(WASHINGTON, D.C./PRAGUE - September 26, 2008) Two days before Belarusians head to the polls for parliamentary elections, an EU official told a crowd at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL) Washington, D.C. office that "these elections will be crucial in determining what kind of relationship we have with Belarus in the near future."
"Right now, the European Union's relationship with Belarus is essentially frozen," said Reinhold Brender, Political Counselor at the EU Embassy in Washington. "That's why we are very eager to see whether President Aleksandr Lukashenko's government conducts the vote fairly. The freer the election, the more likely Belarus will enjoy better relations with the West."
Joining Brender from Prague via videoconference was RFE/RL's Belarusian Service Director Alexander Lukashuk and Senior RFE/RL Analyst Jan Maksymiuk. Lukashuk said the 70 opposition candidates running for parliamentary seats and the hundreds of elections observers who will be in Belarus represent a step forward and will likely "open up some public space for people to express themselves." Nevertheless, he said "who and how many opposition members get elected will be determined by Lukashenko. It is very unlikely that any of the four major opposition leaders will win seats."
In recent weeks, a debate has raged among opposition members over whether to participate in voting that is certain to hand a majority to Lukashenka's allies. "Because of this, the opposition is simply unprepared for these elections," said Maksymiuk. "Ordinary voters have very little information, in part because there wasn't a lot of time to prepare and in part because of the oppressive media environment in Belarus."
The group agreed that Sunday's results will be important in determining Belarus' future and are eager to hear from Western election monitors, whose first report may be released as early as Monday.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service was established in 1954 as part of Radio Liberty's broadcasts to the former Soviet Union. With much of the independent media in Belarus silenced, the service remains one of the few media outlets accessible to Belarusians in their own language, providing timely, objective, and balanced information to residents of "Europe's last dictatorship."