Tag Archives: belarus

Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.



The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Literature and Peace prizes both send potent political messages

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian and nonfiction writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday.
Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian and nonfiction writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday.

Everyone expects the Nobel Peace Prize to have a political meaning.tunisia flagbelarus flagnobel-peace-prize

By the very nature of the prize, it’s not surprising when the Oslo-based awarding committee makes a decision that is affected by — or that subsequently affects — international politics. That follows almost directly from the very words that Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel used to describe the prize’s qualifications:

The most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

That was true earlier this morning, when Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The decision highlights Tunisia’s peaceful transition to democracy and the crucial role that the quarter played in late 2013 to salvage Tunisia’s fragile transition. With an economy that’s still struggling, Tunisia nevertheless remains the only Arab Spring country to depose its leader that is also still working to enshrine a democratic system of government. Libya, Syria and Yemen are locked in anarchy or civil war, and Egypt’s democratically elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, was deposed in a 2013 coup by the Egyptian military. The award is a reminder that the Arab Spring really did bring forth some good in one of the most difficult regions of the world. As the awarding committee itself noted, the prize is essentially a nod to the Tunisian people themselves:

More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the Committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries.


RELATED: How Tunisia became the success story of the Arab Spring


But it was arguably Thursday’s prize to Svetlana Alexievich for literature that makes the bolder and more timely political statement, even though it was awarded by the Swedish Academy (and not by the Norwegian Peace Prize selection committee).

The award would have been edgy enough solely because the Swedish Academy awarded the prize to a nonfiction writer and a journalist. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker in October 2014, the Prize has historically favored fiction over nonfiction, and most especially over contemporary journalism.

Literature prize a shot against Lukashenko — and Putin

But Alexievich’s award — for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ — came just three days before a sham election in Belarus.

Continue reading Literature and Peace prizes both send potent political messages

The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy


As if timed to coincide with this week’s NATO summit in Wales, which could mark the most important gathering of Western allies since the end of the Cold War, US-based commentary this week took a huge leap forward in its assessment of the Russian threat — though not necessarily in a way that’s incredible rational.Russia Flag Icon

Call it the ‘underpants gnome’ theory of understanding Russia today:

Russian aggression in Ukraine + ????? = World War III!

But even as a ceasefire takes effect today between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatists based in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, based on a plan put forward earlier this week by none other than Russian president Vladimir Putin and brokered by talks hosted by increasingly nervous officials in Belarus, US writers are nevertheless openly contemplating the audacious notion of a potential Russian nuclear strike. Continue reading The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

With Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko between a rock and a hard place


An aggressive, autocratic Russia to your east, and a democratic, liberal Europe to your west. What’s your poor everyday post-Soviet European Stalinist dictatorship to do?belarus flag

As Russian forces took control of Crimea from Ukraine last month, and as Russian troops menacingly massed along the eastern Ukrainian border, no country has a greater interest than Belarus, which lies immediately to the north of Ukraine and immediately west of Russia.


And no world leader has a greater worry than Belarus’s president since 1994, Aleksandr Lukashenko (pictured above). It’s hard to know just which must be more harrowing for Lukashenko — watching pro-European protestors depose Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February, or watching Russia blithely annex Crimea in March.

At first glance, Belarus appears like the strongest of Russian allies. It’s already long been a member of the customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan that Putin hopes to expand into the Eurasian Union. The country sends 35% of its exports and receives 59% of its imports from Russia (oddly, perhaps, the second-most important market for Belarusian exports is The Netherlands, which receives 16.5% of all exports).

Growing divisions between Moscow and Minsk

But as Andrew Wilson wrote last month for Foreign Affairs, Lukashenko may be edging away from the Kremlin:

It should not be surprising that Lukashenko has been demonstrably edging away from Putin in recent weeksBelarus has started hinting that it wants better relations with the EU, agreeing in February to participate in visa negotiations with Brussels. But any shifts toward the EU are going to be a gradual process; Lukashenko is still a dictator, after all, who has little interest in meeting Europe’s democratic standards. For now, Lukashenko is inside the Russian tent looking out. And he is not about to head for the door just yet. But ever since Putin’s aggressive takeover of Crimea, Lukashenko has been more anxiously looking toward the exits.

That’s one reason, perhaps, why Lukashenko didn’t send observers to Crimea for the March 16 referendum on annexation, and why Belarus hasn’t formally acknowledged Russia’s annexation.

It’s also why, despite hosting Russian air force and other military assets, Lukashenko has gone out of his way to rule out sending any Belarusian military forces into Ukraine. Lukashenko met with Ukraine’s interim president Alexander Turchninov over the weekend for talks, and he went out of his way to emphasize strong relations:

“You shouldn’t view us not only as foes or competitors, you shouldn’t even think in those categories,” Lukashenko went on. “You should be sure to know that we’ve been treating you as our closest relatives even in the years when there existed misunderstandings.” He hailed the fact that “we are not looking at each other askance”. “We really spent a lot of years building up a belt of good-neighborliness and we’re not ready to destroy it today and there’s no need in eliminating it.”

