Elections in the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood – do they matter?

kutsutilaisuus · The Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 31.10.2012 10:45 - 12:30
  • kutsutilaisuus


Parliamentary elections have recently been held in Belarus and Georgia. Ukraine is preparing for elections on 28 October. So far the elections have brought predictable results, but also some surprises. Elections are instrumental for regime legitimation and consolidation. They are also a yardstick for assessing formal democratic progress from the EU’s viewpoint. The seminar seeks to analyse the on-going evolution of the system of ”electoral democracy” – or ”electoral authoritarianism” – in these key states of the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood, and to understand what the immediate future holds for these countries and their relations with the EU.


Summary of the seminar

Dr Juha Jokela, Programme Director of the European Union research programme in the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, opened the seminar by welcoming the speakers and audience and noting that the Institute has lately been focusing greatly in the Eastern Neighbourhood and its events. He pointed out that recent elections provide a fertile soil to observe the state of democracy in the Eastern Neighbourhood and the important question whether they are a sign of real democracy or of electoral authoritarianism.

Dr Anaïs Marin, Researcher in the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme in the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, spoke about the parliamentary elections in Belarus. Her assessment was that since the election results were favorable to pro-regime candidates only, whereas the electoral process was, according to OSCE observers, neither free nor fair, the elections in Belarus mattered only for authoritarian regime consolidation. She thus criticised using the observation of such ”elections” as a measurement of democracy, since in Lukashenka’s Belarus, as in other competitive authoritarian countries, procedural (electoral) democracy imitation has always been used to give the regime minimal external legitimation and populist (internal) legitimation.

According to Marin, the elections in Belarus were not competitive, since there were no real alternatives (on average 2.62 candidates running for one seat in the House of Representatives); they were not fair, since the conditions for campaigning were unequal; and not free, since the electors could not make an informed choice due to strong regime propaganda and the use of administrative resources in favour of loyal candidates. There was also evidence of pressuring the voters. Due to the strong administrative control over the whole electoral process, there is no pluralistic representation in precinct electoral commissions (PEC) in Belarus; the proportion of PEC members nominated by opposition parties was 1 to 10 000. Altogether, the absence of a transparent ballot count and of a centralised voter list shed doubts on the election results. The elections were not recognised by the OSCE, western democracies nor the EU as they failed to comply with international standards of democracy and Belarus’s OSCE commitments for that matter.

Marin presented three findings regarding the elections in Belarus. The first was that the opposition’s boycott strategy failed, because there was no consensus between opposition parties about a comprehensive boycott strategy. In other words, the regime is still able to mobilise voters: according to post-election independent polls, participation was 66%, which is slightly less than the official figure of 74,6 %. The second of Marin’s findings was that this kind of election serves to consolidate the regime, as ”competitive authoritarianism” becomes trendier for dictatorships. In such regimes elections are useful for monitoring the loyalty of both regime insiders and voters, as well as to discredit, divide and outplay the political opposition forces. Marin also pointed out, that welcoming international observers works as a way to set a trap to them as well: welcoming the observers grants the electoral process apparent legitimacy ex ante in the eyes of voters, whereas dismissing the OSCE’s reports as too critical or biased helps fuel anti-Western propaganda ex post. Since in the West ”business as usual” is not affected by OSCE reports, and for example trade with the EU continues to grow (+71% in 2011), it can be said that even undemocratic elections bring about a sufficient enough level of external legitimation for the regime to keep on trading with some EU partners and for requesting Western (IMF) credits.

The third finding that Marin pointed out was that due to the consolidation in Belarus of ”pre-emptive authoritarianism” (a notion borrowed from Vitali Silitski, who coined it in 2005 to highlight how Lukashenka ”preventively” protects his regime against the contagion of a ”colour revolution”), democratic changes cannot stem from elections. The environment is too unfavourable for the democratic opposition. However, the Belarusian development model has been challenged by economic troubles since the spring 2011 currency crisis, which broke the alleged ”social contract” between Lukashenka and the Belarusians. Another sign that people want change (although they would never fight for them, nor trust the opposition to do so) is that the majority is now more in favour of EU accession than of Belarus joining Russia, according to the latest surveys by independent pollster IISEPS.

In conclusion Marin stressed that in authoritarian regimes elections are a trap for both the democratic opposition and their outside supporters, because they serve as a tool for consolidation and legitimation of the regime. In delegating observers to the OSCE and in continuing business as usual with Belarus, democratic countries contributed to perpetuating Lukashenka’s ”fool’s game”. It would have made more sense for the EU to request that roundtables be held involving both the bureaucracy and the political opposition already six months ago. The way out of the electoral trap is, according to Marin, for the EU to stick to its own principles and promote democracy targeting equally the whole Eastern neighbourhood area. Also better democratisation assessment yardsticks than procedural ones need to be designed, as well as ”smarter” sanctions; in the Q&A, Marin specified that in her view it is counterproductive for the EU to defend the withdrawal of Belarus’s host status for the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship – a boycott which would amount to targeting the interests of Belarusians at large and further damaging the EU’s reputation in their eyes, rather than putting real pressure the on official Minsk.

