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First Person: Nothing Unusual
2019 Parliamentary Elections in Belarus
Friday, December 20, 2019

By Rachel Bauman,
Policy Advisor

Election day began like every November day in Belarus: black. Without the time change that makes a late-autumn morning in DC bearable, darkness enveloped Belarus until almost 9:00 a.m. We would be rising much earlier than that to observe the opening of the polls for the November 17 parliamentary election.

This was my second election observation, after the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. That election was widely considered free and fair—a great achievement for a new democracy plagued by a Soviet legacy. In Belarus, the last election generally considered free and fair was the 1994 election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains in power, with essentially complete control over the government, 25 years later.  

Most Belarus-watchers suspected that much of the number-fudging was done before the arrival of election day observers. Early voting took place throughout the week before election day, providing an opportunity to inflate turnout numbers. Multiple opposition candidates could not even make it on the ballot due to selectively-imposed restrictions and technicalities applied to stamp out the competition well before voting took place. Neither I nor the other members of my election observation team (two diplomats already in Minsk: one from the U.S. Embassy, and one from the Swedish Embassy), expected many surprises from the conduct and outcome of the elections.

The day started smoothly enough, with a standard, albeit sparsely attended, opening. As we moved on to other polling stations throughout the day, the conditions were mainly the same: observers registered with the chair of the election commission for that precinct and were seated at a table specifically for observers, both national and international.

Sign directing voters to polling sites in Belarus.

Because the vast majority of OSCE PA observers remained in the Minsk region, and we had traveled a few hours northeast to Vitebsk, we came across only Belarusian observers, whether from trade unions, political parties, or other groups. The observer tables were far enough away from the action that in most cases we could not see much of the voter sign-in and identification check process. When we asked to see the voter lists, we were denied in multiple instances. This was startling for me; in Ukraine, we wandered freely throughout polling stations and had access to everything.

Nevertheless, the mood was festive and the people friendly. Music—from disco to Soviet favorites to patriotic tunes—played in the background at several polling places. We received candies in one location and a proud explanation of the region’s main industry in another. A few photos were taken with us, and at one polling place a neighboring observer remarked how interested she was that I had come all the way from the United States just for the election in Belarus!

Despite the fun and frivolity, it became clear to us by the end of the day that, though we had seen no gross violations in conduct, the whole process lacked the transparency I had witnessed in Ukraine, or that should be expected in any OSCE country committed to democratic norms.  

Nowhere was this more apparent than during the count. As usual, we were confined to the observers’ table just far enough from where the action was taking place to limit real observation. The mobile voting, early voting, and election day ballots were collected and counted in one pile, silently. Because we could not fully see or hear the count, there was no way of knowing whether it was accurate, even though the precinct chairwoman came over occasionally to riffle through the marked ballots for us. By only 9:15 p.m.—the polls had closed at 8—the count was finished and a winner declared.

Votes being counted at a polling site.

Our next step was to follow our companions from the polling station to the District Election Commission, where they would deliver the results protocol and election materials. After watching a few deliveries from around the area and encountering many familiar faces from earlier in the day, we decided to head back to the hotel, arriving at a remarkably early 10:30 p.m. Though it was still a long and exhausting day, many such elections, including the one I’d observed in Ukraine, had counts lasting long into the night.

The next morning’s results were both surprising and unsurprising. It was no great shock to see that the reported turnout was over 77 percent—suspiciously high for elections to a body with no real power.

According to the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the OSCE International Election Observation Mission noted that early voting turnout in particular (35.77 percent) seemed inflated compared to the reports of observers. More disturbingly, not a single opposition candidate was elected (there had been two in the previous parliament). That Lukashenko would not permit even a semblance of pluralism calls into question the seriousness of his seeming attempts to court the West when faced with a revanchist and controlling Russia—a topic which the U.S. Helsinki Commission explored in a hearing held shortly after the election.

Observers would be wise to watch the trajectory of the country as Lukashenko navigates his tricky relationships with the West and Russia. Ultimately, stability—in large part the stability of his own job—will be first in his mind as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election swiftly approaches.

A major political upheaval is not likely in the cards. When my colleague stationed in Grodna asked a young independent observer if he’d seen anything interesting or unusual during election day, the observer responded, “Unusual? No. Nothing unusual. This is Belarus. There has been nothing unusual for 25 years.”

