Presidential elections in Belarus : interview with Ales Bialiatski

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Presidential elections in Belarus will take place on 11 October 2015. Previous elections in 2010 were marred with violent repression of protesters who were contesting the result.

On this occasion, FIDH met in Minsk with Ales Bialiatski, FIDH Vice-President and President of Viasna, a Belarusian NGO dissolved by the Belarusian authorities in 2003 for having observed the 2001 presidential elections...

Ales Bialiatski was arrested a few months after the 2010 elections and jailed during three years for his human rights activities. He was released on 21 June 2014.

What is the current situation for human rights in the country?

One can say that the human rights situation in Belarus has improved slightly in the run-up to the elections. About a month ago, six political prisoners were released, and now there are no more political prisoners in the country. But this doesn’t give us much cause for comfort because there are still some ongoing criminal cases that are politically motivated, and five people are still targeted by the system. It is very important for us to bring these cases to a close. Even so, the fact that there are no political prisoners is probably not going to last: I personally believe that with a more energized society, with a more active political scene, which has been virtually wiped out in recent years, it is highly probable that people will be arrested for political reasons after the elections. The same repressive system remains in Belarus, and so do all the repressive mechanisms, state policies, and political regime. So I don’t believe that this reprieve will last very long.

What about freedom of association?

There have been no fundamental changes in terms of freedom of association. Everything remains the same. Social organizations are not registered, and any attempt to register these organizations or political parties is reviewed extremely carefully by the authorities. Non-conformist or political organizations are simply denied registration. Just look at the number of registered organizations per thousand people in Belarus. It’s about 10 times less than in our neighboring countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Poland. This clearly demonstrates the fact that the authorities are preventing organizations from officially registering, and generally from structuring itself and being recognized as such.

And freedoms of assembly and information ?

This also relates to freedom of assembly. There are regions in Belarus where picket lines and demonstrations have been altogether banned for the past 15 years. For example, in Hrodna (Hrodna Region), not one event has been allowed in 15 years. A million people live there. If these events are allowed at all, then it is only extremely rare and in sparsely populated areas. But usually they are banned altogether. The most recent actions that took place in Minsk during the election period in order to create debate around the elections; the organizers of these campaigns had to face administrative courts.

As far as freedom of information is concerned, nothing has changed. The situation is extremely complicated. Many journalists from foreign media outlets are not allowed to register and are then fined for the work they perform here as journalists. But both television and radio media are under the control of the Belarusian authorities. They are completely controlled by the state and only report on information that benefits Lukashenko and the Belarusian regime. The law has changed and now the Internet is considered a media outlet, so the Ministry of Information has every ability to shut down any site.

Is the electoral campaign conducted in respect with international standards ?

We have been observing these elections for almost two months, since the day they were announced. All I can say is that these elections are following the old rules. This means that they will most likely be falsified. They already don’t meet international standards. The most serious problem relates to the formation of election commissions, which representatives of independent social organizations and opposition parties have been virtually banned from joining. In Minsk, there are 600 election commissions with over 6,000 members, but there is not one representative from an opposition party or an independent social organization. So obviously the votes will not be tabulated in a transparent manner. We have absolutely no confidence that these elections will somehow be more transparent or democratic than the previous elections.

These last weeks, the question of lifting EU restrictive measures against Belarus has raised. What is your analysis on this point ?

Given all of this, it is of course premature to speak about lifting the restrictive measures applied against Belarus due to violations of election laws. These violations and the inherent unfairness of election laws persist. The regime took a half-step forward by releasing political prisoners. It is immensely important that the space for freedom, the space for democracy, continues to expand. Sanctions are a form of leverage that forces Belarusian authorities to lower the level of repressions in society and keeps authoritarian principles in check. So I believe that a certain amount of sanctions against Belarusian authorities must be preserved. This is a way to put political pressure on the Belarusian authorities, who are not prepared to carry out extensive democratic reforms in the country. We need to work towards carrying out these reforms, we need to achieve greater freedom and reduce the level of fear in our society.

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