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John Laughland and the “French Spring.”

Posted by democratist on April 27, 2013

27th April 2013,

Democratist has been out of the loop for a while, working on other projects, but we simply had to write a few lines of comment on an outstandingly crass piece of FSB disinfo masquerading as “journalism”, because it demonstrates so much about how isolated the Russian government finds itself with regard to human rights and democracy these days.

The offending article, “Why France’s gay Marriage debate has started to look like a revolution.” is written by John Laughland, “Director of Studies” at the most-ironic-name-we-could-think-of Institution of Democracy and Co-Operation in Paris. Apparently, the IDC was set up by Russian NGOs and private businesses to expose “double standards” by the West with regard to Human Rights and democracy.

The truth is, of course that genuinely independent Russian NGOs and private businesses have little interest in this kind of whataboutism.

But guess who does?

Anyway, the essence of this idiotic article is that France’s legalization of gay marriage is about to result in a revolution bringing down the government.

Say what?

Yes indeed. According to Mr. Laughland;

“Revolutions are often sparked by an unexpected shock to an already weakened regime. As commentators in France remark not only on the crisis engulfing François Hollande’s government but also on the apparent death-rattle of the country’s entire political system, it could be that his flagship policy of legalising gay marriage — or rather, the gigantic public reaction against it, unique in Europe — will be the last straw that breaks the Fifth -Republic’s back.”

So there you go folks: Some of you may have thought that there was no historical precedent for this kind of thing; that there has never been a case anywhere in the world where an established democracy was overthrown by revolution; that while many people in France may disagree with gay marriage. they will continue to respect their democratic political system and restrict themselves to peaceful protest.

But you’re wrong! Oh so wrong! In fact they’re massing in the streets in their millions, and anyone who says that perhaps the numbers were a little less (or even a lot less) has clearly been taken into by the lies of those queer-loving French coppers, because;

“Credible accusations surfaced in Le Figaro on Monday night that the film taken from police helicopters on 24 March and released by the prefecture has been manipulated to reduce the apparent numbers of demonstrators.”

Ah I see. It’s all a conspiracy… again.

Laughland blathers on;

“Had the mobilisation in Paris taken place in Tahrir Square, the world’s media would be unanimous that a ‘French spring’ was about to sweep away an outdated power structure… By the same token, had the Moscow security forces tear-gassed children and mothers…the worldwide moral policemen on CNN would be frantically firing their rhetorical revolvers. Such repression would be interpreted as a sign that the regime was desperate. Indeed, had the Ukrainian police removed the ‘tent village’ which formed in central Kiev at the time of the Orange Revolution in 2004 — as the Paris police bundled more than 60 anti-gay marriage campers into detention on the night of 14 April — then one suspects that Nato tanks would have rolled over the Dnieper to their rescue.”

Now we seem to be getting to the crux of the matter. “You would have sent in the tanks if it was us.” Says paranoid Moscow’s none-too-subtle mouth-piece. “How dare you criticise our rigged elections, our repressive anti-gay laws, our attempts to imprison any well-known critic of the regime on trumped-up charges through our shambolic non-independent court system. Shame on you!”

Point is, France doesn’t have “an out-dated power structure.” Its a democratic country, and you can demonstrate all you want, and vote for anyone you like, even a bonkers Trotskyite like Jean-Luc Melichon, or an idiot fascist like Marine Le Pen; and your vote will actually count, unlike (say) the Russian 2011 parliamentary elections.

And so it is very clear, of the two, whose system is outdated, and where “spring” is due next.

Posted in Arab Spring, Conspiracy Theory, Electoral Fraud, Russia Propaganda | 2 Comments »

A reply to Peter Lavelle’s, “The Return of Vladimir Putin.” In The National Interest.

Posted by democratist on March 9, 2012

9th March 2012,

A reply to Peter Lavelle’s article “The Return of Vladimir Putin” in The National Interest.

After a recent Facebook discussion, Peter Lavelle (of Russia Today fame) has asked me to review his new piece in the The National Interest.

To save time, I will highlight Lavelle’s main points in bold, which will be followed by my replies.

“There is ample evidence of some voting fraud in December, though hardly enough to change the final results.”

