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Belarus. Who will win?

President Lukashenka is facing the biggest challenge of his rule. This time the dissent started long before the elections with additional participation of the Belarusian elites and periphery.

July 2, 2020 - Vitali Shkliarov - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Uladzimir Kalada

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of events now taking place in Belarus. For so many people to rise up against the current regime, there has not been anything like this in the country since at least the mid-90s, or perhaps never at all.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus for 26 years. In 1994, as the country experienced an economic downturn following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he came to power as a young opposition candidate. As soon as he gained a foothold in the presidency, however, he immediately began a take over of all government institutions.

Already in 1996, a referendum was held that effectively granted the president dictatorial powers. He completely controlled the country’s parliament, government, courts and election commission. Presidential decrees would quickly carry greater legal force than national laws. In 2004, Lukashenka organised a new referendum related to presidential term limits. As a result, this concept disappeared from the constitution altogether, making him de jure president for life.

He won elections in 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2015 by a landslide, receiving approximately 80 per cent of votes. No one—either inside or outside the country—ever had any doubts that the results of those elections were rigged.

The true level of support for Lukashenka has always remained elusive. Yet up until this spring, the silent majority clearly held the opinion that no real alternative to the incumbent president was available. Batska (The Father – Lukashenka is often known by this nickname in post-Soviet states) has long remained a permanent fixture in national politics.

The coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

At first there were three of them: Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Alyaksandr Lukashenko—the presidents who did not believe in the danger of COVID-19. Trump has now switched his position (at least officially), whilst Bolsonaro still does not believe in the coronavirus. As a result, the Brazilian leader has encountered stiff opposition from local authorities.

In Belarus, the government remains subordinate to Lukashenka at all levels. Therefore, if the president said that there is no danger of coronavirus and that people are actually suffering from “psychosis”, then all officials and civil servants are forced to follow the same view.

But it turned out that there is coronavirus in Belarus. In the absence of any restrictions or evens calls for self-isolation, more and more people started to suffer from infection. Those who suffered most were of course medics: after all, they did not receive any additional help from the state. Since Lukashenka said that the coronavirus was not dangerous, there was no need to buy any personal protective equipment for doctors.

Instead, civil society activists stepped in to help doctors, teachers and older people during the pandemic. They collected money, bought remedies and hot meals, and even delivered essential items to hospitals, schools and elderly people in need.

This is where Lukashenka has perhaps made his greatest error. For two decades, the people have agreed to tolerate him as there was a sort of agreement between the president and the country: he provided security and stability and in exchange no one challenged his lifelong presidency. For many years, Lukashenka has managed to fulfil his part of the agreement. Certainly, the president was so successful that Belarus was sometimes called a ‘time machine’, as he managed to freeze the country at a level of development similar to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. There was no conflict in the country (in contrast to Russia and Ukraine), a low crime-rate and no existing terrorism threat. At the same time, the many young people had the opportunity to go abroad in order to realise their potential. The situation was something like this: those who were comfortable with poverty under Lukashenka lived largely undisturbed in Belarus, whilst those who felt restricted went to the West in pursuit of opportunity. Everything was fine!

But following the appearance of COVID-19, this unwritten understanding has collapsed. It turned out that Belarusian ‘stability’ was not at all the result of Lukashenka’s policies. It was just luck. Consequently, it was only a matter of time before Batska’s luck changed.

On August 9th, the next presidential election will be held. Unexpectedly, fourteen people have decided to run against Lukashenka. At first, it seemed like just another electoral ‘circus’, as to register as a presidential candidate a citizen needs to collect 100 thousand signatures. The population of Belarus is only 9.5 million. Any campaign manager will tell you it is almost impossible to collect 100 thousand signatures in such a small country just in three weeks, especially during an epidemic! This would require tremendous financial and organisational resources.

But a Belarusian miracle happened! Candidates’ teams did not need to go to the people to collect signatures. Instead, people came to them themselves, lining up in kilometre-long queues. These queues have become a new form of protest—the equivalent of a rally or demonstration. Many people who had already provided a signature for their candidate simply returned to the end of the lines in order to further express their dissatisfaction with the government.

It all started with the campaign team of Siarhei Tsikhanouski—a blogger who wanted to run as a presidential candidate. In order to prevent this, the police detained Tsikhanouski and placed him under administrative arrest for 15 days. Due to this, he could not physically visit a polling station in order to declare his intention to start collecting signatures.

