The ongoing presidential campaign in Belarus has been dominating news flows from that country so much that it is hard to believe anything else noteworthy could be happening. Yet, a number of crucial non-election developments also came to the fore in recent weeks.
The Belarusian economy is showing signs of sag, but not nearly as much as in Russia or the European Union: Belarus’s GDP reportedly declined 1.8 percent during the first five months of the year (Belta, July 8). Meanwhile, as expectations continue to ramp up regarding the Belarusian nuclear power plant (BNPP) starting operations at the beginning of 2021, tensions have notably been rising between neighboring Lithuania and the other two Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia. Lithuania is doggedly opposed to the BNPP and rejects purchasing any electricity from the plant once it is operational; the other two Baltic republics are not. In late June, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda even ignored the annual meeting with his Baltic counterparts because the three governments could not arrive at a common position vis-à-vis the BNPP and solicited the European Commission’s mediation (Svaboda.org, June 30; RuBaltic, June 29). On July 15, Lithuania’s first post-Soviet leader, Vitautas Landsbergis, who chairs the non-governmental organization (NGO) The Union Against BNPP, declared that “the scam [sic] intended to enslave Lithuania through the BNPP is approaching a climax. Either the old energy empire of Russia will enslave us through electricity, or we can resist it. It is especially important to observe the law in principle [Lithuania has codified its stand on the BNPP via legislation]—not to buy this unclean electricity, not to finance the Astrovets [BNPP] scam, and not to give our Kruonis [Pumped Storage Power Plant] to the Kremlin. [Unfortunately,] Pro-Russian entrepreneurs, fans of the BNPP in Lithuania and Latvia, which has become Moscow’s satellite, may influence the [Lithuanian] president’s attitudes” (Delfi.lt, July 15).
The irony of the situation is that Lithuania’s Kruonis facility was built by the Soviets expressly to work in sync with a nuclear power plant—at Ignalina. The output of that plant met the combined demand of then-Soviet Lithuania, Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast. Only after Ignalina was closed, at the EU’s insistence, did Kruonis become a self-contained power station; but now, Lithuania imports 75 percent of its electricity consumption. Additionally, Lithuania is worried that the looming oversupply of cheap electricity due to the BNPP may make the EU less enthusiastic about funding the Baltic cutoff from BRELL, the unified power system of Russia and Belarus, planned for 2025. The ambiguous position of Latvia and Estonia exacerbates Lithuania’s concerns but is, obviously, welcomed by Belarus.
Although nothing suggests Belarus’s dependency on Russian oil will diminish significantly in the foreseeable future, Minsk continues to pursue its diversification strategy. With this in mind, it has announced the second, 80,000-ton purchase of oil from the United States (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, July 16).
Perhaps most importantly in the short run is that Russia and Belarus have finally signed an agreement regarding Russian oil supplies until the end of the year. The terms of this contract are unclear; however, Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko called them beneficial for his country. Additionally, Russia extended the duration of its BNPP-related loan until the end of 2022, replaced the fluctuating interest rate on the loan with a fixed rate of 3.3 percent per annum, and postponed the start date of the repayment of the loan from 2021 to 2023 (Tut.by, July 14).
Through Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, Russia also declared that it is “not interested in Belarus’s destabilization like what took place in Ukraine in 2014… What happened in Ukraine,” added Rudenko, “was like an inoculation for many states, including the one closest to us, Belarus” (Tut.by, July 16). Furthermore, he denied Russia has interfered or seeks to meddle in the Belarusian elections, scheduled for August 9.
On July 14, in the wake of the non-registration of Victor Babariko, the jailed banker, as an official Belarusian presidential candidate, youths in Minsk took to the streets to protest, and about 250 of them were apprehended by police. Some influential voices on the opposition side criticized these demonstrations as hastily instigated by online bloggers from without Belarus and, therefore, largely counterproductive (Nasha Niva, T.me/klaskouski, July 15).
As can be observed from following online social networks and virtually all Belarusian media outlets that give voice to the opposition, most of the opposition-minded public does not consider the three presidential hopefuls Babariko, Valery Tsepkalo and Sergei Tikhanovski (also jailed) to be Russian stooges. Conceivably, some might simply not care because of their sheer fixation on finally ousting incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The opposite opinion (i.e., that Russia’s meddling is happening) has been repeatedly and forcibly articulated by Zianon Pazniak, the founder of the Belarusian Popular Front (in exile since 1996) and, in fact, by President Lukashenka himself, Pazniak’s nemesis. Pazniak even discourages post-election street protests this year unless they are thoughtfully organized—of which there is no sign at present (Narodnaja-partyja.org, July 14).
The most effective gesture by the presidential hopefuls themselves has been the “unification” of three campaign staffs: those of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (the wife of the jailed videoblogger Sergei) Babariko, and Tsepkalo (Tut.by, July 16). Of the three, only Svetlana was successfully registered by the Central Electoral Commission—perhaps as an ostensibly humane and potentially harmless gesture on the part of the authorities. Since Tikhanovskaya is mainly just a dedicated spouse of her jailed husband and much of the electoral staff she inherited from him is in disarray, this unification has effectively been dominated by the reasonably active teams of Tsepkalo and Babariko. The picture of three women, Tikhanovskaya herself, Veronica Tsepkalo (Valery’s wife) and Maria Kolesnikova (Babariko’s representative and a professional flutist), has become the most popular symbol of the current opposition to the incumbent president. The articulated idea is to boost the vote for Tikhanovskaya and then conduct “true elections” in case she actually wins.
At least one more registered presidential hopeful, Sergei Cherechen of the social democratic party Gromada, is negotiating to also join the group at some point and, thus, effectively withdraw from the race. Andrei Dmitriev of the Tell the Truth campaign is considering such a move as well. Besides the incumbent, the only other remaining registered candidate, former parliamentarian Anna Kanopatskaya, is not expected to join the united opposition effort. She has asserted that there are only two serious politicians running: herself and Lukashenka (Tut.by, July 13). It bears watching whether this dynamic political situation calms back down by the time August 9 rolls around.