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Ahead of the presidential elections in Belarus

A summary of New Eastern Europe’s special coverage of the Belarusian presidential elections.

August 7, 2020 - Maxim Rust - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Siarhei Dostan

The Belarusian election campaign is headed for its culmination point with the presidential elections being held this Sunday. The situation in the country is becoming increasingly tense and uncertain. After the high turnout at the election rallies of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the authorities canceled all planned pre-election meetings with her participation. But it did little to halt the ongoing social mobilisation. These canceled events have been replaced with crowds of angry citizens chanting anti-government slogans. Employees of state-owned companies, who could face imprisonment and lose their job, are also joining in the protest.

Early voting is still in progress. According to official results, over 22 per cent of voters took part in the early voting in the first three days. Independent observers disagree with this number and point to numerous violations of electoral law during the process. Observers are focusing on the manipulation of statistics in particular and the fact that the turnout is suspiciously high. Independent observers are being removed from election commissions and their ability to monitor early voting is limited.

There are several independent groups monitoring the vote count. The head of the Belarusian Electoral Commission, Lidziya Yarmoshina announced that all such initiatives (especially the “Holas” (“Voice”) campaign) are illegal and do not comply with Belarusian law. Support for Belarusian civil society has been expressed by representatives of the EU, US and others, who have appealed to the authorities in Minsk for transparent elections and refraining from using violence. Before the elections, authorities have organised a series of concerts throughout the country. Many Belarusian and foreign artists, including several from Russia, have resigned from participating in these events.

From the very beginning of the campaign, we have been running a special cycle of articles and analysis on the Belarusian presidential election in New Eastern Europe. On the eve of the elections, we encourage you to look at this cycle to understand why this year’s campaign has been unique and completely different from any of the previous. One of the most important factors that has influenced the nature and dynamics of this year’s elections was the coronavirus pandemic. Maxim Rust wrote about its course in Belarus and its initial effects. Belarus quickly began to be perceived as the strangest country in Europe – you can read about this in an article by Yahor Azarkevich. An article co-written by these authors describes the specific features of a presidential campaign held in conditions of a pandemic and growing social discontent.

Usually passive in recent years, Belarusian society has begun changing at a very rapid pace. Olga Dryndova presented the key distinguishing features of social change – the unprecedented scale of self-organisation and solidarity. She also paid special attention to the issue and specificity of the process of the politicisation of society and the disappearance of the “social contract” that has been in force for years between the authorities and citizens.

New faces have appeared in this year’s campaign, while the traditional political opposition has become even more marginalised. The most popular candidates, who were called the “candidates of hope”, were those who also came from the circles of the Belarusian establishment. Analyst and political advisor Vitali Shkliarov (who was arrested in Gomel last week and is now in custody) analysed the profiles of the candidates and the peculiarities of this year’s campaign. Belarusians, especially young people, have been brought up in the spirit of “lukashenkism” for over a quarter of a century. And it seems that this has changed irreversibly. Mario Lobo wrote about the shift in social awareness and the importance of this campaign, regardless of the election results

The Belarusian authorities, fearing the growing threat from alternative candidates, started looking for new ways to limit their activity. In addition to the traditional repression and slander, various options were looked into in order to find a way to block the registration of the most dangerous rivals. The process of registering candidates and its analysis can be found in another article by Maxim Rust and Yahor Azarkevich. After the formal start of the campaign in mid-July, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became a new face of the citizens dissatisfied with the government’s policy, with her support growing rapidly. Such a turn of events caused the undisguised nervousness of the Belarusian leader, who during his proclamation to the nation stressed that the state would prevent destabilisation, ready to use force if necessary. You can read more about Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign and Lukashenka’s proclamation in the latest article by Maxim Rust.

The elections will be held on August 9th. Nobody is sure about how they will unfold or how the authorities will react to the planned mass protests in their aftermath. One thing is certain – regardless of the election results, Belarusian society is not what it was just a few months ago. Belarusians from the “homo sovieticus” and ordinary “servants” have become a modern political nation.

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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