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26 February 2024, 09:54

Head of SCO Observation Mission: You see quality in everything in Belarus

The single voting day is over. In addition to national observers, the parliamentary and local elections in Belarus were observed by foreign missions. Their representatives visited polling stations, talked to people, and assessed the voting process. What principles are international observers guided by? What is the main thing in their work? Can the election assessment standards be made universal? Is there anything that surprises in Belarus? Just a couple of hours before the polls closed, BelTA spoke with Deputy Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Head of the SCO Observation Mission Nurlan Yermekbayev about this and more. 

We know that these days in Belarus were very busy for you. You and your colleagues visited polling stations in Minsk and in other cities. Will you please tell us how you assess the situation at these elections and, if possible, share some impressions of Belarusians and Belarus? As far as we know, you have not been to our country for a long time, and perhaps a lot has changed since then. 

Indeed, I am very glad to come to Belarus after a long absence. I was here more than 15 years ago. But, both then and now, Belarus surprises and amazes by quality, if I should describe it in one word. You feel the quality in everything. Over the years, the country has made very big positive progress. Not only externally, but also in terms of content, i.e. in the level of people's training, in the level of organization of manufacturing, sport, social welfare sector, in the level of processional skills, the level of culture, the development of sport. In all sectors, you see the progressive development, as they say, with the naked eye. That's my first impression. 

As for your question about Belarusians, they are fraternal people for us. For all SCO member states, this is a friendly nation. I just remember this from childhood - we have always known Belarusians as very open, kind, hospitable people. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has nine member states. There are a total of 26 members of the SCO family, including observers and dialogue partners. Everyone shares this view that the people of Belarus are very hospitable, open, kind and honest. It is therefore with great satisfaction that we are working here as observers. 

How did you assess the situation at the polling stations? Did people have the opportunity to freely express their will? In general, what would you like to say about the atmosphere of these elections? 

The SCO observation mission is tasked with assessing the course of the electoral process. Not the results of the voting, not the results of the elections, but the electoral process proper. Only from the point of view of compliance with international treaties, obligations and national electoral legislation, i.e. the legislation of the country in question. Since any election is an internal affair of every state, it is conducted first and foremost by the people themselves and for the people. 

Therefore, we do not interfere in any internal issues or the competences of government bodies. We evaluate the process based on personal observations, conversations and information received not only from government agencies, but also from public organizations, from individuals, and, first of all, facts. We assess the compliance with the national legislation and international obligations. 

In this regard, the members of our observation mission, who were divided into eight groups and who were assigned various sites and polling stations for visits, note that the organization of the electoral process itself was at a fairly high level. This must be objectively recognized. This is manifested in the widespread awareness of the population. In open access to the necessary information. In polling stations, their level of equipment and facilities, their location, and level of professional skills of members of election commissions.

We talked to members of election commissions and observers, asking different and unexpected questions at different polling stations. We received competent answers to all questions. 

We know that Belarus holds special training courses for members of election commissions. Election commissions comprise not only employees of the public sector but also representatives of various parties and public organizations.

The same goes for national observers. There are self-nominated observers and also representatives of public organizations and various parties.

In our opinion, all the international election requirements were met in Belarus. There might have been some slight technical differences in some polling stations. But they in no way have affected the legitimacy and fairness of the elections, or the freedom of expression of people's will. For example, the color of the partitions in the cabins or the height of the ramps for wheelchair users, some other small technical differences.

Members of the observation mission do not receive instructions either from the authorities of the countries that send them or from the head of the mission. They act independently, objectively and impartially. This is how the mission works. According to the members of the observation mission, so far there have been no violations that could have affected the course and results of the elections. 

What is the algorithm of work of an observation mission? What is the outcome of the election observation methodology? 

The final report is the most important document of an observation mission. This report is prepared collectively by all observers who are part of our mission. Any observer has the right to make additions or express disagreement. All opinions are taken into account. This final report is usually made public after the Central Election Commission has announced the election results.

By the way, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko made an interesting point during the media scrum: when OSCE observers came to monitor the previous elections, they brought a pre-written version of their final statement. The findings in the statement were critical.  When the final version was publicized, its text coincided word by word with the version prepared beforehand, i.e. these people were already biased by the time they arrived. I am sure things are absolutely different with SCO observers. Do you think it is necessary to promote at the international level, including with the participation of the SCO, the development of certain universal election evaluation standards, in order to make sure that this evaluation is as objective as possible, and not politically biased, which is sometimes the case with some observer missions?

I am not going to assess the work of other missions. These elections are also being monitored by the CIS mission; there are also independent observers from various countries, including European ones.

If we talk about the SCO mission, our fundamental principle is political neutrality, objectivity, impartiality and freedom from any external pressure – be it from government bodies or any third states or organizations.

Therefore, we have not brought here any pre-written statements. This does not make much sense, because we do not know the number of voters on voting lists and the turnout. Although numbers can be inserted into the prepared text any time. But we cannot know in advance what impression observers will have of elections. We cannot dictate our own terms or will to them.

Therefore, we start writing the text of the statement on the first day of our stay. We do it step by step, based on the information that we receive. There can be people who coordinate our work with other observers.

As for some uniform international standards, history shows that it is necessary to take into account specifics of a particular state, their culture and mentality.

It's like a human body. There are no absolutely identical bodies. Likewise, each country has its own people, mentality, history, historical memory, and culture. All this leaves an imprint on domestic and foreign policy. Therefore, how can everyone fit into the same template?