Then, instead of Siarhei, his wife Sviatlana visited the election commission. Although Siarhei was later released and continued to lead the campaign.

The Tsikhanouski phenomenon is indicative of affairs in contemporary Belarus. Siarhei ran a video blog. He went to different towns and villages in the country, talked to people and gave them an opportunity to say whatever was on their mind. In a state where media is completely controlled by the government, these videos were a breath of fresh air. Subsequently, Tsikhanouski’s popularity began to grow.

He also used the image of a slipper as a symbol of his campaign. During one of his campaign streams, a woman compared Lukashenka to the eponymous main character of Korney Chukovsky’s fairy tale Cockroach. In this tale, Chukovsky, a Russian writer and poet of the first half of the 20th century, attributes the characteristics of a traditional dictator to this small animal. As a result, big and strong animals, such as elephants and bears, are afraid of the creature and bring him their children so that he can eat them. Although they could, if desired, crush the little dictator without much effort.

The comparison of Lukashenka with Chukovsky’s character also fits in well as a moustache has become an integral part of Lukashenka’s public identity. The word for “moustachioed” in Slavic languages is often associated with cockroaches. Therefore, the slipper, mankind’s traditional weapon in its fight against the cockroach, has become a symbol of protest against the current regime in Belarus.

In order to completely eliminate the threat posed by Tsikhanouski’s campaign, the police have attempted to falsely incriminate him. Now Tsikhanouski is in prison, accused of organising various illegal mass gatherings.

Whilst Siarhei’s wife Sviatlana remains the campaign’s official presidential candidate, his arrest has clearly reduced the chances of anyone from the Tsikhanouski family becoming the president of Belarus.

Now, the former chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, Viktar Babaryka, has stolen the electoral spotlight. Unlike Tsikhanouski, Babaryka is a representative of the Belarusian establishment. Belgazprombank has long been the base for hydrocarbon trade transactions through which the country’s budget has been filled for many years (Belarus’s revenue has largely come from buying oil and gas from Russia at a discount and then selling it to Europe at market prices). Nevertheless, he decided to speak out against his boss—Lukashenka. Queues many kilometres long have now appeared in support of Babaryka’s team in many cities of Belarus. Whilst 100 thousand signatures are required for official nomination, Babaryka has collected 435 thousand!

Almost unsurprisingly, it appears that Viktar Babaryka now also faces a criminal case against him. It is not exactly clear of what he is accused, as the articles remain undisclosed, though law enforcement has suggested that money laundering, corruption and the withdrawal of bank funds abroad is a key part of the case. On June 18th, he was arrested and put into a jail run by Belarus’s KGB. It is no secret to anyone that this case is highly political. TV reports which describe Babaryka as a villain and a thief do not even enjoy the trust of state employees—Lukashenka’s traditional electorate.

Babaryka’s arrest resulted in an unexpected outcome. Now people have turned their attention to the ongoing elections and the campaign of Valery Tsepkala, another strong opposition candidate. Tsepkala is an experienced diplomat, well known in the West as for his diplomatic work in Washington. Since 2005, he has managed the High-Tech Park—Belarus’s so-called ‘Silicon Valley’, where many successful IT companies operate. He is also a representative of a powerful section of the elite who now oppose Lukashenka.

Events in the country are developing rapidly and it is still too early to draw any conclusions. Despite this, several key features of the current protest in Belarus are already obvious.

Firstly, a great public feeling of dissatisfaction with the regime has now truly appeared in Belarus. This is not only true in large cities but also in small settlements, which are not traditionally engaged with politics.

Secondly, people are not so much interested in who will become the next president—the main thing for most people is that Lukashenka should not continue as leader. Therefore, people support whatever candidate is currently the strongest rival of the incumbent president.

That is why it will be very difficult to suppress this new wave of protest: it cannot be fully stopped as it is a rather grassroots movement. The protesters have neither a headquarters nor a leader. In fact, a significant part of the population that is rebelling against the regime is united by only one idea—Lukashenka must leave. As one opposition leader is eliminated, another one immediately takes their place.

Six independent candidates have managed to collect the required number of signatures, whilst four others did not. However, these four did not officially withdraw from the race. If necessary, therefore, one of them could take over as opposition figurehead should all of the candidates who managed to collect signatures be eliminated. It is crucial to understand that even if Lukashenka is able to put all of the current candidates in jail, other leaders may immediately appear, even if they are not official presidential candidates.

