“To see it with my own eyes”. Interview with a former independent election observer
Over 43 000 observers monitored the election procedure and counting of the ballot papers during the presidential elections in Belarus held between the 6th and 11th of October 2015. However, not all of them were independent or from non-governmental organizations as the majority had some connection to the state. One day before this year's main voting day, we conducted an interview with Yury Bachyshcha, an independent observer who monitored the presidential elections back in 2006. Because of his activities he was fired from the Belarusian State Pedagogical University. Violations similar to those he observed 9 years ago have been witnessed also this autumn.
Now, Bachyshcha is working as an associated professor at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, though he mostly lives in Minsk. At the EHU he teaches History of Belarus and Religious and Cultural Heritage of Belarus.
In 2006, Bachyshcha decided to become an independent observer at a polling station in Minsk. All he needed to do was to collect around 20 signatures. Thus, he just asked his neighbors and friends to sign for him. In 2015 he won't observe the elections. He adds: “I’m also not going to vote. There are no free elections in our country.”
What were your tasks as an observer in 2006? What did you see at the polling stations?
During the first days I was totally free to watch the ballots. The election commission allowed me to observe the whole process. They gave me access to all documents. I noticed was that the number of ballot papers was lower than the number of voters who were supposed to vote at my polling station. Next, the list of voters contained people who were not Belarusians while only Belarusians are allowed to vote in a presidential election. I just asked the commission to correct this and they did the following day. I didn't hand in any complaints by that time. Then, on the third day, they said that they had allowed me too much. On the last day I observed more violations of the law. For example, it was not possible to see the whole counting process - and I could see the lists where the numbers of votes were to be written down. The paper had already been signed by members of the election commission but without any figures. How could they sign it before knowing the exact numbers? I didn't ask any provoking questions as I understood that it was useless when other observers were pro-government.
Who were the people in the commission and the other observers?
I was the only one during first days of voting. On the main voting day six other observers appeared at the station. Since I was observing for the first time, I thought it was normal. Later, however, when I started speaking to other people I understood that those “observers” were just sent to put pressure on me and to contradict my complaints. Almost all the observers were somehow connected to the company Galanteya, which produces leather goods, or from pro-governmental organizations. Only one wasn’t from a pro-governmental organization, but from the liberal-democratic party, which supports a pretty disputable candidate, Sergei Gaidukevich. And he liked to drink. On Sunday morning the commission invited all observers for a drink. Of course I didn’t participate. Within an hour of observing the guy from Gaidukevich was already drunk. He even promised me his support if I’d wanted to make an official complaint. I declined. The members of the commission should also be independent. In my case, the whole commission consisted of workers from Galanteya. The head of the commission, if I am not mistaken, was the head of a department of this company.
Did you at last have a chance to make a complaint about that?
When they started putting pressure on me, I went to our regional election commission and wrote one. The election codex says that the election commission must consist of independent people. It is not allowed that the commission is formed by just one company or party. What’s more, I noted the difference between the quantity of ballot papers in the box and voters on the list. But I think that in the end no one ever read observers report. I can’t be sure of course.. The person who took my complaint was a member of the communist party. Still, I have no illusions about the complaints having any impact. I think they were thrown away.
How did the election commission react to your complaints?
On the second day of my observation, I got a call from the head of my department at the university. He was interested what I was doing at the polling station. I was a little bit surprised by this special attention. I just told him that I was an observer and I was doing that during my free time. The other day he called me again and said to me that I was invited to a meeting with the rector of the university. Some pro-rectors of the university also were present at the meeting. They were asking me what I was doing there, whom I represented and if I was a member of a party. I just told them that what I was doing was a legal thing. Asking all these questions they wanted to put me under pressure. Afterwards the head of my department told me that everything would be fine if I won’t observe too actively. Then they asked me to leave the university voluntarily. Since I was not doing anything illegal and was observing during my free time, I replied that I wouldn't quit my job. I also complained about being invited to a meeting with my boss.
On Monday I was in the university and during a seminar someone came into the room and asked me to come outside. I was informed that I was fired from the university due to my immoral behavior. He said one of my students wrote a note that he heard from another student that I was spreading CDs with cartoons of Lukashenko which would discredit him and our country. That wasn't true. I went to the court and said that I was fired without any reasons. They conducted investigations and invited the student who wrote the note. They asked him whether it was true. I requested that they would show me the CDs. I wanted experts to check where and when these CDs had been recorded. It turned out that the CD was recorded at the university in the students' union’s office.
I also went to the Supreme Court here in Belarus, but it didn’t help. Half a year later the judge just took the side of the university and I was fired. It is a pity, but the courts are dependent as well. Now I have a special entry in my working record which says that I was fired because of my immoral behavior. For that reason I can’t be a teacher in Belarus anymore. I tried to find a new place to work. One year after losing my job I was invited to the EHU in Vilnius. One of the professors just gave a part of his workload to me.
Is there a chance to get this entry wiped out from your record?
You know, I think if our state turns into a democratic one, I will have a chance to get rid of it when I go to the court again. Another way is just to lose this working book and start a new one. That would mean to start totally from the scratch. I think there are only these possibilities.
Why did you decide to become an independent observer? How did your environment react on your decision?
I think in some way it was connected with my faith. I am a member of a Christian Church. I just tried to find the truth. I wanted to see with my own eyes what is going on. I made this decision together with my wife and she understood me very well. I was supported by my friends and the church community. Some people even collected money for me while I was unemployed. My parents, however, didn't understand. They live in the countryside, do not have higher education, and are very much influenced by the state-run media. In the beginning I didn’t even tell them why I was fired. They didn’t know that I was an observer since our contact is rather limited and we don’t see each other so often. In some ways they are not so interested in our lives and some things we just don’t tell them.
What did you expect from being an observer? What was your hope?
In 2006, I had the hope that it was in some way possible to change something. I mean there was one democratic candidate, Aleksandr Milinkevich. He was rather appealing to me as an educated person, a Belarusian patriot. I shared his Christian views. So I supported him and I had hope. Of course I had gained some information from others about violations of the election process in 2004 and 2001, but at that time I hadn't participated in the political process. This time I wanted to see it for myself.
After 2006 I just understood that there are no elections in our country. The figures are already set and the votes are not collected properly. The government isn’t interested in our vote. On the evening of the election day in 2006, a protest meeting took place at October Square. People protested against the results of the election and of course I was among them as I had seen it with my own eyes. That is why I didn't go to the polling stations at the elections in 2010. This year I am also not going. I don’t want to waste my time.