This is untrue for a two reasons. Firstly it is false because the considerable falsification that took place in December (6%-15% depending on who you believe) meant that more United Russia candidates were elected to parliament that should have been, and conversely other parties have less representation than they deserved.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is misleading because electoral fraud and the manipulation of public opinion in Russia take a wider form than just ballot stuffing on election day. If we look at the OSCE ODIHR final report on the parliamentary elections, we will see that they make the following points;

“Although seven parties ran, the prior denial of registration to certain political parties narrowed political competition. The contest was also slanted in favour of the ruling party. This was evidenced by the lack of independence of the election administration, the partiality of most media, and the undue interference of state authorities at different levels. This did not provide the necessary conditions for fair electoral competition… The denial by the Ministry of Justice of registration to a number of political parties reduced the choices available to voters. In one case, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that the state’s disbanding of one party was disproportionate and constituted an unlawful interference in the party’s internal functioning.”

So it is also necessary to look more broadly at the context of the parliamentary elections. The choice of parties was unfairly narrowed before the elections took place, and some parties which may have been represented in parliament under a fair vote were denied access to the electoral process. Additionally, both electoral administration and media were biased, and these also affected the final result. Therefore Lavelle is being highly disingenuous when he states, “United Russia’s poor showing in the parliamentary elections proves that the electoral mechanism reflects public opinion.” United Russia’s poor showing (which should have been a lot poorer) proves that a majority of people are not prepared to vote for the party, but this does not mean that the electoral mechanism accurately reflects the full range of public opinion.

“Politics during and after the presidential election is characterized by accountability and confidence.”

Accountability? Really? I again refer to the OSCE’s report on the parliamentary polls from December. They state;

“The process of adjudication of complaints’ by the CEC [Central Electoral Commission] lacked transparency and did not afford the contestants effective and timely redress. The CEC has not complied with the legal requirement that all complaints must be acted upon and responded to in writing. Representatives of most political parties expressed a high degree of distrust in the impartiality of election commissions at all levels and questioned their independence from various state administration bodies.”

So how “accountable” is that? And to what extend did the lack of accountability from the parliamentary polls in December effect the “confidence” which you suggest was present during the presidential election?

“Now parliament must legislate through compromise.”

This is misleading. It is easy to compromise when a high degree of consensus already exists (as discussed above). All three parliamentary “opposition” parties are in fact systemic to a greater or lesser extent (with corruption playing a critical role in keeping them all in line, see below). Characters such as Zhirinovsky and Lugovoi do not inspire much confidence and are unlikely to rock the boat. There is every indication that the Duma will continue to act as a rubber stamp.

“Putin’s intensive-growth strategy must take into account social demands that are hardly revolutionary or alien to him and his inner circle. They include respect for property rights, promotion of small- and medium-size business culture, a tax system that promotes economic growth, decent pensions for the elderly and a serious effort to tackle the scourge of modern Russia—pervasive corruption.”

This is very curious. Where exactly has this great reformer been for the last 12 years? And why was it not possible to deal with these issues during the previous period of “extensive growth” which Lavelle describes? The fact that such problems (especially corruption) continue to flourish strongly suggests that reform is unlikely. Transparency International rated Russia 143rd (out of 182 countries) last year (Russia was 80th in 1999).

The case of Sergei Magnitsky is instructive in this regard. He died in prison in November 2009 after being arrested by the very officials he accused of fraud. As far as I am aware, despite plentiful evidence, no action has yet been taken against those who originally stole $230 million from Hermitage Capital, nor against those responsible for Magnitsky’s murder.

For an indication of the source of much of Russia’s corruption, we need look no further than Angus Roxburgh’s analysis of the extraordinary good fortunes of Putin’s friends from his Saint Petersburg youth, and the Ozero dacha collective of which Putin was a member. (Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, I.B. Tauris 2012). As an example, Arkady and Boris Rotenburg, Putin’s erstwhile judo partners, each now have assets worth $1.75 billion. Yuri Kovalchuk, from the Ozero collective is worth just under a billion dollars. Roxburgh provides many other similar examples.

But, going back to Magnitsky, the enrichment of Putin’s friends is just the tip of the iceberg. As Edward Lucas writes in Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West (Bloomsbury, 2012), numerous officials involved in that case from the interior ministry and tax department have in fact been linked to the FSB, and the fraud which was perpetuated against Hermitage Capital may well have been directed from the ministerial level.

In this regard, Roxburgh notes in Strongman, “…by far the biggest obstacle to foreign investment (or the creation of an international financial center in Russia) can be summed up in one word – corruption – a word so complex that one leading Russian businessman told me I would never, as a Westerner understand it. “Theft,” he said, “is not theft as you know it. It is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable.””