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  • "Game-Changer"

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Ruben Gallego (AZ-07) stressed the importance of the current moment for Baltic security and highlighted the Baltic Security Initiative, which bolsters the defense capabilities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in areas including air defense, maritime situational awareness, ammunition, C4ISR, and anti-tank capabilities. He said, “If we draw any lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s that we need to ensure our allies and our partners are too prickly for any adversary or competitor to swallow.” Laima Andrikiene, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Seimas of Lithuania, testified that the global democratic order has been ravaged and called on the United States to position permanent combat forces in Lithuania in order to build credible defense against Russian military threats. 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Marko Mihkelson, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu of Estonia, warned of the brutality and ruthlessness of the Russian war machine, referencing his prior career as a journalist, when he reported on the Chechen War. “Russia’s blatant aggression and military invasion in Ukraine has caused a fundamental shift in the European security architecture and threatens the peace and stability of democratic nations, not only in Europe but worldwide,” he said. “The future of our common security will be decided in Ukraine.” Rihards Kols, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saeima of Latvia, described the hybrid warfare tactics Russia is employing and the importance of supporting a well-educated and informed society in order to counter hybrid threats. Kols advocated for decisive action against Putin and warned against hesitance. He said, “Nothing is more provocative to a dictator than the weakness of free nations.” Members asked the three witnesses a range of questions on how best to defeat Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and deter further aggression by Putin’s regime against the Baltic states and elsewhere. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting; Delegation Also Travels to Lithuania to Support Crucial NATO Ally.  Field Hearing: Baltic Sea Regional Security

  • At OSCE PA Winter Meeting, U.S. Legislators Unite with International Counterparts to Condemn Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

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Hudson as Chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security) met in an emergency session and issued a statement condemning the Kremlin invasion as a “clear and gross violation of the most basic norms of international law as well as OSCE principles and commitments.” The group also issued a subsequent statement standing “in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its elected government” and noting the “extraordinary courage” exhibited by “civilians, the armed forces and national leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Statements condemning Vladimir Putin for the deliberate assault of Russian forces on Ukraine dominated the formal sessions of the meeting, despite an agenda originally designed to consider ongoing OSCE PA work on a wide range of issues. Co-Chairman Cohen spoke for the United States, decrying Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is led and run by Nazis. In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Ukrainian OSCE Mission Member During Russian Attack on Kharkiv

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine during a Russian attack, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened and angered by the tragic death of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, during shelling in Kharkiv on March 1. We offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends. “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack against the people of Ukraine is targeting men, women, and children; destroying homes, businesses, and cultural treasures; and forcing millions to flee for their lives. Putin’s unprovoked war is shredding the European security architecture that brought peace after the Second World War. Individuals like Maryna Fenina remind us of the terrible human toll of war. “Russia must cease its brutal and criminal invasion and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” Maryna Fenina was the second OSCE SMM member to die as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the SMM, was killed In April 2017 when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that has served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. On February 25, the SMM decided to withdraw its international mission members from Ukraine. Ukrainian national mission members remain in the country. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • ‘Long Live President Volodymyr Zelensky’

    Mr. Speaker, on Friday, I was grateful, as the ranking member of the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to address the Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. Our delegation was ably led by Co-Chair Steve Cohen. The bipartisan United States delegation of Democrats and Republicans being transatlantic, with our valued European and Indo-Pacific allies, have been united about the Putin war of mass murder in Ukraine, violating the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. Here, we want to emphasize the devastating human cost of the Putin war against the families of Ukraine, isolating Russia and Belarus from the modern world. I was grateful over the years to have visited Russia a number of times where I was so impressed by the talented citizens. Today, they are being betrayed by Putin in his obsession for oil, money, and power. Two months ago, I visited Kyiv and it is horrifying to know of the attacks. Sadly, in Belarus, dictator Lukashenko has become a puppet facilitating the Putin war. It is inspiring that the legal President of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, would have her first loyalty to the people of Belarus, not the war criminal, Putin. In conclusion, God bless Ukraine. God save Ukraine. Long live President Volodymyr Zelensky.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses European Unity Against Russia

    Mr. Speaker, last week, I led a bipartisan group to visit Lithuania and the OSCE meeting in Vienna, Austria. In Lithuania, we met with the leaders and assured them of America’s Article 5 responsibilities and commitments in case Russia comes into Lithuania. They are very concerned. We met with our troops, who are 6 kilometers away from Russian troops stationed in Belarus. We then went to the OSCE in Vienna, and we led a strong response to support Ukraine and oppose an unbelievable invasion by the cruel Vladimir Putin. The European community is united, except for Russia and Belarus, in opposing the intrusion. Vladimir Putin is not operating in a rational manner. His KGB history and his extreme response to COVID have driven him to a delusional, paranoid, and dangerous state. It concerns all. I appreciate the actions of our President in supporting our country. I support President Zelensky, who is the Maccabee of his era, but the candle has only lasted so long. We need to get him more oil.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

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