashenko and Lebedev:

“I am very grateful to you for the assessment you have voiced,” said the President. “I think it is completely objective. If there have been any flaws, do tell us,” he said. “You are a person interested to see order in this country, see it making progress. This country is not alien to you.”

“We have known each other for a long time, and you cannot say that we were taking advantage of any informal ties, friendly relations and using any pressure. No way,” said the President. He said that “the most favourable conditions have been created for observers; they had access to any polling station they wanted and had tons of information at their disposal.”

“Therefore we will be taking your remarks as friendly ones, aimed at correcting some shortcomings,” said Alexander Lukashenko.  According to the President, the authorities wanted to make the election a gala-day. “There was absolutely no farce in that. It was gratitude to our people for their patience, for the successes gained,” said the Belarusian Leader.

Interestingly, we read of no such positive and affirming meeting between Lukashenko and the OSCE observers – I wonder why.

Still, we read:

For his part, Sergei Lebedev, who led the mission of CIS observers, thanked the Head of State for making the arrangements conducive to the efficient work of the mission. “We indeed had a free pass to all polling stations; all government bodies were giving us all the information we needed,” he said. “Everywhere we went we received support and felt the openness of all government institutions, felt a desire to help us in our work. And it did help us accomplish our mission – to make a careful, objective and, what is important, unbiased assessment of the preparations for the presidential election, the voting process and the vote count per se.”

According to him, the assessment made by the CIS mission is a unanimous opinion expressed by the representatives of the nine CIS states who made up the mission team. “They have backed this assessment unanimously,” he said. “We think that the election was open; it was such that ensured a free expression of will of Belarusian citizens.”

Given the abundant evidence of vote rigging and intimidation of opposition figures, it is deeply concerning that the CIS should arrive at such uncritical conclusions.