Belarus’s Election Campaign: The Calm Before the Storm?
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 99
The end of June marked the beginning of a (likely brief) respite in Belarus’s presidential election campaign, but it may prove to be the lull before the storm. After the elimination of former deputy foreign minister and Minsk High-Tech Park founder Valery Tsepkalo’s candidacy because of allegedly too many invalid signatures collected on his behalf, it is expected that the same fate will befall Belgazprombank head Victor Babariko. The latter submitted as many as 360,000 signatures needed to be registered as a candidate in this year’s election; and while around 200,000 of those turned out to be faulty, he still had enough for the Central Election Commission to declare he could run—even from behind bars (he was arrested last month on various corruption and theft–related charges). But valid signatures are not enough, and now his income declaration is likely to disqualify him (Belsat, June 30). Should this happen, the incumbent, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, will find himself facing off against a much weaker crop of rivals. This is notable since, according to Kirill Koktysh, a Minsk-born political science professor at the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Lukashenka’s actual popularity rating hovers somewhere around 30 percent (Russiancouncil.ru, July 3). That estimation is buttressed by April 2020 polling results from the city of Minsk (25 percent support for Lukashenka), which usually registers lower ratings for the long-serving head of state than does Belarus at large (see EDM, June 23). The presidential election will be held on August 9.
During the seeming campaign respite, a series of seminal analytical essays sparked a multifaceted debate on the state of the Belarusian presidential race so far. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, an influential Russian political commentator, the events in Belarus are not likely to follow the Ukrainian scenario, because the external actors drew lessons from what occurred in Kyiv six years ago. Furthermore, now, unlike in 2013–2014, those outside actors are immersed in their own problems. Nevertheless, Lukyanov believes, Lukashenka is more nervous today than he was in previous elections. This is both because of his sheer longevity at the helm of power and because Moscow is now following in the footsteps of “Donald Trump’s mercantilism” and has stopped rewarding Lukashenka’s caprices, knowing all too well that Belarus’s economic dependency on Moscow cannot be overcome without a catastrophe (Globalaffairs.ru, June 23).
MGIMO’s Koktysh echoes Lukyanov’s observations. But at the same time, he observes that Minsk failed to sell its COVID-19 strategy to the domestic audience, which mistook it for callousness. Coupled with economic decline, this undermined public trust in the authorities. The deficit of trust was seized upon by rival presidential hopefuls, whose success in courting public opinion would not have been nearly as significant otherwise. Koktysh makes the point that the most recent visits of dignitaries from the United State to Belarus—first by then–National Security Advisor John Bolton (August 2019) and later Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (February 2020)—did not achieve much, because Minsk and Washington saw their mutual agreements not as inherently valuable but rather as a lever to make a point to a third party, which happens to be Moscow. Finally, Koktysh does not believe that Minsk has evidence to justify (in the eyes of Moscow) the de facto nationalization of Belgazprombank. Consequently, Moscow’s bargaining position has improved and Minsk’s worsened in the face of the inevitable resumption of integration talks (Russiancouncil.ru, July 3). Notably, in recent days, Belarusian ambassador to Moscow, Vladimir Semashko, disclosed that, in 2019, Russia proposed that Belarus transfer 95 percent of its regulatory financial-economic functions to the Union State level; though at that time this was decidedly rebuffed (Belta, July 1).
Like Koktysh, Andrei Skriba is a native of Minsk working in Moscow (Higher School of Economics), but the latter represents a younger generation. Skriba sees three possible conclusions to the current electoral drama: the regime could “fail under the burden of societal attitudes”; it could pursue economic reforms, thus making it more viable; or it might count on a last-ditch helping hand from “unknown [Russian]” actors. The third option, Skriba suggests, would reflect adherence to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s principle (which the former US president had articulated vis-à-vis Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza García) of “yes, a son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch” (Globalaffairs.ru, June 29). In turn, Belarusian analyst Artyom Shraibman suggests that Minsk is embarking on a path of “geopolitical loneliness” because it has almost exhausted the benefits of trying to maneuver between the regional and global centers of power (Carnegie.ru, June 29).
Finally, Minsk Dialogue founder Yauheni Preiherman doubles down on his earlier thesis that the lack of national consolidation is Belarus’s major vulnerability (see EDM, April 22). Moreover, the way the authorities are behaving drives Belarus away from consolidation. Forcible actions, like the arrests of bloggers and activists, may not preclude explosion this time around, he contends, because people are growing angrier. The situation is unpredictable, as the electoral campaign follows the “worst possible scenario for Belarus’s independence.” Like Koktysh, Preiherman believes Minsk’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Moscow has weakened, which fits Russia’s interests. Russia is now in the best position to react to events in Minsk since it has always maintained a presence in Belarus; whereas, the West has been largely absent, for over a decade focusing instead on maintaining its sanctions regime against the East European country (Telegraf, June 29).
By all accounts, the rest of the summer will be eventful in Minsk. If violence on or after August 9 can still be avoided, it will likely be because of unconventional reasons. As per Minsk-based commentator Sviatoslav Witkowski, offline protest activity is now heavily influenced by its online counterpart. But since the latter is not contingent on face-to-face contact, it cannot properly prepare its participants for an actual confrontation in the streets; rather, online activism tends to produce public protests that are infantile and immature (Facebook.com/DeadChopin, July 5). If, however, that outcome helps save lives, some may consider it a blessing.