Will Tainted Elections Open the West’s Doors for Belarus?

Will Tainted Elections Open the West’s Doors for Belarus?

On Sept. 28, Belarus, a country branded by the U.S. government as "the last true dictatorship" in Europe, held elections for its 110-seat lower house of parliament. Despite some improvements, independent observers said the voting was neither free, nor fair.

In an attempt to mend fences with the West, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had invited more than 900 international observers to monitor the voting, stressing his commitment to a democratic ballot. Seventy-six out of 276 registered candidates represented parties critical of the ruling regime, and a few opposition representatives were placed in precinct electoral committees -- a clear departure from the past when hardly any dissenters were allowed to run in, let alone supervise, elections. In August, Lukashenko released the last three opposition leaders remaining in jail. For a government consistently blasted by the West for persecuting political opponents, oppressing civil society, and rigging elections, the reversals were noteworthy.

In the aftermath of the 2006 presidential ballot that extended Lukashenko's 12-year rule for another five years, 27 nations of the European Union denied travel visas to Lukashenko and other senior officials in his cabinet, calling the elections non-transparent and unfair. Now the previously recalcitrant leader of Belarus hopes to improve relations with Europe and the United States as a way to hedge against Belarus' dependence on Russia, and was hoping to use the elections to do so. "We do not want to communicate with you through the iron curtain that you erected on the border with Belarus," Lukashenko said in a pre-election interview, referring to political isolation his country faces from some of its neighbors. "[S]ince you said that parliamentary elections ought to take place for [cooperation in] this direction [to happen], we have opened the country for you," he added, claiming that the vote would be "unprecedentedly democratic and transparent."

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