Defiant Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, widely known as "Europe's last dictator," sternly declared victory in his country's national elections on Sunday. With an 82.6 percent win -- incumbent Lukashenko beat out three opposition candidates, including democracy proponent Alexander Milinkevich. But foreign election observers, led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), claimed the election did not meet democratic standards. In the run-up to the poll, hundreds of opposition politicians were arrested or harrassed by Belarus' secret police, which still happens to be called the "KGB." The election may have been blessed by Moscow (which fears a Ukrainian style Orange Revolution), but in Europe the results have gotten a frosty reception.
On Tuesday, German newspapers dissect the results. Almost all conclude that massive fraud took place, but many also see a greater problem: Support for Lukashenko in Belarus is strong. So if you can't force democracy on Europe's last dictatorship, how can you promote it?
"The result is supposed to prove that the Belarusian people love Lukashenko," writes the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung, "but the absurdly high result doesn't provide any legitimacy for the election, it just makes the dictator and his regime even more farcical." European election observers say Lukashenko's wide margin of victory came thanks to the use of massive intimidation tactics against voters and brazen electoral manipulation. The fact that Moscow praised the election merely serves to underscore the election observer's assessments. After all, it's common Moscow practice to issue its seal of approval to fraudulent elections. "Lukashenko, one often hears, could have won the election even without any fraud," the paper writes. "People making that argument believe that Lukashenko received such a high number of votes because Belarusians are pleased with the stability and relative prosperity he has brought them." It could well be that the number of Lukashenko supporters in Belarus is considerable. But because the election was totally fraudulent, one has no way of determining exactly how strong. "The only thing that is certain is that Lukashenko didn't allow for a free and fair election," the paper concludes. "Those in Minsk who take to the streets in the name of democracy show great courage and they have the right to hear more than good words from the West," the paper writes, making the case for an increase in European Union sanctions against Minsk. It is also necessary to apply smart, targeted sanctions against Lukashenko and his people. While the state of Belarus after the election may be depressing, it is not hopeless. "The democratic opposition, led by Alexander Milinkevich, may be weak, but that is also true in some respects of the country's thug president."
Belarus' "election" was really an "election farce," writes the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Nevertheless, it still had value. In order to keep up appearances, dictator Lukashenko was forced to allow an opposition candidate to run. Then, in order to keep from becoming an affront to the international community, he was also forced to invite election observers from the OSCE. "In addition to documenting the many violations of election rules and human rights violations," the paper writes, "the observers also served as de facto protection for the opposition -- who were nevertheless exposed to a level of repression last seen in Europe before the Iron Curtain fell in 1989." Still, the elections provided a chance for democratic forces in the country to converge and to mobilize their supporters. It also made opposition leader Milinkevich a public figure. Another positive side effect of the election is the attention it has drawn from the West to conditions in Belarus. "For far too long, the fact that Lukashenko has put together a nasty regime that could make Milosevic's Serbia look like a liberal country has been neglected by the West." This new Western focus on Belarus is a byproduct of the eastern expansion of the European Union. It was the Poles and Lithuanians, after all, who lobbied in Brussels on behalf of Belarus' democratic forces.
Though it describes Lukashenko's 83 percent margin as a clear indication of "massive election fraud," the business daily Handelsblatt writes that there's "no doubt that the majority of Belarusians voted for their 'Batka' or 'father'." They had good reason: under Lukashenko's leadership, the material standard of living has improved for farmers and pensioners. Still, opposition leader Milinkevich never stood a chance. And Lukashenko's victory now presents the EU with a major challenge: "How should it deal with Europe's last dictator?" The paper argues that, as long as Lukashenko isn't ordering Milosevic-like massacres of minority populations, that it should very cautiously engage with the country. "Democracy can't be forced from outside," the paper argues, "the people of Belarus have to fight for it themselves." Nor does Europe need to meddle with Belarus' domestic affairs -- all it needs to do is hold open the door. "Europe must offer to deepen its political and economic cooperation. That would create an opportunity for change," it concludes. "Just look at the examples of Georgia, Ukraine and Serbia and Montenegro."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes that, "without a doubt, President Lukashenko reacts with authoritarian methods and the press freedom, rights to demonstrate and other citizens' freedoms are curtailed." Nevertheless, the paper argues, "even without manipulation before and during the vote, Lukashenko probably have won." The opposition is confined to a few cities and not supported by most Belarusians. The reason is not difficult to find, writes the paper: Unlike many of the other ex-Soviet republics that have undertaken "neoliberal economic experiments," the Belarus govenment offers "stable salaries and punctual pension payments." A great part of the economic stability is due to trading advantages and energy prices that are subsidized by Russia. "For Russia, close ties with Belarus are of extraordinary strategic interest. Over the past few years Russia has had to stand by and watch as United States influence has increased in many former Soviet republics." The paper points out that Belarus is also an important transit country for Russian exports of gas and oil to the West, and that with the spread of NATO eastwards, it is also of great importance for Russia's defense planning.
The conservative daily Die Welt compares the protests in Minsk to those in Ukraine just over a year ago and concludes that the chance of a successful "revolution" to match that in Kiev is unlikely. It writes that the Orange Revolution occurred because there had been a favorable constellation. The elite were frustrated by Ukraine's stagnation and the government didn't have the willpower to fight the opposition. In Belarus the "charismatic, dynamic" dictator has more to offer: "rising (if still low) salaries, high economic growth and stability." Voters in Belarus, the paper notes, may also have been swayed by Russia's recent move to raise gas prices in Ukraine. In Belarus, gas is still bought at prices subsidized by Moscow and Putin knows that in Lukashenko he has a "brave fighter against the West." According to Die Welt, the weaknesses in civil society and nostalgia for the old days means that Lukashenko would probably still have won the election without the arrests and (probable) fraud. The paper writes that the real question now is what the recent events will mean for the forces of reform and for the future of the country. "It is already a small victory that the opposition was able to organize its biggest rally in years," it concludes.
-- Siobhán Dowling and Daryl Lindsey
3:30 p.m. CET