According to Minsk analysts, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka is in danger of losing the October 17 referendum. Scheduled in conjunction with parliamentary elections, the referendum seeks to eliminate the presidential two-term limit. In addition, Lukashenka has been potentially ostracized by the unanimous passage of the “Democracy in Belarus Act ” in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he has claimed that he may be the victim of an assassination attempt. How seriously should one treat these events and how close is Lukashenka to the end of his 10-year political career?
Over a week ago, Lukashenka’s position seemed strong. The Center of Sociological and Political Studies at the Belarusian State University, headed by the respected sociologist David Rotman, conducted a survey in 70 towns and villages, which revealed that 68% of citizens felt that Lukashenka should be allowed to run for a third term with 17.8% opposed (Respublika, September 25). At this same time, even more optimistic figures were provided by a hitherto unknown but clearly government-backed organization, “Ekoom,” and government supporters are increasingly citing these statistics to counter more gloomy surveys (Belorusskaya gazeta, September 27).
But events have begun to unravel for Lukashenka. One of his most bitter rivals, General Valery Fralou, initially refused registration as a candidate for a parliamentary seat, had the decision overturned and will run in Minsk as a candidate for the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Hramada) (BSDP-NH) (Narodnaya volya, September 28).
Several candidates have emphasized the link between the parliamentary election and the referendum. M.V. Statkevich, for example, leader of the BSDP-NH, published his program as a potential deputy recently and noted that the two-term rule for president has been used by Western democracies with good reason: every president must understand that after 10 years he must step down again and “become one of us.” He stressed that every candidate should state his/her position on the referendum. If a candidate will not give a direct answer to such a question, then he/she is not to be trusted (Minskiy kuryer, October 5).
There are several claims from journalists that Lukashenka cannot win the referendum by honest means. Elena Novikova points out that in contrast to previous referendums, the 2004 version is considered so critical to European stability that analytical centers in other countries are watching it closely. The findings of Yuri Levada’s Russian Analytical Center indicate that Lukashenka cannot hope to win. To the main referendum question, “Do you allow the first president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka to participate as a candidate in the presidential elections and do you accept Article 82 of the Constitution in an amended edition?” 47.5% answered yes, 37% no, 9.7% found it “difficult to say,” and 5.8% “refused to answer” (Narodnaya volya, October 6).
Novikova describes the “shock and hysterical mood” of the president upon hearing of these results. She adds that the last two categories are without doubt opponents of the regime, signifying that some 52% of voters will register a “no” vote. Over 40% of the population believes that new politicians must come to power.
Another experienced analyst, Pavel Sheremet, has noted the receding demographic basis of Lukashenka’s support, “The percentage of Lukashenka’s support among the older sectors of society is about five times more than the 18-35 year group.” He concludes that the less educated the voter, the more likely he/she is to vote for the incumbent president. Lukashenka “represents the past.” He also believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not forgive Lukashenka for the indiscretion of exploiting the Beslan tragedy to justify the decision to hold the referendum (Narodnaya volya, October 2).
Outside the country, the frequent criticism of Belarus for democracy violations have been bolstered by direct actions. On September 27, the United States and the EU banned four Belarusian leaders from their countries for their alleged role in the disappearance of opposition members: Uladzimir Naumou, Minister of Internal Affairs; Procurator General Viktor Sheiman; Minister of Sport Yuri Sivakou; and the commander of the rapid-reaction forces, Dmitry Pavlichenka (Belorusskiy rynok, October 4-10). The passage of the bill by the U.S. Congress has heightened the feeling of isolation in Minsk. Lukashenka’s response to this news was, “They are getting more and more crazy!” (NTV, October 6).
After the decision banning the four politicians, Lukashenka declared that the West was ready to make an attempt on his life, a ploy that he used in the 1994 presidential election. Syarhey Antonchik, leader of the independent trade union, commented that it was necessary for the president to create an internal and external threat in order to achieve success at in referendum. He noted that the government has accused him, the leader of 6,500 workers, of trying to create a terrorist organization. Anatoly Lebedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, stated that the “image of a victim . . . can seduce part of the population, but not the majority” (Belorusskiy rynok, October 4-10).
With less than a week before early voting begins on October 12, the president is clearly nervous about the results. He has taken a major political risk; the electorate is at best resigned to sullen acquiescence, at worst ready to deny Lukashenka a third term. If the referendum vote is recorded fairly, it will be very close.