August 18, 2020
On the 29th of July, I entered an elegant 19th-century mansion in Hütteldorf, the neighborhood in Vienna where the Belarusian embassy is located. For the next two weeks, its ornate main hall would become voting station #75. I handed in my application to become an election observer, but the election commission members, all embassy employees, did not know how to proceed; they looked lost. It seemed that I was the first independent election observer they had encountered.
Meanwhile, thousands of people across Belarus were trying to become election observers. This effort to maximize participation in the elections through making use of existing if limited official frameworks was part of the strategy of all the opposition candidates. The first wave of voluntary participation took the form of applications for membership in local election commissions – the units that organize the election process on the ground. The decision as to whom to accept, however, was made by not on the local level, but by the higher-level authorities who blocked almost all independent applicants. Among thousands of volunteers, only a handful were able to participate. The Belarusian embassy in Vienna also declined an independent aspirant to membership in the local commission.
However, the observers, whose mandate is very limited, are accredited simply upon providing a proper application. To cope with citizens’ enthusiasm, the Central Election Commission (CEC) introduced on July 22 the notorious Decree 115 which limited the number of observers present at a voting station, justifying this restriction with the coronavirus. This seemed suspicious in a country that famously did not introduce any lockdown or restrictions on mass gatherings. The commissions now could include on the top of their lists their own loyal observers who had received priority access. In small polling stations like ours in Vienna, only two observers were allowed. Even with these limitations, the grassroots initiative “Honest people” and the online platform ZUBR (named after a national symbol – a bison) managed to create a vibrant network for communication, training, support, and data-sharing among independent observers.
At the embassy in Vienna, I told the commission that I would not leave the hall until they considered my application. They went in and out of the room with their official documents and journals for about two hours. Finally, they returned, announcing that they had registered me under number 3 in the journal of accreditation of observers. This meant I would not be able to remain in the voting hall at the most crucial moments as the first two observers were prioritized. While talking with a commission member on my way out, I asked him when those two election observers had registered. His face changed as he stammered out: “yesterday”. The next day, a friend of mine, Timofei, was accredited as №4. We agreed on a joint schedule to cover a major part of the early voting, the extended period from the 4th to the 8th of August when willing voters can make their choice, and the main election day, Sunday 9 August. At all embassies, including that in Vienna, security measures were made stricter: telephones, cameras, and any recording devices were prohibited. While the official explanation was security concerns, the restrictions appeared to be a tool to sabotage Golos (an alternative system of voting count through photos of ballots) and the work of observers.
During the elections, most of the time, for many hours, I was observing through the fence in the street as the places inside were occupied by the first two “observers.” The latter, it turned out, lacked even a vague idea about election law or the function of observers; they did not even pretend to play any role. Still, even from outside, it was possible to register voter turn-out and to count ‘white ribbons’ – an agreed-upon symbol for ‘signaling’ a vote for the opposition to Lukashenko. Controlling turnout was especially crucial in Belarus itself, as early voting provides especially good conditions for falsifying votes as the possibilities for meddling with ballot boxes are virtually unlimited. The data from independent observers demonstrated that the ‘official’ early voting turnout was claimed to be twice what it actually was. Independent observers also provided information to citizens abroad on voting rights and procedures through multiple public Telegram and Watsup chats, as the information from embassies was often incomplete and partially misleading.
On the main election day, the continuous flow of voters at the Belarusian Austrian embassy lasted from 8:00 in the morning until 18:00 in the evening. Many were dressed in white and red. The stream of white ribbons sometimes went uninterrupted for tens of people. At noon, there was a demonstration with songs and demands for fair elections in front of the embassy building. The members of the commission became visibly nervous.
As the embassy let in only one or two persons at a time, people were queuing for more than an hour to cast their votes. More than 300 voted in total that day. It was a stroke of good luck that, at our polling station, everyone who came to vote managed to do it. The suddenly heightened security measures at the embassies with special units brought from Belarus also served as a means of voters’ suppression: in Prague, Warsaw, Moscow, for instance, many Belarusians who came to the embassies did not manage to cast their ballots. As independent observers, we were denied access to the voting count, though we filed several complaints and suggestions about how we could still observe through the big French windows of the hall.
Finally, around 22.30, the election committee came outside into the street, where I and Timofei were waiting. They handed us the copies of the protocol: 69% for Tikhanovskaya. This roughly met our most conservative estimates based on counting the white ribbons. In Prague, where observers were allowed, only 5% of votes were cast for Lukashenko.
Timofei and I shook hands and hugged; we were celebrating and thanking each other for these days of stressful work. The fate of the election observers in Belarus was much more dramatic: dozens were detained, threatened, and imprisoned. Nothing prevented the Central Election Commission from making the outlandish report of Lukashenko’s landslide victory. However, the work of observers facilitated fair counting at some local stations and provided an essential source of data on the turnout, alternative vote tallies, and violations of voters’ rights and election procedures. Thanks to the many documented testimonies and systematic collecting and publicizing of evidence, the drastic scale of falsifications has been exposed.
Volha Biziukova is a PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at University of Vienna. She received her MA degree at the Central European University and her BA at the Belarusian State University.
Currently she is Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.