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A new united opposition up against a tired president: counting down to the elections in Belarus

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has emerged as the face of the new opposition ahead of the upcoming elections in Belarus, where she has drawn crowds not seen in the country since the 1990s.

August 5, 2020 - Maxim Rust - Articles and Commentary

Maria Kalesnikava, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala. Press photo from the presidential campaign of Viktar Babaryka. (cc)

Last week, the presidential campaign in Belarus gained new dynamics. We wrote about the results of registering of candidates here. Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s major rivals who had the highest popularity and were called “the candidates of hope” were not registered. Viktar Babaryka, the former chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, is currently in custody on charges of economic crimes and recognised as a political prisoner. He collected a record number of signatures for his nomination among all the alternative candidates. From the 367,000 signatures submitted, the Election Commission recognised only 165,000. The official reason he was denied registration was the inconsistency in his income declaration and assistance of a foreign state in financing his campaign. Valery Tsapkala, the second “candidate of hope”, submitted almost 160,000 signatures, while the Election Commission recognised less than 80,000, which automatically excluded him from the presidential race. Fearing arrest, Tsapkala left with his children first to Russia and then to Ukraine.

Following the announcement of these results, mass protests broke out across the country, which were brutally suppressed by OMON (special police forces) and the militia. The expectations of the authorities that the lack of registration of the above-named candidates would undermine the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society were completely disproven and miscalculated. As a result of Tsapkala and Babaryka unable to register in the election, the forces supporting the “candidates of hope” united around Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign was supported by Tsapkala’s wife, Veranika, and Babaryka’s campaign coordinator Maria Kalesnikava. This led to talk in Belarus that the Belarusian revolution would have a female face, and a joint photo of these three amazing women circulated in media around the world.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya suddenly and unexpectedly became the leader of the majority of the protest movement of Belarusian voters. The distinguishing feature of her campaign is that it has no specific political agenda. She claims that her main goal is to change the president, and that she, herself, does not want to be president. The main promise of the candidate is the organisation of free and democratic presidential elections if she wins.

The simple and clear message of the united teams has produced tangible results – crowds come to Tsikhanouskaya’s official pre-election meetings. About 10,000 people gathered at the rally of the candidates in Gomel, over 18,000 in Brest and a record 63,000 participants in Minsk. For Belarus this is a lot. After these mass rallies, the authorities began to limit the opportunities for Tsikhanouskaya’s staff to meet voters in various ways, especially in smaller towns.

Such a run of events provoked unbridled nervousness from the Belarusian leader. During an address to the nation and parliament on August 4th, Lukashenka looked nervous and tired. On the one hand, he said that the authorities make mistakes and that he quite understands the irritation of a certain part of society. But at the same time he emphasised that this was not a reason to vote for “three unfortunate girls” (this is how he described Tsikhanouskaya’s team leaders). In his message, he devoted a lot of attention to young people who, in his opinion, have the right to rebel. But he also warned parents and teachers to look after their children and not to allow acts that would “have tragic and irreversible consequences.” It was a clear warning against participating in potential protest actions after the announcement of the election results.

The president spoke a lot about the poverty of the 1990s, an international conspiracy and threatened with destabilisation and foreign intervention. It is interesting that he indicated Russia as the source of the threat. Thus, he referred to the recent detention of militants from the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group which, according to the authorities, were transferred from Russia in order to destabilise the political situation during the elections.

Two main messages can be inferred from this. First, the alternative candidates either do not understand what they are doing or are “puppets of external forces”. In any case, the president made it clear that “they will not make it”. Second, the state is on full alert to prevent destabilisation and will not hesitate to use force if necessary. The nervous Lukashenka left the stage immediately after the end of the speech, and the audience gave a long standing ovation to an empty platform.

Early voting began on August 4th. This method of voting is considered by international observers and analysts to be one of the tools for unhampered falsification of the election results. Early voting will last five days and the possibility of a reliable observation of this process is extremely limited. In this year’s campaign, the authorities urge citizens to participate in it. Officially it is due to counteracting the coronavirus pandemic, but it is in fact related to the fear of low support for the authorities. The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs urges the foreign ministry to collect votes in advance, because support for the president is the lowest among Belarusians living abroad.

Days before election day, the situation has become very interesting. Yet at the same time it is equally nervous and very uncertain. Civic engagement and activity grows daily while the authorities have all but directly declared they will never give up power. The strong protest mood and social enthusiasm combined with desperate and determined authorities may pan out to be an explosive mixture.

Maxim Rust is a political analyst and researcher of political elites in post-Soviet area. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Warsaw. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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