In his first 15 years in office Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko enjoyed impressive popularity. Elected in 1994, he stood on a platform of breaking with the past. The earthy former collective farm boss won power on a populist anti-corruption platform and reforming the country.
What he delivered on was to maintain a pseudo-Soviet system that protected the populace from the worst ravages of the collapse of the central system. The sanatoria still worked, incomes and jobs were guaranteed and pensions were paid and were enough to support the old. Compared to the chaos in countries such as Russia that suffered a full blown economic collapse, the relative stability of Belarus sustained Lukashenko’s rule for next decade, largely paid for by generous energy subsidies from Moscow that ensured Lukashenko’s loyalty to the Kremlin on foreign policy matters.
But now the transition era is coming to an end. Belarusians watching his increasingly authoritarian approach – rule by decree, clamping down on NGOs, independent media and political opponents – and they are beginning to tire of Lukashenko. The countries around them have flourished after the pain of shock therapies faded. In the Baltics to west the standards of living are on a par with the rest of the EU. Even to the east incomes in Russia have soared, and while the political system remains tightly under the control of the Kremlin, the quality of life has risen dramatically, as have incomes and personal freedoms.
Lukashenko is about to stand for his sixth term in office. With these presidential elections there has been an unprecedented surge in political opposition to Lukashenko, albeit in a very sedate and low-key Belarusian fashion.
Citizens have queued for hours to sign petitions to allow opposition candidates to stand against the president in the upcoming elections in the most open rebellion to Lukashenko’s rule yet.
“I can nearly guarantee you that Lukashenko has less than 50%,” Viktor Babariko said in a recent interview. “That’s what makes these elections unique.”
The dissent is driven by a decade of economic hardship. Since the 2008 global crisis the largely unreformed Belarusian economy has been struggling.
More recently, the cash-strapped Russian government has started to cut down on its energy subsidies. The so-called Russian tax manoeuvre will cost the Belarusian budget up to $3bn in the coming years in lost revenues and the economy doesn't generate enough money on its own to pay for Lukashenko’s neo-socialist state.
The coronacrisis has only catalysed the process. Lukashenko’s refusal to take the epidemic seriously and his advice to his citizens to wash their hands in vodka “and maybe drink a little” has been widely ridiculed while the infection rates exploded.
“The COVID-19 pandemic further eroded trust. Lukashenko denied the gravity of the problem, refused to lock the country down, and allowed football games and a military parade to continue. This was unpopular – an opinion poll in April showed approximately 70% support for strict social distancing measures and the cancellation of all mass events,” Katia Glod wrote in an commentary entitled “Twilight in Belarus.”
The public took matters into its own hands and went into voluntary isolation, but as with an absent parent, small businesses received no support from the state as retail sales collapsed. The failure to inform the public eroded confidence in official statistics and the state-owned media, further undercutting Lukashenko’s ability to form public opinion.
As a result, two creditable opposition candidates have emerged who, if allowed to stand, could oust the incumbent Lukashenko.
The first is the former head of Belgazprombank, Viktor Babariko; the other is the former head of a technology park, Valery Tsepkalo. A third contender, Sergei Tsikhanovski, is often described as Belarus’s “Navalny,” who uses his Youtube channel to give voice to the grievances of people from small towns by engaging with the people directly on social media. With over 235,000 subscribers, Tsikhanovski used his YouTube channel to attract protestors to public rallies under the slogan: “stop the cockroach.”
All three have had run-ins with the authorities, who are determined to stymie their appeal and reach.
Tsikhanovski was jailed on fabricated charges to stop him running and bar him from the elections. Now his wife Svyatlana is trying to run in his stead and has collected thousands of signatures for her candidate application. Another seven opposition figures were arrested along with Tsikhanovski at the start of June as the state cracked down on the opposition. Tsikhanovski was charged with violating public order and assaulting police at a rally to collect signatures in the city of Grodno. Belarus watchers say it is likely he will be held in detention until after the August 9 elections.
According to the nation's Investigative Committee, one of the country's main law enforcement bodies, Tsikhanovski and his supporters had allegedly organised an illegal gathering that resulted in "group actions flagrantly disturbing public order and involving blatant disobedience to lawful police orders". The agency added that two police officers had been hurt in the incident.
Authorities may consider Sergei Tsikhanovski the most dangerous as he takes his message to the street in popular rallies
Babariko is maybe the most popular of the opposition candidates and has campaigned on a platform of strong support for the Belarusian culture, which also means resisting integration with Russia – something Lukashenko has hinted at doing.
Last week Babariko saw his Belgazprombank raided by the police and many members of the senior management arrested on money-laundering charges. Babariko has been CEO of the Russian-owned bank for over 20 years, but was not arrested or indicted himself. He is running for office against Lukashenko and is a popular opposition figure. The bank has been placed in temporary administration by the Central Bank of Belarus (NBB) despite the protestations of Gazprom, its ultimate owner.
Viktor Babariko ran Belgazprombank for 20 years before standing down recently to run in the presidential elections
Tsepkalo is a former member of Lukashenko’s cabinet, one-time Belarusian ambassador to the US, and the head of the highly successful technological park that is responsible for billions of dollars worth of software service exports. He got the idea for a Belarusian technology park after visiting Silicon Valley while he was US ambassador, and became Lukashenko’s advisor for science and technology after returning to Minsk in 2002 and promoting the idea. The park has been a runaway success. In 2017 Lukashenko unexpectedly fired him. He has been working in the private sector for a variety of governments as an IT consultant since.
