The SI Committee for the CIS, the Caucasus and the Black Sea held a two-day meeting in Minsk on 8-9 November 2019, hosted by the SI member party in Belarus, Narodnaya Gramada. The agenda of the meeting focused on the current priorities for social democratic parties in the region, incorporating reports and exchanges on the national situation faced by each of the member parties represented. Discussions continued on democracy and its institutions in the CIS, the Caucasus and Black Sea, overcoming conflicts and securing peace, and continuing to strengthen social democracy in the region. The meeting was chaired by Mikalai Statkevich (Belarus, Narodnaya Gramada), Araz Alizadeh (Azerbaijan, SDPA) and Alexandra Dobolyi (Hungary, MSzP), the co-chairs of the committee.
The meeting was addressed at its opening by Luis Ayala, SI Secretary General, who recalled the long commitment of the SI to Belarus and the engagement of its member party within the global social democratic political family. Noting that exactly thirty years had passed since the fall of the Berlin wall, he reiterated that social democracy had always been on the side of freedoms, rights and democratic change, and that social democratic parties now existed across the CIS, where they faced complex challenges. Progress towards democracy had not gone as expected in some regions of the world, including this one, making the vision of social democrats necessary in the absence of free and fair elections in a number of post-Soviet countries. Even within democratic systems, neoliberalism had exacerbated the difference between rich and poor, creating increasing inequality which in turn caused democracy to suffer.
Mikalai Statkevich, chair of the host party and co-chair of the committee, gave his warm greetings to all participants and his thanks to the SI and its members for their support and solidarity over many years during which he and his party had struggled for democratic rights and freedoms in Belarus. He described the situation in the country under an authoritarian system where one person had been in power for 25 years, the parliament was merely decorative and elections rigged in favour of the ruling party, with a judicial system that was completely subordinate to the regime.
In preparation for the presidential election campaign of 2020, Narodnaya Gramada was fighting for the right of Mikalai Statkevich to be a candidate. Following his release in 2015, after more than four years as a political prisoner, his rights had been restricted for a further eight years, during which time he would be prohibited from participating in elections. As long as the dictator was allowed to appoint rivals for himself, society would be denied the change to get rid of him, but Statkevich nonetheless considered that dramatic changes were inevitable in Belarus, and the party was building up strength, with the support and solidarity of its friends around the world, to be in a position to make those changes positive for the country and its people.
The committee offered its wholehearted support to Statkevich and Narodnaya Gramada as they prepared for upcoming elections, confident that the forthcoming meeting of the SI Council would give its backing to their efforts, demanding that the coming electoral processes would be closer to being fair and democratic than in the past. The SI Secretary General said that the SI would make full use of its international profile and platform to draw the attention of the world to the lack of democracy, rights and freedoms in Belarus, to have a strong international presence in the country and mobilise international institutions to secure free and fair elections in Belarus in 2020.
Further perspectives on the lack of solidarity, freedom and justice in Belarus were heard on the second day of the meeting from trade unionist Gennady Fedynich, who reported on the pressures faced by members of his union. He had been prevented from attending the opening session of the meeting due to being under house arrest, a status that had been created by the government in order to claim that there were no political prisoners. He considered that the state had abandoned its people, and that urgent reforms were needed in pensions and salaries to raise living standards in the country.
The committee received a report from the delegation of the SDPK of Kyrgyzstan on recent developments in that country, where there had been a deterioration in the political situation following the detention of former president Almazbek Atambayev, with reports of arrests of many in the leadership of the party, physical beatings in prison and barriers to the activity of the party. The SDPK, having been the first party in the post-Soviet region to come to power from opposition, now continued to operate as an opposition party as there had been a move away from democracy and towards a clan-oriented politics in recent years.
In response to the political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, the committee decided that an SI delegation should travel to the country in the immediate future to hold dialogue with representatives of the government of Kyrgyzstan, the SDPK and former president Almazbek Atambayev in order to carry out a full assessment of the true situation in the country. The SI could not accept that one of its member parties be destroyed, and would be fully engaged, putting clear demands to the actors in the political process in Kyrgyzstan and mobilising the international community and institutions to give the political crisis there the attention it deserves.
