17 years ago, when Lukashenko became president, the Belarus constitution stated that the president could only serve for two terms, but the term limit was later eliminated in the 2004 referendum, preceded by the 1996 referendum which had increased the power of the presidency. Both of these referendums were initiated by Lukashenko and have made it possible for Lukashenko to stay in office. Opposition has denounced the results from these two referendums as fraudulent and due to problems associated with transparency of the votes and ballot stuffing, the European Union, the United States and several other countries do not recognize the results of the 1996 vote. Lukashenko was re-elected in 2001, 2006 and now 2010, in elections criticized as unfair and corrupt by election observers from the OSCE . While Belarus authorities deny these allegations, as of 1997 Belarus has been suspended from the Council of Europe for voting irregularities. It is now the only European state not represented in this organization.
The presidential election held on December 19th of last year marked the latest injustice. On election night most of the presidential candidates were arrested and detained, along with hundreds of citizens, including journalists, human rights activists and other civil society representatives. According to Belarusian authorities these participants were arrested for ‘unsanctioned activities’ and ‘mass disturbance’. They were protesting the fairness of the voting process and therefore the legality of the impending results. Lukashenko won by a landslide. He received nearly 80% of the votes while his nearest rivals received under 3%. In the wake of the election night, trials were held against the participants of the demonstrations. Several of the presidential candidates have been sentenced to prison, along with other citizens who participated in protests against Lukashenko. Many are still in prison. Despite violent response from the Belarusian authorities and hundreds of arrests, the protests against Lukashenko’s regime continue.
The European Union and the US have strongly criticized and condemned the actions of the Belarusian authorities. In addition, they have imposed sanctions against Belarus, including asset freezes and travel restrictions for several Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko. In September of 2011 the Eastern Partnership Summit was held in Warsaw. The summit brings together heads of states from 33 countries to further the integration of the EU’s eastern neighbours into Europe and to encourage them to adopt the EU’s political and economic standards. The EU expressed their disapproval with Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime by extending his travel restrictions and inviting his foreign minister to attend the summit in his place. As a result Belarus boycotted the summit.
The European security organization, OSCE, of which Belarus is a part, has been engaged in Belarus for several years. In addition to their election observations, the OSCE opened a field-office in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in 2003. The office worked to help Belarus meet their commitments as an OSCE participating state, which included encouraging and developing a vibrant civil society and promoting the rule of law. After the election last year, Belarus decided not to extend the mandate for the office, forcing it to close down.
The violations against human rights in Belarus prompted 14 participating states of the OSCE to invoke the so-calledMoscow Mechanism in April, 2011. The mechanism allows them to send an independent rapporteur to Belarus to examine the human rights situation and implementation of OSCE commitments. The Belarusian authorities were not thrilled about letting a rapporteur conduct an investigation and report on the state of human rights there. Belarus promptly denied the rapporteur a visa and refused to cooperate.
Belarus is struggling with a severe economic crisis caused by a loss of competiveness in international trade. In May the government devalued its currency by a third, which led to massive protests among its citizens. Lukashenko has appealed to both the IMF and Russia to secure loans. Russia has granted Belarus a loan but it does not cover the entire deficit, nor does it come without a price. In exchange for the loan Russia demands that Belarus privatize much of their state-owned industrial sector by selling factories to Russian companies. The EU has, on the other hand, stated that they are prepared to offer loans on the condition that Belarus give amnesty to political prisoners and hold free elections.
During a meeting with the Bulgarian foreign minister, Lukashenko pledged to release all political prisoners by mid-October. As of today, this remains an empty promise. Despite all the efforts made by the international community, Belarus remains undemocratic and isolated from the rest of Europe – and with the loans from Russia, ever so dependent on their eastern neighbour.