Among the states of Eurasia, contemporary Belarus is perhaps the closest in resemblance to the old Soviet Union. It remains a highly authoritarian country under the firm control of President Aleksandr Lukashenka, a collective farm boss who reversed a brief period of democratization in the mid-1990s. Having ruled for more than two decades, Lukashenka has maintained a polity dominated by state-owned corporations, a powerful and repressive security apparatus still called the KGB, and a political system totally dominated by his own loyalists. Through well-executed bouts of elite purging, he has managed to prevent the rise of independent oligarchs, has successfully undermined civil society, and has stymied efforts at rival power-bases emerging within or without state institutions.
A perfect example of Lukashenka’s absolute grip on a country whose main journalistic cliche is the tired phrase ‘Europe’s last dictatorship,’ is its barren and hollow legislature – the Belarusian House of Representatives. Having eschewed creating an institutionalized regime party long ago – as Lukashenka has really never needed one to ensure control – the parliament is made up almost entirely of ‘independent’ deputies who are personally loyal to the president. Looking more like the old Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies than a modern legislative organ, the House of Representatives is an institution utterly devoid of political content. The body ritualistically passes every law it sees, has no control over the state budget (a critical power that legislature’s often need in order to act as effective checks against the executive), and has been filled with only loyalist deputies since 2000.
September 11th’s parliamentary election in general followed the traditional script of authoritarian elections that has dominated Belarus for the majority of its history as an independent state. Turnout was at its usual rate of just under 75% – with over 30% of ballots having been cast early, a process which makes detecting fraud more difficult. The vast majority of elected deputies were unaffiliated independents, with a smattering coming from various professional associations and many either bureaucrats or state-owned company managers. On a more positive note, 38 out of the 110 seats will be filled by women, giving the legislature a respectable 34% female representation that is not always achieved in democracies. Additionally, only 28 deputies had sat in the previous parliament – one could almost optimistically note that new loyalist faces are better than old ones.
The big news in the election, however, is the victory of two actual opposition figures to the parliament. According to official figures, Anna Konopatskaya of the long-oppositional United Civic Party and Elena Anisim of the Belarusian Language Society (a civil society organization) both won their districts, with 23.7% and 40.5% of the vote, respectively. 2 out of 110 does not seem like much, and it surely does not presage any kind of major liberalization from Lukashenka’s hardline regime, but it is a notable event nonetheless. Belarus’ opposition activists and parties are infamously fractious and divided, with little true support across the country (borne out even in pro-opposition polling).
Most discussion thus far has rightly focused on the reason that this – even if only symbolic – result was allowed at all by a regime thoroughly capable of ensuring only loyalist victories. Many attest that this is a cosmetic effort to appease Western governments by holding broadly fraud-free, nonviolent elections with tiny opposition achievements, a tactic that had been deployed to similar effect during the last presidential election. In a country as closed as Belarus, with total media domination, legitimate fears of repression, employment dependent on the state, and a feckless opposition, actual ballot fraud is often simply not necessary to get the desired outcome. Perhaps this will be the excuse the West needs to justify further cooperation and economic support for the country.
Others have pointed to seeing these two minor opposition victories as largely meaningless, and that there can be no change without the destruction of the regime. Therefore, talking about these results distracts from the real struggle against authoritarianism. Others have worried that the victories will legitimize dictatorial institutions, that winning in and of itself is a form of antidemocratic, immoral compromise.
What few have noted so far is what this means for Belarus’ rubber-stamp parliament itself. The addition of two deputies from the opposition should not change the broad functioning of the institution as a mechanism for rote passage. Two deputies are not enough to deny quorum, to obstruct or delay legislation, or demand any sort of concessions or compromises. Two are not even enough to cause trouble through physical violence or disruptive tactics – often the recourse of larger opposition parties in non-democratic regimes. The committee system of the Belarusian legislature is undeveloped to say the least, and there are simply no institutional means by which two figures can achieve much of anything, nor should we have this expectation.
Under such circumstances, a common tactic for such minute oppositions is to simply boycott the institution, staking a moral position despite their election. Research shows, however, that this is usually a mistake when the opposition is small – a gesture serving only to strengthen the moral feelings of oppositional true-believers. Instead, the two will be most impactful by remaining as voices in the chamber, giving speeches and adding a discordant note to otherwise blandly unanimous support for the regime. This kind of tactic is not a guaranteed thing – there are many ways for a parliament speaker to prevent floor speeches if they desire – and there is no assurance that the average person will ever learn of what is said in the chamber, as that will depend on domestic media. Yet if the Belarusian opposition wishes to get anything out of their new, nominal inclusion in a long-closed national political institution, we should expect to see these deputies to make the most of their positions through symbolic actions that do not threaten their foothold within the parliament. Furthermore, sustained socialization between these members of the opposition and the sea of regime loyalists – as well as a newfound treating of a parliamentary seat as meaningful – may provide for unintended consequences over the course of this legislative session.
These parliamentary elections in Belarus are no game-changer for the regime, nor any kind of sign that President Lukashenka’s grip on power is loosening. The Belarusian House of Representatives will continue in its role as a rubber-stamp, and political power will remain firmly in the domain of the presidency and the powerful ministries of state. And yet, even the slightest change in the composition of the submissive deputies that populate this quasi-Soviet institution can provide new opportunities for political actors long-marginalized in Belarusian society. This signals a new arena through which watchers of Belarus’ highly restrictive politics will look to, and may just reinvigorate – if however slightly – a long-emasculated legislative institution.
Julian G. Waller is a fourth-year Ph.D student at George Washington University whose research focuses on formal political institutions in hybrid regimes and electoral authoritarianism with a regional interest in post-communist Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space.
Photo Source: RFE/RL