Professor Alena Ledeneva (of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL, and author of numerous books on the subject) has argued in a number of recent public discussions that the Putin corruption systema is, (much like the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era) fundamentally unreformable, and will remain in place until a change in the political or economic situation provokes a collapse. Given the evidence presented above, as well as the continued popularity of the government, and the involvement of large sections of Russian society in various corruption networks, the re-election of Vladimir Putin is extremely unlikely to herald a period of reform. Rather, a better case can be made that Putin has become captive to a system he helped to create and (just as was the case with Dimitry Medvedev), he will be unable to introduce the reforms Russia needs without alienating these critically important constituencies.

Since this is the case, while (as Lavelle’s article hints), the United Russia (UR) party will probably be officially rolled-up soon, the function of any replacement party (and doubtless much of its membership) will remain the same; it is the “party of power,” and (to quote Mikhail Gorbachev) a “bad copy” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: At the regional level, it exists to bolster the existing power structures, for example by organizing the widespread electoral fraud we saw in the December elections. United Russia is merely the most recent incarnation of this “party of power.” It will not be the last.

The same can be said of any forthcoming cabinet reshuffles: things will change a little, so that they don’t really change at all. Ministers come and go, but ultimately the same small group of people will retain political and economic power.

“Consider challenger Mikhail Prokhorov’s remarkable 7.94 percent presidential vote return, in the wake of a very public fallout with the Kremlin.”

Fallouts can be manufactured or exaggerated, as Mr. Lavelle, of all people should know. Prokhorov is smart and would not have run (or have been allowed to run) without a green light from the top. It is interesting that he did not face any of the legal hurdles to his candidacy mentioned above, (and which were used to effectively prevent the candidacy of the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky. There remains every possibility that Prokhorov is essentially a long-term kremlin project; someone who might one day be needed to (yet again) provide the illusion of change, whilst essentially keeping the current system in place.

“For the next six years, Putin has no choice but to govern—not to rule, as he has in one form or another over the past twelve years. Normal politics have finally arrived in Russia.”

In fact, as we have argued, Putin probably has no choice but to autocratically “rule”, and not govern Russia for as long as he remains in power (in as far as “governance” – a rather vague and underspecified term as Lavelle uses it here, implies democratization or structural economic reform). And there is certainly much in Russia’s recent history that might cause us to doubt his assertion that “…there is every reason to believe that the Russians are on the path to build a democracy that they can call their own.”

Opposition figures such as Navalny and Udaltsov should avoid any temptation to work within the existing system because the “transformed political terrain” which Lavelle claims has emerged from the presidential elections exists only in his imagination: Co-operation with the regime would result in a rapid loss of support among their overwhelmingly urban and politically savvy fan-bases.

The only thing that has changed since December is that a small (but growing) section of the population is beginning to demand reform, and there has been some very minor media liberalization (which can be quickly reversed) – whereas previously almost no one cared about either of these things. If the opposition is really looking for power in order to drive through real change (as opposed to personal enrichment) then they need to be prepared to remain outside the system, and probably for a very long time indeed. Change is certainly coming, because Russian society is changing, but the tipping point is many years away; the oil price is rising, so social spending can remain high. Many people are enjoying materially better lives, and indeed much more freedom than Russians have enjoyed historically. Additionally the current system has the strong backing of the FSB (Federal Security Service), an organization which, as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan point out in The New Nobility (Public Affairs, 2010), acts in a manner closer to an arab mukhabarat than a Western Security Service, and which therefore sees the protection of the regime as a key priority.

Posted in Electoral Fraud, NATO, OSCE, Russia Today, Russian Middle Class | Leave a Comment »

Belarus 2010: How they cheated.

Posted by democratist on February 14, 2011

14th February 2010,

The Belarusian domestic nonpartisan election monitoring NGO,  Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections has just released their Final Report on the 19th December 2010 elections.

This is an excellent report, that gives considerable detail on the techniques used by the regime to rig the polls (which broadly match our predictions). You can link to it here, or read Democratist’s short summary below.

The main points are;

