Updated at 01:25,03-03-2021

Who'd be an MP in Europe's 'last dictatorship'?

Mikalai Anishchanka, The Guardian

Belarus has Europe’s poorest democratic credentials, but in elections this weekend, a new generation of candidates are talking quietly of change

In a country nicknamed “Europe’s last dictatorship”, where no one knows the name of their local MP, let alone what they do all day, running for parliament is a curious undertaking.

Belarus, where Europe’s longest-serving leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled for 22 years, is to elect a new parliament on Sunday and 37-year-old Andrey Kozik is one of a self-proclaimed new generation of politicians hoping to gain a seat.

On the campaign trail in Minsk this week, Kozik, a lawyer, admitted that the notion of representative democracy was still unfamiliar to most citizens.

“While campaigning, I have visited thousands of apartments, and no man could recollect the name of their MP,” he said.

Unlike most parliaments in Europe, Belarus’s lower house performs a largely symbolic role. In the last four years, it has drafted just three bills and acts mostly as a formal body where presidential decrees receive trouble-free approval.

But this doesn’t deter Kozik, who believes he can affect real change. He is running on a campaign promising “peaceful change” in Belarus, but is quick to make clear this does not align him with the opposition, which he said had discredited itself by challenging the authorities “for the mere aim of opposing”.

Kozik comes from a powerful political family. His father, Leonid, was the co-author of the declaration of independence drawn up before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Twenty years later, Leonid Kozik became head of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, the Soviet-era structure which still represents 96% of working Belarusians, and frequently cracks down on any opposition to Lukashenko within the state trade unions.

Who'd be an MP in Europe's 'last dictatorship'?

Kozik sets up in central Minsk on Thursday. Photograph: Mikalai Anishchanka

A recent report by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said the most recent presidential election, held in October last year, showed Belarus had a “considerable way go to” on democratic standards. It pointed to the lack of safeguards against multiple voting, the limited choice for voters and the uneven playing field between Lukashenko and his rivals.

But Kozik says he wants to distance himself from this image of Belarusian politics – and from his father’s legacy. He claims to represent a new group of thinkers educated in a time of independence.

When asked about the message he wanted the country to give to the international community with Sunday’s vote, Kozik said he hoped Belarus would “pass this test for the democratisation of political process”, but added that the country “deeply needs help”.

Though he is comfortable criticising Belarusian politics more generally, Kozik stops short of directing his ire at Lukashenko.

He praised the president’s foreign policy, speaking of his delicate balancing act of allying with Russia while building new friendships in the west. Kozik said he believed the parliamentary election would be dominated by politicians who are able to think of “change within the system”.

But old habits die hard, and after speaking, Kozik asked to approve the transcript of the interview with him.

As the country heads to the polls, there is a palpable agitation on the streets of Minsk. Many express anger at the pro-government politicians running, but direct just as much scorn at the opposition candidates, who they see running each year to no effect.

Across the city, Valery Voronetsky, Belarus’s ambassador to Austria, has also mounted a campaign to win a seat in parliament.

Speaking after a rally on Wednesday evening in a neighbourhood of Minsk, the 53-year-old said he wanted to see “different points of view” in parliament, including those of the opposition, but added, only “if they are pro-Belarusian”.

Who'd be an MP in Europe's 'last dictatorship'?

Valery Voronetsky, Belarus’s ambassador to Austria, speaking at an event in Minsk. Photograph: Mikalai Anishchanka

He didn’t miss the opportunity to stress the importance of relations with Austria, a further sign of the country’s delicate balancing act between the Kremlin’s influence and the rest of Europe.

According to Voronetsky, Austria “has become the second investor for Belarus after Russia”, and has played a key role in lifting European sanctions against Belarus.

Voronetsky stressed that Belarus “is a perfectly European country, with the richest European cultural traditions” and “the richest democratic tradition”.

The EU imposed sanctions against Belarus in 2004, steadily extending them to more individuals and organisations following flawed elections that returned Lukashenko and his supporters to power in a succession of landslides.

But as Belarus slowly attempts to distance itself from Russia, scared by recent events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the image of a fair and democratic election has become all the more important. The results of the vote on Sunday will show how far they are willing to go to truly open up the political landscape.