Four new candidates have been chosen to run for the Belarusian presidency after congresses and meetings among some of the major opposition parties. They bring the number of declared and potential candidates to around fourteen, and reflect some of the differences and anxieties facing politicians in a harsh environment for freedom of speech and economic uncertainty.
On May 29, the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) held an extraordinary congress at the Palace of Culture in the Minsk Tractor Factory. It was attended by 172 delegates, of which 163 took part in voting. Of that figure, 150 voted for the candidacy of Ryhor Kastusyou, a 53-year old factory manager and former state farm chairman from President, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s, own Shklou district in Mahileu. However, the meeting revealed a split in the party. Neither of the two former party leaders, Lyavon Barshcheuski and Vintsuk Vyachorka, attended the meeting because of a disagreement over the formation of delegates and a claimed preponderance of members who also work for the Movement for Freedom. The leader of the Minsk organization of the BPF, Viktar Ivashkevich, also declined to attend. The current leader of the BPF, Aleksey Yanukevich is ineligible to run because, at 33 years of age, he is two years under the minimum age requirement (www.svaboda.org, May 29; Belapan, May 31).
In his speech at the Congress, Kastusyou declared that a genuine conflict has emerged between Belarus and Russia, but “for us” any variant that permits support for Lukashenka is impossible. However, the policy that “the enemy of one’s enemy” is automatically one’s friend is also far-fetched. Neither the Kremlin, nor Lukashenka, place priority on the national interests of Belarus and therefore he will campaign against both the president and Moscow (www.svaboda.org, May 29).
On May 31, at Minsk’s plushest hotel, the Crowne Plaza, Yuri Hlushakou, Deputy Chairman of the Green Party, declared his candidacy. The main focus of his campaign will be environmental safety, health and welfare, and opposition to the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power station in Hrodna region. Hlushakou also announced that if elected he would limit the office of president to a maximum of two terms (as enshrined in the original 1994 Constitution) and increase the authority of local councils. In addition, Hlushakou intends to introduce a new election law (www.svaboda.org, May 31; www.naviny.by, May 31).
The United Civic Party also held a meeting of its Political Council to discuss the choice of presidential candidate. Somewhat surprisingly, it opted for the 44-year old economist, Yaraslau Ramanchuk, rather than longtime party leader, Anatol Lyabedzka. The latter explained that at this particular juncture, Belarus needs someone with experience of economic matters and thus Deputy Chairman, Ramanchuk, is a more realistic choice. Ramanchuk, a native of Hrodna region, served briefly on the Commission for Economic Policies and Reforms in the 1996 parliament and is currently head of the Minsk-based research center Mizesa. He is fluent in English and a prolific author of somewhat apocalyptic economic pamphlets. Should he be elected president, he would appoint Lyabedzka to the post of Prime Minister. Though the party has yet to hold a congress of rank-and-file members, it seems unlikely that it would change the choice of candidate (www.svaboda.org, May 31).
The fourth candidate is former parliamentary deputy, and longstanding oppositionist, General Valery Fralou, who formerly headed the Respublika faction in the assembly. On his own account he approached several friends with suggestions that they run, such as Syarhey Kalyakin, head of the “Just World” party, and trade union leader, Alyaksandr Lukashuk. As neither was willing to stand he decided to adopt “the principle of Napoleon” and run himself. He states that he has never made a secret of his pro-Russian sentiments: “But this does not mean I am against Belarus” and it is possible, in his view, to preserve national interests while promoting fraternal relations with Russia. However, he insists that proper electoral conditions must be in place as the existing system serves simply to legitimize Lukashenka. Fralou also started a campaign prior to the 2006 presidential elections that had to be abandoned as he gathered only some 58,000 signatures rather than the 100,000 required (Radio Svoboda, May 31).
Fralou’s proclaimed stance is not dissimilar to that of the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, but he lacks the backing of a powerful economic or political constituency. He may hope, however, to secure the support of the Kremlin, which has made it clear that it will no longer support Lukashenka. The present rift was exacerbated by the nonappearance of the Belarusian Prime Minister, Syarhey Sidorski, at the May 28 trilateral summit of the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan, a last-minute cancellation to protest against export duties placed on Russian crude oil exported to Belarus (www.naviny.by, June 5).
The plethora of choices makes it unlikely that the various parties will agree ultimately on a single candidate, which reduces the already remote probability that the election might go to a second round. On the other hand, the high number of announced campaigns means that a policy of official repression, a familiar feature of Belarus in the winter of 2009 and spring of 2010, is unlikely to succeed because of the difficulties in targeting so many candidates.
In addition, Belarusian elections are not about winning or losing, but more about exploiting an opportunity for communication with the electorate and expressing alternative views to audiences more accustomed to the idiosyncratic mood swings and pronouncements of their president.