  • The necessary foundation for democratic elections, in particular regarding the real independence and balance of the election authorities, vote count procedures and effective complaints and appeals process, was not established.
  • 2009 census data provides an indication that 300-350,000 persons who have the right to vote were not included on the voter lists, and that the real number of eligible voters in Belarus during the election should have been 7.4-7.45 million.
  • The complete dominance of state broadcast and printed media by the incumbent, especially during the last two weeks of the campaign period, disadvantaged other opposition candidates who were either not mentioned, or were portrayed in an overwhelmingly negative light.
  • The majority of the national observers were representatives of NGOs and political parties loyal to the regime. Their task was to interfere with activities of independent national observers and journalists. No single complaint has been lodged by these observers, or any election observation report released.
  • The authorities used state administrative resources to coerce voters, especially students and state employees, to vote early. Observers experienced numerous obstacles during early voting, including denial of accreditation and withholding of information on the registration figures.
  • A high number of reported irregularities concerned the inclusion of voters into the list for mobile voting. As a rule, voters were added to the special voter list based on their age and the geographical distance from the polling station (especially in rural areas) rather than at the request of the voter. In many polling stations, the number of mobile voters was disproportionate, i.e. up to 30%.
  • The vote count was carried out in a non-transparent manner. Though most of the observers were allowed to observe the vote count, in most cases the distance from which they were allowed to watch did not allow them to view the content of ballot papers.
  • It is impossible to say whether the ballots in the ballot boxes at the moment the vote count started were the same ballots which were cast by the voters themselves, because during early voting and mobile voting, members of election commissions (which were not independent or pluralistic) and unauthorized persons had access to relevant ballot boxes in absence of observers or other witnesses, and the way the ballot boxes were designed and sealed did not provide an adequate safeguard against potential manipulation.
  • Peaceful conduct of the election was marred on the evening of election day, 19 December, when riot police brutally dispersed participants of a mass demonstration who came to Nezalezhnasci Square in Minsk to protest against unfair conduct of the election. By the morning of 20 December, about 700 persons were detained, including seven presidential candidates. Many of those detained were beaten, including three presidential candidates. At the time of the report’s release, four presidential candidates and 31 of their supporters were in pre-trial detention facilities and under house arrest. They are charged with organization of a mass riot or participation in it.

Posted in Belarus, Domestic NGOs, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights | Leave a Comment »

Belarus 2010: An “internal matter.”

Posted by democratist on December 20, 2010

December 21st 2010.

Democratist is disappointed and upset, but not especially surprised to learn of the results and fallout of yesterday’s presidential election in Belarus.

Since the signing of a series of economic agreements earlier this month, the Russians appear to have decided, in the words of Prime Minister Putin that “the Belarusian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia,” and suitably mollified, their desire for Lukashenko’s ouster has fallen by the wayside – for the moment at least.

Subsequently, reading between the lines of the OSCE’s sensibly diplomatic preliminary statement (which nonetheless provoked the ire of the newly confident Lukashenko), it appears that it was business as usual for the Belarusian electoral administration over the last few days, and the incumbent has been returned to office with just under 80% of the vote, according to the highly questionable official results.

Subsequently, seven of the nine opposition candidates that stood against Lukashenko have been arrested (including one who was dragged from his hospital bed after a police beating) along with 600 of the several thousand protestors brave enough to demonstrate against this charade of an election in Minsk last night.

While the Belarusian authorities have behaved abominably in both their conduct of the election, and the violent crackdown that has followed it, the reaction of the Russian government has served to underline their own extraordinary cynicism, and more specifically, Dimitry Medvedev’s real attitude towards the democratic process to which he paid so much rhetorical homage earlier this year.

According to Reuters, when asked, Medvedev described the Belarusian elections as an “internal matter,” and did not comment on the police crackdown.  He is quoted as saying, “I hope that as a result of these elections, Belarus will continue on the path of creating a modern state based on democracy and friendship with its neighbours.”

And for all its “strong condemnation” of the fraud and violence, and demands that the opposition candidates be freed, the West is left looking weak and ineffectual, with Lukashenko and the Russians the only game in town.

For the time being then, it seems that Belarus will only change when Russia changes its mind about Lukashenko. However, real support for democratization in Belarus (or indeed Russia) in Moscow is lacking, and will continue to be so, regardless of whether Putin or Medvedev wins in 2012.

Posted in Belarus, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights, OSCE, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Foreign Policy, Russian Liberalization | 5 Comments »

Belarus 2010: Electoral coercion and fraud techniques.

