While the election of two opposition MPs does not change Belarus’ power balance, it does show signs of a thaw towards the opposition and the EU.
On September 11th Belarus held parliamentary elections. While the polls were not considered a major electoral date in themselves, they occurred in a period in which the country is trying to improve its relations with the EU. President Alexander Lukashenko understood that this process requires a partial opening of Belarus’ political system. As such, the result of the parliamentary elections should be read as an attempt by local authorities to send a message to the EU as well as to guarantee the country’s political stability.
A seat for the opposition
The result of the latest legislative elections in Belarus received international media attention as for the first time in almost two decades two opposition candidates were elected. The move was widely interpreted as a signal sent by ruling authorities to both the domestic opposition and the EU that the government wants to implement a more peaceful political process in a bid to secure Belarus’ long-term stability.
The political process behind the legislative elections was also at least in part legitimised by the fact that opposition parties did not boycott the polls. The previous ones that were held in 2012 saw a blank boycott by anti-Lukashenko groups. This highlights feelings among Belarusian opposition parties that a certain degree of dialogue may potentially be initiated with the government. While a small-scale opposition protest was held in Minsk on September 13th, the elections did not result in wider condemnations or substantial demonstrations.
While the international media focused on the elections of two opposition candidates, their presence in the parliament will almost certainly not affect legislative decisions. The pro-Lukashenko block will maintain a solid absolute majority in the 110-seat assembly. The current political balance of power is also guaranteed by the fact that Belarus is a presidential republic in which the executive branch governs the country; the legislative branch only plays a supporting role.
As such, while newly elected opposition MP Hanna Kanapatskaya already stated she may plan a presidential bid for the next election, the political structure of the country is likely to remain unchanged and firmly in the hands of President Lukashenko for the foreseeable future.
No crackdown but situation remains unchanged
The statement released by OSCE observers was a key indicator of the impact of the September 11th elections on Belarusian foreign relations. Released on September 12th the statement’s conclusions are similar to the ones presented in October 2015, after the presidential elections. Elections in the country were held without any crackdown on members of the opposition and polls were conducted peacefully.
Government officials showed a clear will to improve the overall fluidity of the process, but a systemic lack of transparency continue to be reported. Elections in Belarus continue to not be defined as free and fair by the OSCE, as the opposition has a limited access to the overall debate. However, international observers stated that local authorities showed at least some minor signs of trying to abide by previous recommendations. As such, the OSCE and the EU have not issued a purely negative assessment of the polling process. This solidifies the potential for cooperation between Minsk and Brussels.
The inclusion of two opposition candidates within the parliament was potentially part of a double strategy conducted by the government to show its goodwill to the EU, while extending its openness for dialogue, albeit limited, to the opposition. The elections may have a substantial effect on the local political scene as they are likely to lead to internal tensions within opposition movements. Some will call for additional talks with the government while others will fear that this may hurt opposition forces as it could legitimise President Lukashenko.
Leverage for relations with the EU
The 2015 presidential elections as well as the 2016 parliamentary polls come against the backdrop of a wider improvement in relations between Belarus and the EU. Between August 2015 and February 2016, Brussels moved to remove all sanctions it had previously imposed on Minsk. This was a substantial decision as it freed several Belarusian companies to do business in the EU and lifted travel restrictions to multiple high-level individuals. President Lukashenko understood that the improvement of relations was directly linked to the government release of political prisoners and its dealings with the political opposition. As such, it is probable that in the medium term, Minsk will implement additional good-will gestures to show that while the power structure in the country may not have changed, the government will refrain from openly cracking down on opposition groups.
Belarus is also leveraging its political stability and officially neutral position as a key differentiation with neighbouring Ukraine. Kiev’s political process is marred with enduring concerns over corruption, fears over the slow implementation of reforms and the ongoing conflict in its eastern provinces. President Lukashenko hosted international negotiations on the Ukrainian crisis in February 2015. The Belarusian government is increasingly trying to serve as a bridge between the EU and Russia in a time of heightened tensions between NATO and Moscow.
Hope for the economy
The potential for a gradual improvement of relations between Minsk and the EU bodes well for Belarus’ long-term economic outlook. The country has suffered from over a decade of poor economic performance and high inflation. In 2015, the country was also hit by the effects of the economic crisis in Russia perpetuated by western sanctions and low oil prices. However, international investors have been increasingly eyeing Belarus for its slowly improving economic indicators. The country is becoming a key international IT hub, a development that raises hope of a new domestic growth trend.
While Belarus will primarily remain linked to the Russian economy for the foreseeable future, the country is also trying to diversify its sources of foreign direct investment with major deals made with China, Qatar, and other international private investors. Better relations with the EU would translate into easier access to the Western European markets and development aid.