Lukashenko stressed the importance for each Ukrainian to know in this connection that “our border is a border of friendship and not a border of division.”

“You shouldn’t apprehend any unfriendly cravings on the part of Belarusians here because neither we nor you need it,” he said.

Though we shouldn’t rule out the notion that Lukashenko represents a quiet, back-door channel for negotiations between Kiev and Moscow, there’s also no reason to doubt that Lukashenko’s remarks are legitimate.

If Russian president Vladimir Putin really thinks that Ukraine isn’t truly a sovereign country,** he almost certainly holds the same view of Belarus. Just as Ukraine is called ‘little Russia,’ Belarus literally means ‘White Russia.’ Long before it became an independent country in 1991 (and before the Soviet Union, briefly, as the Belarusian People’s Republic), the area that comprises what is today Belarus have been known for centuries as ‘White Russia.’ Continue reading With Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko between a rock and a hard place

Red October? Four autumn elections boost Moscow’s influence in Russian ‘near-abroad’

It’s been a good October for Moscow.

In each of the four former Soviet republics with elections scheduled for late September and October 2012 (Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania and Ukraine), Russia has reason to believe that its relations with each such country will strengthen.  The elections have ranged in character from incredibly free, open and fair to completely rigged, and the countries fall across the spectrum of geography, economics and political development.

The one factor they have in common is the success of political leaders who aim to nudge their country’s foreign relations some degree friendlier with Russia:

  • In Belarus on September 23, Alexander Lukashenko and his allies ‘won’ all of the seats in the House of Representatives in an unfair and unfree election.  Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is one of the most pro-Russian leaders among former Soviet republics; Belarus and Russia share very tight-knit economic ties, a common approach to rule of law and human rights (not particularly progressive), and Lukashenko has at various times contemplated bringing Belarus and Russia back into some form of union.  Belarus and Kazakhstan, for instance, joined a formal customs union with Russia in January 2012.
  • In Georgia on October 1, an opposition coalition led by Georgia’s richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili took control of the Georgian parliament from the party of Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili.  Ivanishvili, an oligarch who made his fortune in the 1990s and 2000s in post-Soviet Russia, has argued that Georgia can remain committed to economic and democratic reforms and the rule of law and strive for better relations with Russia (though Ivanishvili says he’d still like to seek Georgian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).  Under Saakashvili, Russia imposed a trade ban on many Georgian exports, including wine, agricultural products and mineral water; in 2008, after provocation from Saakashvili, Russian president Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to the breakway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain occupied by Russian forces.
  • In Lithuania on October 14, in the first round of parliamentary elections, the Labour Party of Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich narrowly won the largest share of the vote and will likely form part of the next government coalition.  Uspaskich’s party also finished first in 2004, but since then, Uspaskich has been charged with corruption and spent parts of 2006 and 2007 in apparent hiding in Russia.  In any event, Uspaskich’s presence in the government could bring about more favorable relations with Russia, and it could possibly slow Lithuanian accession into the eurozone.
  • In Ukraine on October 28, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated the more pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 election (who was promptly charged, tried and imprisoned on politically motivated charges relating to the 2009 pipeline crisis with Russia) is leading his largely united pro-Russian Party of Regions in parliamentary elections, while the various pro-Western political parties remain split.

This autumn’s elections follow the September 2011 Latvian parliamentary elections, in which the Harmony Centre party won the largest share of the vote, a watershed for a party that derives much of its support from ethnic Russians and which actually signed an electoral pact with Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party in 2009.  The result caused alarm in Washington and Brussels — Latvia joined NATO in 2004 along with Lithuania and Estonia, so a pro-Putin government in a NATO government would naturally be alarming.  But despite some legitimate doubts about Harmony Centre, its anti-austerity platform attracted even not just ethnic Russians, but ethnic Latvians, and it seems more interested in elevating Russian as an official language in Latvia (one-fourth of Latvia’s population speaks Russian) than reconstituting a political union with Russia. In any event, other Latvian parties united to keep Harmony Centre out of the government.

Although some Western media have already started pearl-clutching about this month’s elections, it’s important to keep some perspective — it’s not exactly the second coming of the Warsaw Pact.

Putin, in 2011 as Russian prime minister, proposed a ‘Eurasian Union,’ although it’s unclear whether that has any chance of succeeding — the Commonwealth of Independent States, which incorporates nine of the 15 former Soviet republics, has not exactly prospered (and ask former French president Nicolas Sarkozy how his proposed ‘Mediterranean Union’ is doing).  In recent years, Russia has reduced energy subsidies to Ukraine and Belarus, despite clearly pro-Putin governments, and it took a curiously lackadaisical approach to the 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan.  Except for perhaps Belarus, none of the Soviet republics seem to have the stomach to return to a ‘Soviet Union light’ alliance with Russia.