Posted by democratist on December 11, 2010

12th November 2010,
Electoral coercion means pressuring people to vote for your prefered candidate. Electoral fraud is the falsification of results.  Both techniques have been used extensively in Belarus, and both are facilitated by a deliberately opaque legal context.
 As is generally the case, the election administration in Belarus follows a pyramid structure.
At the top is the Central Election Commision (CEC). This is based in Minsk, and is responsible for overall control of the election process.
The next layer is composed of the 155 Territorial Electoral Commsions (TECs) . The TECs work at the regional level, and are responsible for organizing the work of the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) and for the preparation of the voter lists.
Lastly, there are the 6346 Precinct Electoral Commisions (PECs). These are essentially the committees which run the polling stations. The PEC staff  will be directly in charge of organizing the vote and vote count on election day.
Elections in Belarus at the regional (TEC) and polling station (PEC) levels tend to be run by the same cadre of people in successive elections. Some Belarusian NGO’s have claimed that, for these forthcoming elections, up to 80% of the members of the current TECs have served in previous elections.
Officially, TEC staff are drawn from different political parties and from “civil society”. Ultimately however, local administrations decide upon the nominations, usually appointing regime loyalists from among their own ranks (and from other state bodies, including state enterprises) in a process which is both informal and unaccountable.
As such, only 14 of the 200o TEC members for the forthcoming Presidential elections have been selected from representatives of opposition parties (0.7%). This means that the opposition is only represented on 14 of a total of 155 TECs, leaving the other 141 regional bodies with no representation from the opposition at all.
At the PEC level (i.e. in the polling stations) a total of 183 candidates from opposition parties have been permitted to serve. This means that opposition members will be represented in less than 3% of all PECs.
The large majority of domestic Belarusian election observers are also essentially appointees from the ranks of the nomenklatura, and genuinely independent observers are fairly rare.
So opposition or independent presence within the election administration is almost negligible. And whilst the appointment process for these elections was conducted in line with national legislation (which is deliberately vague), the resulting TECs and PECs are not impartial or unbiased, and the interrelationship between the local administrative structures and the Territorial Electoral Commisions especially, is at the core of how electoral coercion is managed in Belarus.
How is this achieved in practice?
Firstly, the regime can abuse its huge influence and monopoly of power within local administrations to both ensure a good turnout, and encourage or coerce individuals to vote for the incumbent.
The local administration does this by abusing its control over resources such as jobs, equipment and education.
In this regard, employees of state enterprises (who make up about5o% of the workforce in Belarus), may be brought into a meetings with their managers, and told that their jobs might be on the line if the President is not re-elected. The many people who work for local authorities (hospitals, clinics, water, roads, sanitation) will receive similar talks from the mayor or another senior figure. Collective farm workers will be told that, if they vote “the wrong way,” the collective farm will not provide them with agricultural vehicles for the harvest, or will not provide feeding stuff for animals. Soldiers will be told that they will not be granted leave, or they will face other sanctions.  University staff and students will be threatened with expulsion.
It is to be noted that those voting will typically be afraid that the authorities have the ability to find out who they voted for by checking the ballots cast against counterfoils (regardless of whether this actually happens).
As an example of this kind of coercion, the Belarusian  “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” NGO recently noted the use of these so called “administrative resources” in order to ensure mass early voting:
During a meeting at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, Rector Mikhail Batura is quoted as having stated;
“We have a great upcoming political event, the presidential election. I cannot ignore the issue. I urge you all to take part in this election. Moreover, I even advise you on the candidate for whom to vote. This is the incumbent head of the state, because everything good that was done in this country was achieved in the years of his presidency. Therefore, I urge you all to take part in the election….We have always encouraged our students to go to early voting…Therefore, early voting will be held from December 13, and I urge you to take part in it.”
So those are all ways of using local authority influence as a means of electoral coercion.
Secondly, the fact that Belarus allows for “early voting” for a five-day period between 14th-18th December (during which typically 30% of the total number of votes will be cast), and that this takes place before most international observers have arrived in area, has in the past facilitated ballot-box stuffing, because the ballot boxes remain under the protection of polling station staff outside voting hours during the early voting period, and this has made it easy for senior PEC staff to cast additional votes for the incumbent after the polling has closed, as well as falsify signatures on the voter register to legitimize these votes.
It is to be noted that the CEC has recently changed the law to make this practice harder (for example, ballot boxes are to be sealed at the end of each day) but the extent to which the change in the rules will be followed on the ground, and the possibility of working around these changes remains to be seen. For example, one way to work around such changes would be to stuff mobile ballot boxes, which officially exist to provide the old and infirm with the opportunity to vote. These individuals are unlikely to complain that their vote has been stolen because they are vulnerable fear retribution. If they do complain, this will not be covered in the official media.
Additionally, in the past, international observers have not been permitted to watch the counting of votes too closely, and are forced to sit at a distance that makes it hard for them to see the marks on the ballots (again the CEC has apparently passed a resolution to allow then to observe more closely this time).
In a more obvious form of fraud during the count, especially when international or other independent observers are not present, in some cases the “wrong” ballot papers can simply be torn and thrown away, and the “right” ones filled in and added, since PECs possess spare ballots which can be used for this purpose.
Furthermore, in 2006 the OSCE reported that, in a number of instances, the completed election results forms were filled in using pencil (which can of course be changed later).
In conclusion, the Belarusian electoral administration is designed to facilitate voter coercion and fraud in order to return the incumbent.  Over the last weeks this system appears to be working towards fulfilling that goal as per normal. It is therefore likely that, even though Lukashenko apparently now has less than 50% support according to independent polls, he will be returned to the Presidency with more than 75% of votes in the first round. Future political developments will depend on how the population choses to react to this in the days following the announcement of the official results.