Now the members of Babaryka’s team—although the candidate himself is in prison—have released a video in which they have proposed holding a referendum demanding the return of the 1996 constitution. To organise a referendum, it is necessary to collect 450 thousand signatures. For a long time, this was considered impossible in Belarus. However, following Babaryka’s success in collecting 435 thousand signatures, these old beliefs are now being challenged.

It appears that for Lukashenka, there is no way to positively counteract this growing pressure. All that remains is to arrest protest leaders one by one and disperse rallies by force. In principle, it should not be assumed that Lukashenka is scared of these ongoing troubles. After previous elections in 2015 in which he won by a landslide, there were mass protests. Then, Lukashenka managed to address this challenge to his authority. Quite simply, many people received prison sentences and protests were suppressed. Perhaps he hopes that this time everything will follow a similar pattern: the protests will be vibrant, but in the end they will stop.

Perhaps this is true. But the current situation is fundamentally different to previous displays of opposition in the country in a number of ways.

For example, this time protests have begun long before the election! Previously, people only took to the streets after Lukashenka’s victory had been announced due to widespread suspicions of vote rigging. It was a natural reaction to an act of clear deception. Now, people are certain in advance that they will be tricked, with many people now wishing to prevent the seemingly inevitable electoral fraud.

At the same time, the Belarusian periphery is now becoming involved in politics. This has resulted in an interesting situation. On the one hand, only protests in Minsk—the capital—can really change the situation in the country. But, on the other hand, Minsk police are the only force capable of ‘competently’ dispersing activists. The police tend to act tough, but avoid excessive violence, only using their fists and batons. Police in the provinces, however, do not know how to properly do this. Should violence in the periphery escalate and potentially result in injuries or even deaths, it would inevitably lead to an explosion of discontent in Minsk. The regime would subsequently be under serious pressure.

Of course, a lot will depend on the police officers themselves. There are many young people among them—they are practically the same guys who stand in protest queues. They watch the same videos on YouTube, they see their former classmates swinging slippers and they cannot help but wonder where they truly belong in this situation.

Furthermore, this time it is not only ordinary citizens who are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current president but also representatives of the elites. Babaryka and Tsepkala are Lukashenka’s natural allies. They have lived very well under his regime and they could have easily continued to live their comfortable lives into old age. It turns out, however, that even they are tired of the president!

Finally, the current protests differ from previous ones in another important way. As aforementioned, for a long time many dissatisfied Belarusians had a simple means of escaping the country and its situation. They often left for Moscow, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Poland, or other foreign countries. Now, however, coronavirus has severly limited the ability of young people to travel to other countries. Of course, this group will not simply accept a life under Lukashenka’s rule. Many of them are now ready to actively oppose the power of Batska.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka is an experienced tactician who knows the people he governs very well. Of course, he will not simply wait until he is thrown off the throne. He is attempting to turn the odds in his favour and this has already been made clear by the arrests of Tsikhanouski and Babaryka.

With the help of his media, he is now attempting to popularise the belief that some unnamed ‘Russian oligarchs’ are responsible for the protests. In his opinion, this rhetoric should prove attractive to Western governments, as well as many of the protesters themselves. Pro-Western sentiment in the country enjoys much greater support than any pro-Russian tendency.

So far, however, this strategy has not resulted in much success. Inside Belarus, no one trusts his statements. In the West, many governments are taking a cautious approach to the unfolding situation. On June 19th, an agreement was signed on the mutual recognition of visas between Belarus and Russia. This shows that there is no visible tension in relations at the moment.

In other words, Lukashenka knows perfectly well that it is the Belarusian people who oppose him and not some unseen foreign force. The people also know this. The pieces are arranged and both sides now look at each other with great hostility from their own side of the board. Without a doubt, this ‘game’ will prove to be very difficult and interesting.

Translated by Yahor Azarkevich and Maxim Rust

Dr. Vitali Shkliarov is a Harvard University fellow, an expert in U.S.-Russian relations, an award-winning political strategist, and a campaign manager. He was senior adviser to many opposition and presidential candidates in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine. He lives in Washington, D.C. and has worked on both Barack Obama’s and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns.

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