Dr Teemu Sinkkonen, Researcher in the European Union research programme in the Finnish Institute of International Affairs started his presentation with couple of personal observations from the Georgian elections. He described the atmosphere of the election day as nervous, but which changed into celebration and joy when the first results came.

According to Sinkkonen, campaigning in the elections was relatively fair, although some irregularities were present. Media was biased, but there was balance for both sides with the pro-opposition media also existing. The elections themselves were relatively free and fair, unlike earlier in Georgia. What was significant, Sinkkonen pointed out, was that both sides respected the results when they came out.

After the elections Georgia now has a pluralistic parliament with seven parties. However, Georgia is going through constitutional reforms which mean that until the power shifts from the president to the prime minister in 2013, there is a strong presidential power but the cabinet is formed to represent electoral results. Sinkkonen described this situation as an ”awkward dual leadership”.

There are both risks and opportunities in Georgia’s current situation. According to Sinkkonen, there is a danger of power struggles, both inside the parties and between the parties. Also the much needed reforms and passing of power in ministries can result in insecurities and an increase in crime. There is also a risk of reprisal politics. However, the electoral results also present an opportunity to continue democratic reforms in civil society, media and the judiciary system. There is also an opportunity for economic growth. Sinkkonen concluded his presentation by summing up that the elections did matter in Georgia, but that the transition period is fragile and Georgia needs support to achieve smooth transition of power and democratic progress. Any provocations or testing of the fragility should be avoided. The EU plays a central role in this.

Dr Arkady Moshes, Programme Director of the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme in the Finnish Institute of International Affairs started his presentation with a short answer to the question if the elections matter or not: they matter in Ukraine, and this time even more than before.
According to Moshes, Ukraine has developed a strong electoral tradition for the last decade. This is demonstrated by the fact that the opposition has come to power through elections every single time the national election has been held in the country since 2004. The current elections were critically important, because everything was done to break the trend and prevent the opposition from being successful. The electoral system now favored the ruling party, and the electoral threshold had been raised, and several top figures were jailed and simply could not take part in the campaign.

According to Moshes, the aim of the ruling president Yanukovych’s party in the election was to gain a constitutional majority, and after the election it was expected to try to amend the constitution so that the president would be elected by parliament instead of direct popular vote. However, this didn’t go as smoothly as planned. According to the preliminary results of 31 October the opposition did rather well. Co-operation between opposition parties should not be taken for granted, but they were able to mobilise their supporters in elections and benefit from the protest vote. However, the constitutional majority for the president’s party is still mathematically possible because independent parliamentarians can join the party of power, and even some opposition MPs can still change sides.

Still, Moshes pointed out, there are three major obstacles which will work against further consolidation of power by the president. First; the leader’s legitimacy matters in Ukraine, and now that Yanukovych’s ratings are low and after his party received less than one-third of the vote he cannot assume that his re-election in the parliament would be silently accepted by the nation. Second, an authoritarian system is easier to build when the ruler has abundant resources. Ukraine’s economic situation, on the contrary, is problematic, and for this reason assuming all the responsibility might be politically dangerous. The third obstacle is external pressure, with Russia trying to make Ukraine abandon its European project and reintegrate closer with Russia both economically and geopolitically. But Yanukovych is not the figure who can unite the nation for the cause of defending sovereignty, since quite a large number of people view him as an instrument of, not a barrier against, external influence.

Moshes believes that the West should stick to the interpretation of internal processes in Ukraine as a systemic development and a departure of democracy standards achieved earlier. The EU and the West should take an active stance to resist this trend. The relations with Kyiv should not be normalised in exchange for rhetorical promises to correct the regime’s behavior in the future, because there is no guarantee that this kind of deal will be respected. Only a position of principle that a further deterioration of democracy in Ukraine will have direct implications for key regime figures might reverse the negative trends in Ukraine’s political development.

Comments to the presentations were offered by Ms Terhi Hakala, Director General for the Department for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. She argued that elections do matter in all the cases presented, in one way or another. According to her the fact is that it’s the simplest way to measure the situation of a country. She also argued against isolating countries, which would mean turning our backs to voters who voted for the opposition. Instead of isolating it is more fruitful to engage and enter in a dialog, she pointed out.

Regarding Belarus and Ukraine, according to Hakala, situations need to be further analysed and the situation needs to be followed after the elections, although Ukraine’s situation now looks like a setback. Georgia was, in her opinion, the only one to pass the test, as for the first time the government changed in the election and not in the streets, which is remarkable. Thus she stressed that both parties in Georgia should be given the benefit of the doubt, as they have accepted the election results, and are now waiting to see how things develop. She concluded her comments by stating that the Georgian willingness to take the democratic way is there, and we can hope it will happen in other countries too, although some processes are slower than others.

In the open discussion that followed, issues such as increasing differentiation in the countries of the region, relations of Ukraine and Russia and how Russia’s power in Ukraine is weakened by officials and the usefulness of democratisation as a measurement were discussed. Regarding democratisation it was argued that less democracy means less development, and thus the level of democratisation matters and is connected to objectives. Also the importance and usefulness of embargoes and sanctions was discussed, and it was pointed out that sanctions are mostly symbolic and don’t seem to work in the cases discussed.