Posted in Belarus, Electoral Fraud | 4 Comments »

Belarus 2010: Another view.

Posted by democratist on December 3, 2010

3rd December 2010,

Democratist has been discussing the prospect of Lukashenko being overthrown by the Russians in the  upcoming 19th December 2010 Presidential elections in detail with one of our many very clever, anonymous friends.

He writes;

“I suspect it [overthrow] is not as easy as some would like to hope. The information war has produced a lot of noise but has limited impact in Belarus itself. There is no clear Kremlin candidate in the administration who could mount an internal Russia-backed palace coup – the siloviki are pretty much linked to Lukashenko junior (Viktor) now and the technocrats are allegedly more and more ‘economic nationalists’ who liked subsidised energy but fear an influx of Russian business interests. The Kremlin lobby in the elites was pretty much purged in the mid-naughties. Tacitly fostering a violent overthrow, as some claim was the case in Kyrgyzstan earlier in the year is pretty much a non-starter (despite some of the cries from the national democratic opposition ranks). So far Russia has not particularly reached out to the opposition, although the leading candidates like Nekliaev, Sannikov and Romanchuk are the least anti-Russian (compared to the likes of the Popular Front and Christian Democrat candidates who seem to have rather low poll ratings so far).

Maybe if there are some big (by Belarusian standards) public protests after the election they might seek to help ferment them somehow. Despite all the talk of Russia not recognising the election results, I get the feeling they are not actually going to go that far. Obviously there is economic pressure, but it might require a step change from just charging market rates for energy to actively blockading or introducing sanctions against Belarus. Also Russia is entering her own election cycle in 2011-2012 – what are the risks in destabilising a ‘fraternal’ neighbour? I don’t think there will be a quick fix which sees Russia able to get rid of Lukashenko within a year or so, they probably need to nurture ties with potential forces/allies in the longer term or towards the next election cycle.

There is lots of chatter that the economic situation over the next 18-24 months as Russian tightens the screws will precipitate the endgame for Lukashenko – but similar predictions were being made in 2007 and 2004. However, Lukashenko’s room for manoeuvre is narrowing and the traditional game of muddling through is getting increasingly difficult to play. He has always been a consummate politician when it came to exploiting the little leverage he had over Russia – e.g. threats to withdraw from regional bodies such as the CSTO or SES could be embarrassing for the Kremlin (Russia’s closest ally turns against her?). The end of socio-economic stability was supposed to see the collapse of support for Lukashenko within the ruling elites and society at large, but although the economic situation has deteriorated over the past 3 years or so he has managed to avoid getting most of the blame. With more ad hoc western loans, limited liberalisation to appeal to the EU and others as well as ties to the likes of China and Venezuela, the regime might stagger on for longer than expected. However filling the gap left by Russia withdrawing generous economic support will be very difficult. The EU has limited influence in Belarus but does offer a potential (though risky) alternative – if Russia is seen as too aggressive/coercive could propping up Lukashenko be seen as a least bad option – ‘better the devil you know’?. Could Lukashenko step down early on his own terms, rather than be ousted – he is cunning enough that he might actually pull it off!

As always, lots of maybes! I think the usual balancing act (over a minefield)/tango of convenience (on a tightrope)/chess game (with ever-changing rules/players) is going to get more difficult, and Lukashenko may well be off the scene in a couple of years, but if anyone can pull off holding on somehow for a bit longer despite all the commentary on his inevitable fall, Lukashenko maybe the man who can get away with it! Having said that, I’ll no doubt be proved wrong and it will now turn out he will be voted out in the first round by such a margin that no amount of vote rigging and fraud can cover it up!”

Posted in Belarus, Electoral Fraud, Revolutions, Russia Foreign Policy | 1 Comment »

Belarus 2010: Most likely methods of manipulation and fraud.