Rather, there’s a more pragmatic realization in the former Soviet republics that even if Russia isn’t quite the superpower that it was in the 20th century, the inevitability of geography suggests that it will continue to exert some influence, for good or for ill, in its ‘near-abroad’ — in terms of economics, energy, security, and in some cases, continued cultural and political ties.  As the Cold War recedes further into history, though, it’s becoming less necessary to think of having to choose between ‘the West’ and Russia as a binary matter.  If former Soviet republics overlearned the lessons of 1990 and 1991, perhaps they are now learning the countervailing lessons of Saakashvili’s mistakes — needlessly antagonizing Russia (not to mention ethnic Russians within former Soviet republics) is probably counterproductive, even for more pro-reform, pro-Western leaders.

Continue reading Red October? Four autumn elections boost Moscow’s influence in Russian ‘near-abroad’

Surprise! Lukashenko allies win rout in rigged, boycotted Belarus elections

Surprising no one, allies of Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko have won all 110 seats in the House of Representatives of Belarus (Палата Представителей in Russian, Палата Прадстаўнікоў in Belarusian) after major opposition parties boycotted elections on Sunday in a system that has been essentially a dictatorship for nearly two decades.

Lukashenko (pictured above voting on Sunday) came to power only in 1994 in Belarus, well after the collapse of the Soviet Union — ironically, the one-time director of a state-run farm was elected president on the strength of his anti-corruption reputation.  By 1996, constitutional reforms had transformed Lukashenko into a dictator, and he was subsequently reelected in 2001, 2006 and 2010.

Sunday’s election was not expected to change that in the country that generally has the least amount of personal freedom in Europe and the greatest amount of human rights violations — the photo above shows the police response in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, to protestors leading up to the unfair and unfree 2010 presidential election, and there’s obvious signs of worry from Lukashenko that protests could follow Sunday’s vote as well.

The 2012 parliamentary elections have already been panned by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe:

“This election was not competitive from the start,” Matteo Mecacci, an OSCE coordinator, said in the statement. “A free election depends on people being free to speak, organize and run for office, and we didn’t see that in this campaign.”

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who has attacked Lukashenko’s human rights record in the past (Lukashenko, in a dig at the openly gay Westerwelle, responded earlier this year that it was better to be a dictator than gay), declared that the vote indicates that “Belarus is the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

Lukashenko joins just three other post-Soviet leaders who have ruled their respective former Soviet republics with an iron fist since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 (or very shortly thereafter): Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev (who was reelected last year with 95.5% of the vote!) and Tajikistan’s Emomalii Rahmon, who came to power in 1992.

While all of those leaders rule in central Asia, however, Lukashenko rules a country in the center of Eastern Europe with around 9.5 million people, a country that borders Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, each current or aspiring European Union members.

Lukashenko, ‘the last European dictator,’ however, has cultivated perhaps the closest relationship with Russia of any of the former Soviet republics — and Belarus serves as a transit for Russian oil and gas to the rest of Europe.  Lukashenko’s coziness with the Putin regime in Russia has prompted some discussion last decade that Belarus might even one day join into a more formal union with Russia.

The two leading opposition parties in Belarus — both of which are mainstream center-right, pro-democracy and anti-Lukashenko parties and both of which are observer members of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, boycotted the election just last week after it became clear they would have no chance to win any support:

  • The Партыя БНФ (the BPF Party, formerly the Belarusian Popular Front ‘Revival’ until 2005, when Lukashenko decreed that the words ‘Belarusian,’ ‘National,’ ‘Popular,’ and ‘People’s’ could not be used in the names of any parties or other political movements) was formed in 1988 to promote Belarusian independence and, since independence, greater democracy and a greater nationalist rebirth of Belarusian identity.  One of its leaders, Aliaksandr Milinkevič, served as the consensus opposition candidate for president in 2006 against Lukashenko, winning support from European leaders, but just 6.2% of the rigged vote (the 2010 presidential election was even more skewed in favor of Lukashenko).
  • The Объединенная гражданская партия (United Civil Party of Belarus, Аб’яднáная грамадзянская пáртыя Беларýсі in Belarusian) was formed in 1995, a merger of the United Democratic Party and the Civil Party as an opponent to Lukashenko’s growing threat to Belarusian democracy.

The country’s $5,881 nominal GDP per capita (in 2011) is akin to the economic development of Serbia (GDP per capita of $6,080) despite a Soviet-style, state-run economy that, in any event, remains highly dependent on a strong Russian market and despite several troubling economic signs: a 2010 financial crisis that stemmed from efforts by the Lukashenko regime to raise wages in advance of his reelection, thereby causing inflation and a balance of payments crisis, and the looming repayment of a $3.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2009. Continue reading Surprise! Lukashenko allies win rout in rigged, boycotted Belarus elections