Who else, if not me?
Election observers in Belarus need patience, a supportive environment and strong nerves, especially when the election commissions treats them like an enemy. Contrary to the stereotype, there are a lot young observers. With their work all of them could risk their future.
Alena won't be in Minsk on election day this year. "I'm just wondering who else will observe if not me?", worries the 24 year-old former election observer. However her friends Maria and Lena are going to observe the parliamentary elections in different polling stations in Minsk. It will already be their fourth election observation in their home country of Belarus.
Like 450 other domestic independent observers they will receive accreditation from "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections", a joint project of the human rights organization Viasna and the Belarus Helsinki Committee. The previous times they observed, they were prepared by the project Election Observation: Theory & Practise (EOTP), which trains young Belarusians about the election process, electoral fraud and the rights of observers.
Sound of the police
All their parents were worried that something would happen to their children due to their activism as observers. Alena and Lena's parents were supportive and are now even a little bit proud. But Maria remembers: "My mum doesn't want me to observe the elections. She said she is going to lock me up in my room to be sure that I won't sit in the polling station and observe." Obviously, the government closely monitors all activities that are considered a potential threat.
On the day after the parliamentary elections in 2012, Alena and the other observers from EOTP had a meeting in one of Minsk's hostels. The meeting was interrupted by the police, who arrived uninvited and took all the observers to the police station. They held them for a couple of hours, collecting various pieces of information. "The scariest part of this story happened a week later", remembers Alena. The head of her university department invited her in for a conversation and shouted: "What are you doing? We could expel you!" But after this experience, Alena admits: "Nothing will scare me any more."
Fun in times of stress
Most of the women fail to feel sympathy for the people in the election commissions who are partly responsible for falsified elections. For Lena it is fun to observe the elections: "I come to the polling station and I know that I am the only normal person there." The 25 year-old is convinced that she is the only one who knows the whole electoral code as well as her rights. "You know, in normal life, these people from the commission wouldn't listen to me, but at the polling stations they have to. That is what I enjoy," she says. The easiest way to fight these stressful situations is to laugh.
Lena coordinated a group of a 110 young EOTP observers during the presidential election in 2015. They created a secret group on Facebook and communicated via lively and supportive chat on the mobile messenger Telegram - but mostly they just had fun. Last year it was very popular to take selfies at the polling stations, making lists of the most stupid songs played during the day and competing about whose polling station had the cheapest vodka.
The bitter aftertaste
Alena contends that it is no fun at all, that it is just utterly upsetting to see that the commission has written down the wrong numbers or changed the final election result protocols. "They did not even count properly and the commission is completely guilty, it makes you really sad", she despairs. The young women sit in the polling stations for twelve hours and "you can't influence anything", criticises Alena and adds: "You go to the bathroom only for five minutes because you don't want to miss anything. And you know that you did a good job, but the next day you wake up and you know that the numbers have been falsified and the one who has been elected did not deserve it."
After their first observation, Alena, Maria and Lena, all experienced a kind of post-election depression. Alena's sister Ira, who also observed a couple of the last elections, always knew that the elections in Belarus were nor fair or free. "You know it is a matter of fact, like the grass is green, the sky is blue and there are no elections in Belarus. But seeing it with your own eyes is something totally different", the 22 year-old sums up.
If you vote you can't change anything, but if you observe you can at least try
The women admit that over these years of observation things have changed. To be more accurate, the types of violation have changed. Lena remembers: "When we observed in 2012, the commissions didn't let observers come to the table where the counting process happened, they were afraid of observers." Now more frequently observers are allowed to see the whole counting process, "but at the same time they remove observers from polling stations more often", Lena adds.
Spending many hours at the polling station, concentrating every second and not being able to leave the station for more than couple of minutes doesn't sound like the best way to spend their free time. Nevertheless all the women say that they will continue doing this because minor changes can make a big difference, and they have to try to do them. "If you vote you can't change anything, but if you observe you can at least try", believes Lena. On the contrary to citizens who feel it is their duty to vote, the women feel that it is their duty to observe.