Posted by democratist on December 1, 2010

1st December 2010,
It is always hard to predict exactly which techniques will be used to rig a particular election in advance, especially since these may vary according to the changing legal context, as well as from region to region, but on the basis of past experience the main methods likely to be employed in the 19th December 2010 Presidential elections in Belarus are as follows;
Firstly, the regime can abuse its huge influence and monopoly of power within local administrations to both ensure a good turnout, and encourage or coerce individuals to vote for the incumbent.
The local administration achieves this by abusing its control over resources such as jobs and education:
In this regard, employees of state enterprises (who make up about 50% of the workforce in Belarus), may be brought into a meetings with their managers, and told that their jobs might be on the line if the President is not re-elected (or more directly, if they do not vote for him). The many people who work for local authorities (hospitals, clinics, water, roads, sanitation etc.) will receive similar talks from the mayor or another senior figure.  University staff and students will also be threatened with expulsion of they don’t vote for the for the right candidate. Very often these groups will be encouraged to vote early to ensure a high turnout, and in some cases transport will be arranged to get them to the polls.
As an example of this form of manipulation, the NGO “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” recently noted that, during a meeting at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, Rector Mikhail Batura is quoted as having stated;
“We have a great upcoming political event, the presidential election. I cannot ignore the issue. I urge you all to take part in this election. Moreover, I even advise you on the candidate for whom to vote. This is the incumbent head of the state, because everything good that was done in this country was achieved in the years of his presidency. Therefore, I urge you all to take part in the election….We have always encouraged our students to go to early voting, because then… different situations happen…Therefore, early voting will be held from December 13th, and I urge you to take part in it.”
It is to be noted that those voting will be afraid that the authorities have the ability to find out who they voted for by checking the ballots cast against counterfoils (regardless of whether this actually happens).
Secondly, the fact that Belarus allows for “early voting” between 14th-18th December (during which typically 30% of the total number of votes will be cast) has in the past facilitated ballot-box stuffing, because the ballot boxes remain under the protection of Polling Station staff outside voting hours during the early voting period (and international observers do not arrive until shortly before the final “election day” on 19th December) and this has made it easy for senior PEC staff to cast additional votes for the incumbent after the polling has closed, as well as falsify signatures on the voter register to legitimize these votes.
It is to be noted that the CEC has recently changed the law to make this practice harder (for example, ballot boxes are to be sealed at the end of each day) but the extent to which the change in the rules will be followed on the ground remains to be seen.
Additionally, in the past, international observers have not been permitted to watch the counting of votes too closely, and are forced to sit at a distance that makes it hard for them to see the marks on the ballot (again the CEC has apparently passed a resolution to allow them to observe more closely this time).
Furthermore, in 2006 the OSCE reported that, in a number of instances, the completed election results forms were completed in pencil (which of course can be altered later).
So, there are a multiple opportunities for fraud, but the most significant enabler of these is the near total absence of opposition representation throughout the election administration, as well as in local government generally.
Perhaps the best illustration of the barely-hidden bias of the system to have emerged so far was provided by the Chair of the Central Election Commision, Lidia Yermoshina, yesterday. In response to the release of polling data indicating that President Lukashenko may currently have less than 50% support, and might therefore be forced into a second round run-off, ITAR TASS reports this nominally independent appointee as stating, “Why do you think that will be a two-round election? I am positive I will see in New Year at home.”

Posted in Belarus, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights | 2 Comments »

Azerbaijani Democracy and Europe’s Gas Supplies

Posted by democratist on November 10, 2010

10th November 2010,

Democratist has been disappointed, but not surprised by the conduct of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections last Sunday, 7th November.

The results, and the way in which they were obtained, reflect a long, and now deepening tradition of post-Soviet authoritarian rule there. 

As far as we can gauge, all the standard dirty tricks were applied in abundance (media manipulation, voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing etc.) in what was basically a textbook case of widespread and methodical electoral fraud, with an added dash of nepotism to underscore  just how little the Aliyev clan, buoyant on both the financial and geopolitical advantages of Azerbaijan’s vast oil and gas wealth, is concerned to maintain the facade of democracy for either domestic or international purposes. 

Opposition parties, predictably, took only two of the 125 legislative seats on offer, while the president’s wife, uncle, and indeed his cousin’s husband were all elected easily.

The main message of these polls therefore, was that the regime feels that its current position is so secure that is no longer answerable to anyone; neither its own citizens, nor foreigners. 

But if there are redeeming aspects to this sorry business, they are:

Firstly that, having learned from the fallout from the Azerbaijani Presidential elections in 2008, and despite expectations from many that western organizations such as the OSCE would go easy on the regime, the OSCE Election Observation Mission (EOM) did in fact stand up for the principles it embodies, spoke truth to power, and criticised these elections for the sham they were. 

