The upcoming presidential campaign in Belarus is gaining momentum. This pivotal theme is being discussed against the backdrop of, and in conjunction with, two other phenomena: the ongoing economic decline and regional geopolitics.
Alongside the incumbent, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, thirteen candidates applied to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) for registration. Each of them has presented to the CEC a list of campaign staff that will have to collect—in case of registration—at least 100,000 signatures in support of their candidate. On July 20, the CEC has registered eight candidates and denied registration to the remaining six, citing various formal violations. Aside from Lukashenka, whose campaign staff includes 10,577 people, the five other best-known registered candidates include Oleg Gaidukevich (who chairs the Liberal Democratic Party and took part in the 1994, 2001 and 2006 elections), Alyaksandr Kalyakin (who chairs the Just World party, a splinter Communist group), Anatol Lyabedzka (the leader of the United Civic Party), Tatsyana Karatkevich (from the Speak the Truth civic campaign), and Victor Tereshchenko (a businessman, who also ran for president in 1994 and 2010). While these candidates at least enjoy some name recognition in Belarus, two other presidential hopefuls, Nikolai Ulakhovich and Zhanna Romanovskaya, are unknown. Ulakhovich is the leader of a somewhat shadowy Cossack association, and Romanovskaya is a former secondary school teacher (Belta.by, July 20). In an attempt to publicize his attitude to the abundance of unelectable candidates, the Belarusian journalist Vassily Semashko brought his cat Barsik to the CEC’s offices and solicited his registration as well (Tut.by, July 17). According to some witty observers, the cat was denied registration for being under 35 years of age, the requisite minimum threshold to be elected head of state in Belarus.
Yury Drakakhrust, of Radio Liberty and Tut.by, believes that this collection of presidential hopefuls accurately reflects the makeup of Belarusian society. Meanwhile, the abundance of long-shot candidates is an indicator of the public’s negative perception of the state of the economy—when it is weak, the profusion of eccentric candidates is unavoidable, he argued (Tut.by, July 20). And the Belarusian economy is, indeed, in free fall. From January to June 2015, the output of machine-building, which accounts for one-quarter of industrial employment in the country, declined by 29.4 percent. Within some product groups, the situation is even more dramatic. Thus, the output of trucks has declined by 59.9 percent, the output of tractors by 34 percent, and the output of buses by 55.2 percent. Ultimately, Russia’s shrinking demand for these items stands behind the drastic slowdown (Naviny.by, July 17).
Belarus is now soliciting loans from both Russia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As for the IMF, the process is not likely to be brief—the official negotiations can merely start this year, and their outcome is contingent on Belarus fulfilling certain demands like curtailing state-funded programs, conducting privatization, raising unemployment benefits in anticipation of massive layoffs, and making sure utility payments are not overly subsidized (Tut.by, July 15). As for Russia, on July 14, it already decided that Belarus will receive $760 million to service its debts, and Minsk is asking Moscow for up to $3 billion in loans (Tut.by, July 17). As usual in the context of Belarus, the West is several steps behind Russia in aiding this Eastern European post-Soviet republic—a clear reflection of an inflexible and inertia-driven Western policy.
In this regard, pundits and diplomats, as well as geopolitically minded analysts, are well ahead of the West’s policymakers. Thus, during the July 20 episode of the talk show “Prague Accent,” which airs on the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty, the ambassador of an unnamed Western European country to Belarus was quoted as saying that “Lukashenka is the only powerful politician in all of Eastern Europe. And his tactical genius often outsmarts Moscow.” According to one of the participants of the same discussion, “on many counts, Greece is much less independent than Belarus” (Svaboda.org, July 20).
A fascinating dynamic exists between the competing geopolitical visions of Belarus on both sides of the growing divide in Europe. Sometimes they evince a striking symmetry (see EDM, June 2). Thus, speaking to the Russian on-line journal RuBaltic, the Belarusian philosopher Alexei Dziermant underscored that Belarus is the last obstacle for those trying to create an “instability arch” in Europe, whereby the Baltic instability hearth would merge with Ukraine if the said obstacle is overcome. Dziermant claims that for the Baltic States themselves, the current regime in Belarus is more favorable than the Belarusian Westernizer nationalists might be because the latter would immediately raise claims on Vilnius and its environs. To the question how Belarusians see the roots of the disastrous situation in Ukraine, Dziermant first points to the weakness of the Ukrainian state, then to the irresponsible policy of the European Union that did not foresee the obvious consequences of its geopolitical games with Ukraine, and only then to Russia’s behavior (RuBaltic.ru, July 16). Conversely, Polish author Ryszard (Richard) Drozdowski of EMPR revives the concept of Intermarium (Mędzymorze, i.e. between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea), which was originally devised by the Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski. This confederal geopolitical structure could act as an arch-shaped cordon sanitaire, enveloping Russia from the west. However, Drozdowski claims that Belarus, which he sees as potentially integral to Intermarium, first “needs liberation from both her own mini autocrat [and] from Russia” (EMPR, March 31).
It is all the more illuminating that a recent column by Konrad Rękas, on the Polish conservative portal Konserwatyzm.pl, more closely matches the opinion expressed by Dziermant than the idea penned by Drozdowski of a Lukashenka-free Belarus joining a proposed Intermarium. According to Rękas, “under the guidance of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus […] has achieved internal stabilization (socially, economically and politically) [and] is now a key element of geopolitical equilibrium and security of the entire region.” The piece goes on to mock the ongoing attempts to support Belarusian democrats, who are only interested in sustaining the “stream of Western grants” (Konserwatyzm.pl, July 20).
Objectively speaking, these discordant voices on Belarus reinforce the idea that a strong state and social order in Belarus have intrinsic value. Like a steady ship, this order resists fickle winds, something that Belarus’s southern neighbor had failed to achieve since gaining independence—a lesson that the Belarusian electorate will not likely ignore.