In many ways Tsepkalo's candidacy is the most surprising, as he is from Lukashenko’s establishment, has served in high office and is now rebelling against the system that he benefited from. It is this background that led some to ask whether the young and hansom diplomat-cum-businessman was simply a straw man being put up by the establishment to deflect the protest vote, but that he would withdraw from the race at the last minute.
Other commentators say Lukashenko is not that sophisticated, but also claim that Tsepkalo is not interested in winning this election and is simply attempting to build up some political capital for when the old man finally leaves office. Russian commentators note that unlike his fellow opposition leaders, Tsepkalo's criticisms of Lukashenko have been mild.
Valery Tsepkalo is from the establishment, a former Belarusian ambassador to the US and ex-head of the High Tech park
Three candidates have submitted the 100,000 signatures needed to stand for election. Lukashenko’s headquarters was the first to announce he had the requisite number of signatures on June 5. The second was Viktor Babariko on June 6, who quit his banking job to run for president.
Former deputy of the lower house of parliament Anna Kanopatskaya has also collected 100,000 names, she says. She tried to run for Parliament last year, but the Central Election Commission (CEC) annulled enough of her signatures on that petition for her to be barred from standing.
A fifth candidate is Natalya Kisel, deputy chairman of the Region Eight Freight Carriers Association, working for the Kisel V.V. transport company. Kisel has not had a public profile as a politician but she has been active in industrial negotiations to solve many industry disputes.
The CEC says there is a total of 15 registered candidates, but has not released a list of all the names. Registration of candidates closes on July 4.
But the people are determined to see some of their own candidates' names on the ballot. In what has been dubbed the “signature revolution” they have queued up for hours in mile-long lines to sign their names to the petitions of the independent candidates. Would-be presidents need to gather a minimum of 100,000 names in order to be eligible to stand in the elections.
Lukashenko strikes back
Lukashenko is not going to go without a fight. He has not been hesitant to put the riot police on the street in the past. The last parliamentary elections were mired by a riot where protestors broke into and occupied the parliamentary building until riot police arrived and brutally cleared them.
The president has warned that he will “not give the country away” and has threatened bloodshed by drawing parallels to Andijan, the Uzbek city where the former Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, ordered police to fire into a crowd of protestors in a 2005 demonstration, killing several hundred and possibility thousands, according to some accounts.
Lukashenko blames the upstart campaigns on Russian interference and claims they are being funded by Russian oligarchs, in what seems a veiled reference to Babariko’s connection with Gazprom.
The Belarusian KGB (the only state security service in the Former Soviet Union to keep its ominous Soviet-era name) has been busy arresting over 200 bloggers, journalists, protestors and activists.
It is unclear just how the candidates in the race stand, as official polls are not to be trusted and unofficial ones are limited. By some accounts Babariko is the most popular, getting over 50% support amongst the electorate.
Lukashenko’s own rating has collapsed, according to the informal polls, and is down at 3%, according to one online poll that was quickly shut down by the authorities. However, that sparked a meme on Belarusian social media of “Sasha 3%”, lampooning the president for his poor showing in the ratings. Another meme sparked by Tsikhanovski’s cockroach burn is protestors now carry slippers at rallies with which to kill the pest.
The president is looking rattled. He defied public health concerns to hold a May 9 Victory Day parade with full honours, presumably as a platform for him to look presidential. Even Moscow, for whom the parade is even more symbolically significant, postponed its parade to June. Belarus currently has 54,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) – significantly more than the 29,700 in neighbouring Poland, which has four times its population.
“Citizens say they are fed up with the lack of the rule of law, administrative mismanagement, the boorishness of Lukashenka and public officials, and old-fashioned Soviet ideas on how to run an economy. People want to be listened to and are demanding fair elections. The desire for change runs through many layers of society,” says Glob.
Afraid of losing control, the president sacked the entire government on June 4. On May 25, Lukashenko, Central and Eastern Europe's longest-ruling head of state, said that the reshuffle is "a matter of principle" for people to see whom he would work with after the election.
But what smacks more of Lukashenko circling his wagons ahead of a difficult election is that he mostly appointed siloviki, or members of the security forces, to positions in the new government, shoring up his grip on power.
“The new administration set out an agenda for state protectionism and the top-down management of the economy. That looks panicky, and will not forestall a sharp economic contraction, with GDP forecast to fall 5-6% this year – the first time that an election has coincided with a recession,” Glob said.
Lukashenko must be feeling isolated as his traditional strongest ally Moscow steps back from Minsk over the heated issue of energy subsidies. At the same time, although Lukashenko has been flirting with the West, which was hoping to put a wedge in between the one-time farmer and Moscow as relations soured, Europe will remain sceptical of Belarus until it sees some real reforms put in place.
Leading members of the European Parliament responsible for EU-Belarus relations have condemned the new wave of arrests of presidential election candidates, opposition politicians and peaceful protestors and warned new sanctions could be applied unless the government backs off.
It promises to be a hot summer in Minsk this year.
“With legitimacy ebbing and stagnation increasingly unpopular, Lukashenko’s regime is short of options. If he holds on to power through electoral fraud and repression, public protests will continue. Civil society is awakening and its genie will not easily be put back in a bottle. Change may come sooner rather than later,” says Glob.