Voters in the landlocked Eastern European state of Belarus, which has been largely isolated since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, are going to the polls today to take part in the latest round of parliamentary elections.
But there’s a difference from previous elections – this time there’s a small chance opponents of the country’s long-time President Alexander Lukashenko could be elected. They have not been represented in the 110-seat parliament since 1996.
That’s because Lukashenko's administration has allowed these elections to be conducted under a more transparent and accessible system which will be monitored by outsiders including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Still, analysts and opposition politicians were not hopeful the election will bring about any major changes to Belarus’ autocratic political system.
Denis Melyantsov, senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, told Reuters "I think we'll get an absolutely sterile parliament, made up of carefully selected lawmakers."
Echoing these sentiments, Alaksiej Janukievic, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front opposition party, told Agence France Presse, "I am convinced that not a single opposition candidate will make it through to parliament."
"There will only be lawmakers approved by the authorities."
The relaxation of restrictions seems to be mainly intended to appease the West, which imposed sanctions on the country following a series of election results that favoured Lukashenko it condemned as unfair.
Lukashenko hasn’t tried to hide his intentions in this regard. After casting his vote in Belarus’ capital, Minsk, he told assembled journalists, "We've done everything so that there aren't complaints from the Western side. We accommodated their requests."
Even so, this statement is somewhat more discrete than the one the strongman gave to Ukrainian journalists in 2006 regarding that year's presidential election in which he said, "Yes, we falsified the last election. I have already told this to Westerners. In fact, 93.5 percent [of ballots were] for President Lukashenko. People say this is not a European result, so we changed it to 86 percent."
The latest – somewhat half-hearted – attempt at electoral reform forms part of a wider strategy pursued by the government aimed at moving the country away from the orbit of Russia, Belarus’ strongest neighbour and traditional overlord.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 stoked fears in nearby countries, including Belarus – which is particularly concerned due to its relative weakness and lack of allies – that they could be next.
This is likely what led Lukashenko to appear to turn over a new leaf – releasing imprisoned dissidents and acting as a mediator over Ukraine – as he tries to build up relations with the West as a counterweight to his country’s economic and strategic dependence on Russia.
It seems like these moves might be working, with the US saying that the handling of this election will factor into whether it decides to loosen economic sanctions on Belarus. The EU lifted most of its sanctions against the country last February.