On Azerbaijan, co-chair of the committee Araz Alizadeh reported that increases in the social budget and rises in the minimum wage were not enough. He considered that true democracy was far from being achieved in all countries of the CIS, where politicians had not been successful in finding the key to the hearts of their people. The SDPA would soon take part in municipal elections on a platform of trying to increase the rights of the municipal authorities. His view was that the country could see more progress if the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh was resolved.
In the short period since the previous committee meeting there had been significant changes in Armenia, where a wave of protests had taken place in April 2018. At parliamentary elections in December 2018, a new alliance had been elected with an unprecedented 70% of the vote, and for the first time the SI-member ARF-D was not represented in parliament. Nonetheless, the party continued to advocate for all reforms to be based on the constitution of Armenia, in order to ensure objectivity in the transition processes, and believed in the separation of powers in the country in favour of the establishment of real democracy.
Following the investiture of a new president in Kazakhstan in March 2019, the country was going through an awakening as people realised they have a will and a vote and could create change. As the only registered opposition party, the SI-member OSDP was working to bring about a change to the situation, with the majoritarian electoral system facing a crisis. Askhat Rakhimzhanov, the new chair of OSDP, reported on the changes that had taken place within the party and the challenges it had was currently facing.
Recent electoral processes in Russia had seen positive results for A Just Russia party in Moscow, St Petersburg and Sevastopol, with an increase in the number of regional deputies elected. The party was focusing its energies on the continuation of its parliamentary campaigning and actions to put pressure on the ruling party, with all parties in Russia currently getting ready for elections in 2020. The party was against the social injustice that had provoked the recent protests in Moscow, but had not taken part in the rallies organised by other opposition forces.
The recent changes in Ukraine were outlined in the context of the authoritarian regime the country had inherited upon independence and the move towards oligarchy in the 1990s, when power was conceded to businesses and the rich. The election of President Zelensky was truly unexpected and represented a victory for the people over the oligarchic system, but the overall state of affairs had yet to change with no improvement in the general situation in the country. One important reform that was needed was the elimination of the financial conditions imposed on political parties to participate in national campaigns, to enable access for all parties, including the SI-member SDPU.
The SI Secretary General reported that he had also been in contact with SI member parties in Georgia (SDD) and Moldova (PDM), who sent their greetings to the committee. In the case of Moldova, the political situation in the country was particularly complex with the scheduling of a crucial parliamentary session on the days of our meeting, therefore a representative of the PDM could not travel to Minsk.
Discussions on democracy in the region focused on the challenges still faced with establishing a truly democratic system more than two decades on from independence. During the exchanges, Alexandra Dobolyi (MSzP, Hungary, co-chair of the committee) noted that those in the west of Europe had started to see her country as an eastern dictatorship, while in the east it was considered a western democracy, highlighting the importance of placing the struggle for democracy across the region in the correct context. Although the level of democratisation varies from country to country, there are common challenges in the way the electoral process was often staged in order for those who hold power to maintain their grip.
Several interventions focused on the crucial role that democratic institutions have in face of a political system that is engineered to hinder the democratic transfer of power. Although the problems of countries of the former Soviet Union were not identical and elections organised differently, the lack of strong and independent institutions was a recurrent problem. Social democratic parties of the region need to cooperate and share experiences of how elections were organised, and how to effectively monitor and observe electoral processes. Another crucial challenge for social democrats would be to harness the opportunities presented by the democratisation of information. Young people were more aware than ever of the world beyond national borders, they were being politicised, and would not settle for the rigid and authoritarian structures of the past. Social democratic parties should be the voice of this generation and the architects of democratic change in the CIS region, as they had done in other regions of the world over many decades.
The lack of democracy and accountability in the region was also identified as a factor which contributes to the lack of progress on resolution of conflicts. Historical context could also be a major obstacle to international cooperation, with negative attitudes to different nationalities and ethnic groups often based on past injustices and disputes. By going through a process of reconciliation and addressing historical grievances, it was possible to turn a page on past actions and work for a mutually beneficial and peaceful future relationship.