The same goes for elections. As I have already said, elections are conducted by the people and for the people. Therefore, electoral laws are drawn by the people, discussed by the public, approved by the parliament, and submitted for approval to the head of state. These laws reflect and formalize the will of the people. Therefore they must be observed. I personally do not think that we need to develop any global unified standards. And I believe that it is up to each state to decide whether to invite election observers, as well as who to invite, what organizations and what states.

There are states that do not invite anyone to monitor their elections. There are also states that invite a very wide range of observers. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has members with completely different forms of government. There is no monarchy, though. So, there are presidential republics, parliamentary republics, Islamic states, secular states. Therefore, it is simply impossible to apply uniform standards to all.

Yet, our organization sticks to the principles of the so-called Shanghai spirit. One of such principles, which all SCO states follow, is respect for the diversity of cultures of SCO member states. In our organization, we always try to find consensus, come to terms. If that does not work, we try to meet each other halfway, find common ground, rely on common views.

Our organization does not work against any other organization or country. This is not a military-political bloc. We monitor elections taking into account nation-specific characteristics. I personally think there is no need to establish any single global order or standards.

You said that the decision to invite observers is a matter of good will. Belarus consistently demonstrates it, inviting foreign observers and various observation missions. How do you assess, and how does the SCO assess the very fact of it? The fact that a foreign election observation mission has the opportunity to come and physically see everything on the ground. Does this contribute to strengthening political trust in the organization?

This is a very good and relevant question. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization perceives an invitation to monitor elections as a sign of trust, and above all, as the country’s desire to show how open it is and ready to listen to what we have to say.

This means this country is willing to pay heed to the opinion of our organization and its member states. Therefore, we take it as a sign of trust and openness. And this also means that if you invite observers and want to hear their opinion, it means that you are willing to change. This means you want to further improve this electoral process.

Belarus has recently completed internal procedures that are needed to join the SCO as a full member and has become party to a number of documents of the organization. How do you evaluate the work done? And when do you believe Belarus will be able to join the organization?

Yes, indeed, we all hope, and there is every reason for that, that in the near future the Republic of Belarus will become a full-fledged member state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Although Belarus is not a newcomer to the SCO. It has been an observer state for a long time, and during this time it has shown itself, probably, no less actively than the member states of the organization, making various good proposals and initiatives. That is why all SCO member states unanimously supported Belarus’ desire to become a full member.

For its part, Belarus has very promptly and efficiently fulfilled all the necessary procedures and acceded to all the international treaties in force within the SCO. By March 2024 all the member states will have completed the procedures necessary to submit the relevant documents to the foreign ministers, which they, in their turn, submit to the heads of state. In accordance with this procedure, we expect the Republic of Belarus to become a full member of the SCO this year.

We are talking about the summit in Astana this summer, right?

Absolutely right. Kazakhstan is currently chairing the SCO. By tradition and by order, the state that completes its SCO chairmanship holds a meeting of the Council of Heads of State on its territory. At the forthcoming meeting of the Council of Heads of State to be held in Kazakhstan (the exact dates will be known later, it usually takes place in June-July), we hope that a decision will be taken to make Belarus a full-fledged member of the SCO.

We realize that cooperation is impossible without addressing security issues. This is exactly what you specialize in in the chairmanship of the organization. In this regard, a question is whether the SCO can become one of the key contractors in the settlement of military conflicts on the Eurasian continent. After all, now we see that various military conflicts lead to sanctions, logistical disruptions and other problems that have a negative impact on cooperation. This is where the SCO has a direct interest.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization includes states that are very active in the international arena, which play an important role in ensuring not only regional but also global international security. Each member state individually and all SCO member states together contribute to ensuring security and stability in our regions. This is no longer one region, but a transregional organization.

This is one of the most important areas of the SCO's activities. In this regard, the SCO is making its contribution to this process. First of all, this is done in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, in accordance with international norms of international law. Secondly, through regular and ministerial meetings.

If we are talking about political security, these are regular meetings of foreign ministers, annual meetings of heads of state, where they invariably discuss and reconcile their positions and exchange proposals on international security issues, including assistance in resolving armed conflicts.

There are issues that are not on the agenda of the SCO international organization. Such issues are in the pipeline. This however does not mean that SCO member states are not actively engaged in addressing these issues. We are now talking about collective work based on consensus within the entire organization. For example, by decision of all member states, if none of them object, a representative of the organization (usually a representative of the presiding state or the SCO Secretary General) participates in various international events and conferences where issues of conflict resolution are discussed and relevant proposals and decisions are made.

There is another important point, in my opinion, in terms of promoting security. There is a regional anti-terrorist structure (RATS) within the SCO. Its executive body is located in Tashkent. This structure is authorized to carry out work to counter three types of threats. These are terrorism, extremism and separatism.

RATS is actively engaged in this, in cooperation with the competent authorities of all SCO member states. There is an exchange of information and coordination of activities.

Not long ago, the president of Belarus came up with an initiative to hold a joint summit of the SCO, BRICS and the Eurasian Economic Union. Belarus in general has recently been very focused on the development of cooperation with the countries within the SCO and BRICS. Do you think that the idea of such a triple summit is accomplishable?

Regarding the proposal by President of the Republic of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko, regarding the possible holding of such a summit of the SCO, BRICS and the Eurasian Economic Union, its implementation depends on the decision of the SCO member states. In accordance with the fundamental principle of the SCO, if all states come to a consensus, the issue is resolved. This initiative is being considered, studied by the SCO member states. So let us wait for a decision. My personal opinion is that the initiative is good and deserves consideration.

Thank you for your time. All the best in your future work.
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