Preparations for the presidential election in Belarus, scheduled for August 9, are now in full swing. May 15 was the deadline for the so-called initiative groups (IG), representing those willing to run, to apply for registration with the Central Electoral Commission. Altogether, as many as 55 candidates filed their IG applications. In Belarus, any citizen who reached 35 years of age and who resided in the country for 10 straight years immediately preceding the start of the election campaign can run for president.
Some IG applications have already been registered, including that of the incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is running for his sixth term, as well as the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Oleg Gaidukevich, whose father ran against Lukashenka in several elections. Some other applications have been rejected, including that of the popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovski, currently behind bars for 15 days for violating a public order in the city of Mogilev, and as many as nine candidates representing the bloc of Nikolai Statkevich, a rebel without serious clout but always ready for a street fight. The rejections were made on the basis of technicalities, such as a missing original signature from Tikhanovski or many of the same individuals simultaneously belonging to the nine different IGs representing the Statkevich bloc. In the next stage, lasting from May 21 to June 19, the registered IGs must collect at least 100,000 valid signatures for each candidate (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 15).
Most of the IG applications have yet to be processed because they were submitted hours before the Friday evening deadline. These include the applications of five opposition leaders, four of whom took part in the primaries meant to select one winner but instead became caught up in an irreconcilable fight with one another and decided to run individually. Two of the applications still to be considered have captured particularly strong attention: those of former diplomat and businessman Valery Tsepkalo (see EDM, May 12) as well as previous (he resigned a couple of weeks ago) chairperson of Belgasprombank, Victor Babariko, who had worked in that capacity for 20 years.
Following his 2017 ouster from the position as the head of the High-Tech Park (HTP), Tsepkalo disappeared from public view and was involved in information technology (IT) management consulting for governments (notably in Uzbekistan) willing to develop their own HTPs. Tsepkalo is no stranger to meaningful and purposeful twists of fate. In 2011, this author asked him why he decided to abandon a successful diplomatic career (from 1997 to 2003, he was the youngest foreign ambassador in Washington, DC) in favor of founding the HTP, with then unknown prospects. In response, Tsepkalo revealed that, as a diplomat in Washington, he was frustrated by the complete lack of visible progress stemming from his efforts. Whereas, as head of the HTP, he could easily see the fruits of his organizational effort.
As a presidential hopeful, Tsepkalo is off to an unconvincing start. He sold his house in the northern part of Minsk in order to fund his campaign and gave an extensive interview to Dev.by, an IT-centered online newspaper, only to later cancel its publication; so the newspaper published only the abstract of his interview while expressing bewilderment over Tsepkalo’s apparent change of heart (Dev.by, May 12). Perhaps most importantly, Tsepkalo’s IG consists of solely 555 people, grossly inadequate for the daunting task of collecting 100,000 signatures within a month.
Babariko’s campaign could not be more different. Since early April, he published three extensive interviews, and his IG consists of more than 7,000 people. Additionally, there are 51 regional coordinators of his electoral effort. On Saturday, May 16, he communicated with his potential supporters on Instagram. Like Tsepkalo, he does not identify with the traditional opposition. He claims he is a wealthy man and a tested manager, under whose leadership Belgasprombank earned huge revenues (Svaboda.org, May 16). Tellingly, the state-run media, which has so far kept mum about Tsepkalo, has already attacked and lampooned Babariko. For instance, the main government newspaper, Belarus Segodnya, suggested that Babariko’s economic theorizing does not hold water and pointed out that he has called Belarus a financial/economic parasite, akin to a drug addict (Belarus Segodnya, May 14).
Who stands behind these two presidential hopefuls is vigorously debated. According to one hypothesis, both men are spoilers, their participation in the presidential race allegedly initiated at the helm of power with the aim to deliver respectable opponents to the incumbent so his victory would look more deserved. This idea was floated and partially disproved by some opposition media outlets (Naviny, May 10; Svaboda.org, May 12). Moreover, colorful poems written in the tradition of Ivan Barkov’s (1732–1768) erotic “Shameful Odes” have been circulated by the Minsk-based entrepreneur Yury Gonchar, describing and ridiculing the emergence of the aforementioned two presidential hopefuls as a ruse (Facebook.com/yuri.gonchar.9, May 15). Yet another hypothesis, regarding Babariko specifically, is that he is essentially a candidate of the Russian energy business sector (Politring, May 15). Indeed, Belgasprombank is owned by Russia’s Gazprom, with practically no invested Belarusian capital.
The backdrop for the developing electoral campaign has also been controversial given the timing. The novel coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the population, with 28,681 Belarusians having tested positive for COVID-19, 9,498 recovered and 160 dead of the disease as of May 16 (Belta, May 16). The self-proclaimed democratic opposition continues to demand more mobility restrictions from the authoritarian government, a paradox in and of itself but also a curious mirror reflection of the protesters in the West demanding, to the contrary, that the restrictions imposed there be eased. The putative contribution of the May 9 Victory Day military parade (see EDM, May 12) to the diffusion of COVID-19 through Belarusian society is not yet known. But notably, the Slovakian ambassador to Belarus, Jozef Migaš, resigned from his post after attending the Minsk parade, in violation of his government’s instructions. “I am a son of a [World War II], partisan and an anti-fascist,” declared the ambassador in justifying his act of defiance (Tut.by, May 14).
Whether or not the winner of this summer’s election can already be predicted, by all accounts the campaign season itself is proving to be unexpectedly dynamic.