Hope for Democracy Fading in Belarus

January 20, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

A man holds an icon and a poster depicting Mikola Statkevich, a presidential candidate, who was jailed after last month's controversial vote, reading 'Free Statkevich!' in Minsk, on Jan. 19, marking one month after the election. Following the Dec. 19, 2 (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an icon and a poster depicting Mikola Statkevich, a presidential candidate, who was jailed after last month's controversial vote, reading 'Free Statkevich!' in Minsk, on Jan. 19, marking one month after the election. Following the Dec. 19, 2 (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)
The presidential elections in Belarus on Dec. 19, 2010, were meant to give hope of some democratic progress that looked possible before the vote. Instead, it took the country in the opposite direction as authorities cracked down on mass demonstrations against rigged election results, immobilizing opposition politicians and leaving little hope for democratic change.

Before the December vote, opposition candidates were allowed to voice different platforms and let people know about alternatives. Some television programs critical of Belarus’ heavy-handed President Alexander Lukashenko were aired, broadcast via Russian channels, which have a solid market share in the country.

The West and East were split over reactions to the election and its fallout. Western governments strongly condemned the vote as fraudulent and criticized Lukashenko for the violent crackdown on demonstrators.

On Dec. 23, 2010, days after the crackdown and arrest of over 600 demonstrators, opposition politicians, and journalists, the United States and European Union issued a joint statement strongly condemning the violence.

“Taken together, the elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights in Belarus. The people of Belarus deserve better,” read the statement.

From the East, Russia and other former Soviet countries deemed the elections fair and in keeping with international standards, and that anything else was a domestic affair.

Most of the presidential candidates, journalists, and human rights activists ended up being taken into custody were accused of violating social order, and will face trial at the end of this month.

Media controlled from the capital, Minsk, bluntly accused the European Union last week, particularly German and Polish intelligence services, of being behind the election day demonstrations.

The West, meanwhile, is considering its position on imposing sanctions on top Belarusian officials. On Jan. 31, EU foreign ministers will meet to discuss its policy toward Minsk.

“It will unfortunately have to be discussed again whether we’ll have to revive sanctions that we really should have put behind us. It’s very regrettable,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Jan. 14 in Berlin after a meeting with her Italian counterpart PM Silvio Berlusconi, who also supported stricter approaches toward Belarus.

“The looming question for Western leaders is whether to revive tough sanctions and close the door on engagement with the Lukashenko regime, or to seek a solution that will undo the direct post-election abuses while leaving open the possibility of future re-engagement,” the Carnegie Endowment, the global think tank, said in its recent analysis on the issue.

In 2006, Washington and the EU imposed travel and trade sanctions on Belarus following rigged presidential elections that were also accompanied by the arrest of opposition politicians. After a thaw, the sanctions were lifted two years later, with the EU taking a new policy direction of engagement, not isolation.

In 2008, Belarus was invited to participate in the EU Eastern Partnership project particularly aimed at Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine to bring the post-Soviet countries closer to the EU, and help promote democratic norms there.

This time, too, the EU has expressed that further isolation of Belarus will not bring hope for reforms and benefits for ordinary Belarusian citizens and would only serve to push the country closer to the Kremlin.

“While we express our concern to the authorities, we cannot isolate the citizens,” said Catherine Ashton, EU high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in a letter addressed to the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on Jan. 19.