In the words of the head of mission, Audrey Glover at the 8th November press conference, “Regrettably, our observation of the overall process shows that the conditions necessary for a meaningful democratic election were not established. We are particularly concerned about restrictions of fundamental freedoms, media bias, the dominance of public life by one party, and serious violations on election day.”

This is good news for the West’s somewhat tattered reputation among the Azerbaijani opposition, and for the OSCE’s reputation throughout the region.

Secondly, that both the EU (in the form of an admittedly rather weedy statement from Catherine Ashton) and the US, in a separate comment by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley, have fully backed the OSCE’s findings.

And therefore it would seem that the EU and US are less willing to put up with the regime’s shenanigans than might have been the case before the 2008 economic crisis.

But perhaps we should not be so surprised, since lower hydrocarbon prices, and the rapidly increasing diversity of Europe’s gas supplies, which are now staring to include the re-export of formerly US-bound Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) cargoes, may well be mean that the Aliyev regime’s international position is no longer as strong as it was.

Posted in Azerbaijan, Democratization, Elections, Electoral Fraud, European Union, Hydrocarbons, OSCE | 1 Comment »

Lukashenko maintaining tight grip on electoral process.

Posted by democratist on November 4, 2010

4th November 2010,

It looks like President Lukashenko of Belarus has so far managed to keep the electoral process well under control in the run up to Presidential elections due on 19th December.

According to the latest report by Democratists’ friends over at Viasna, a Belarussian Human Rights organization, “Nomination of candidates for inclusion in the 6,346 Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) [i.e. polling stations] finished on 31 October…Opposition parties have put forward only about 1,000 candidates out of 84,024.”

For the uninitiated, this basically means that the ruling party will nominate, at a minimum a little under 99% of all the people that will be working in the polling stations in Belarus on election day.

Still, this compares favourably with the Territorial Electoral Commissions (TECs) [responsible for regional oversight], where only 14 members out of a total of 2000 (or 0.7%) are representatives of opposition parties.

The Belarusian electoral machine therefore appears to be functioning as per normal at this point in the process.

If the Russians really want to get rid of Lukashenko, it will be hard for them to achieve this through the ballot box.

Posted in Belarus, Electoral Fraud | 2 Comments »

When it comes to Ukraine, “fortress Europe” is no longer an option.

Posted by democratist on November 4, 2010

4th November 2010,

Democratist has been pleased to read in the Financial Times that the US embassy in Kiev has made a statement criticising the local elections held in Ukraine on Sunday, saying they “did not meet standards for openness and fairness”.

On the basis of our own experience in the field, we feel that reports from the professional and well-respected Ukrainian domestic observation organization OPORA that numerous procedural violations took place are likely to be accurate.

The poor conduct of these recent elections confirms an increasing trend back towards authoritarianism in Ukraine since Viktor Yanukovich won the Presidential elections this February.

This is especially disappointing because it marks a clear reversal from the huge improvements in the professionalism and credibility of electoral processes (and human rights in general) that took place after the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Yanukovich, having taken over the presidency in a generally well run poll, seems at best indifferent to the task of preserving Ukrainian democracy: This has been repeatedly confirmed over the last eight months by a series of media crackdowns, the harassment of the Universities and foreign NGO’s, judicial interference, and the reestablishment of a presidential form of government.

However, Democratist cannot help but feel that Yanukovich would be paying much more attention to his democratic credentials if the EU had, at some point over the past couple of years, offered Ukraine a serious (albeit long-term) prospect of EU membership.

More specifically, Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions (POR) apparat may have thought twice about interfering with the electoral process (for example in relation to the staffing for the Territorial Electoral Commissions) over the last couple of months if they had once again had 60 OSCE ODIHR long-term election observers breathing down their necks, backed up by 500 short-term observers on election day, and a little coordinated diplomatic pressure from Western embassies, as was the case earlier this year.

So, the West probably already possesses most of the necessary tools needed to encourage the Yanukovich government to return to the democratic path. The point, implicit in the United States’ statement,  is that it is now for the EU (especially those such as Germany and the Netherlands, who have reservations about Ukraine’s potential membership) to realize what is at stake both for Ukraine and the wider region, and act accordingly.

Or do they really think that a “fortress Europe” approach, with (yet another) increasingly corrupt, poor and resentful country on the EU’s eastern borders, is really likely to be in their own best long-term interests?

Posted in Elections, Electoral Fraud, OSCE, Ukraine, Western Foreign Policy | Leave a Comment »