The outcome of yesterday’s presidential balloting in Belarus is a foregone conclusion. Incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka orchestrated what was essentially a one-man campaign, saturating the country with media coverage of his own candidacy while denying media access to opposition candidate Uladzimir Hancharyk. The balloting, moreover, began under the control of the administrative apparatus five days before the September 9 official election date, and it will be the same apparatus that will count the votes. International organizations seem certain to rate the election as neither free nor fair.
The opposition had hoped against hope that Russia might at the last moment veer toward an equidistant position and redress at least partly the internal situation in Belarus. These hopes, however, were not warranted by precedent and were in any case not borne out.
On September 7, two days before the official balloting day, Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly endorsed Alyaksandr Lukashenka for reelection as president. “We highly appreciate President Lukashenka’s sincere stance in favor of a union with Russia,” Putin said in a televised statement. The wording entails an element of conditionality and the expectation of quid-pro-quo, once Lukashenka is reelected.
Opposition candidate Uladzimir Hancharyk expressed his “profound disappointment” over Putin’s move. “This only complicates the situation. I wish that Putin had drawn the proper conclusions about what is going on in Belarus.” On August 29, Hancharyk had publicly appealed to Putin, as one of the presidents of the “union state,” to exert his influence and ensure the holding of free elections in Belarus. Describing the election as a grotesque parody and assuring Putin that “all of us are firm supporters of integration,” Hancharyk asked the Russian president “to become a guarantor of really fair and democratic election in the allied republic of Belarus.” Hancharyk broadcast this appeal as part of the second of only two televised addresses, of only thirty minutes each, to which he was entitled under Lukashenka’s electoral law (Belarusan Television, August 29).
The appeal appeared to reflect an awkward attempt by Hancharyk’s campaign to reassure the pro-Russian sections of the electorate. By the same token, it undoubtedly irritated core opposition groups. The Popular Front, for example, had made its support to Hancharyk conditional on his taking unambiguous stands, first, against the Russia-Belarus Union and, second, in defense of the Belarusan language.
The Kremlin’s explicit endorsement capped a series of signals–including seven Putin-Lukashenka bilateral meetings held this election year thus far–that left no doubt of the Kremlin’s preferences. Putin’s Kremlin, moreover, unlike Boris Yeltsin’s, reined in the critical coverage of the situation in Belarus by Russian state television networks. According to ORT reporter Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusan and a long-time sympathizer of the democratic opposition, Russian state-controlled media were “ordered to go easy on Lukashenka” (interview with The Boston Globe, September 8.)
In Moscow, the influential foreign policy adviser Andranik Migranian cited the following rationale for the Kremlin’s stance: “We have to choose either Lukashenka, who advocates unification, a common defense and monetary space of Russia and Belarus, or the leaders of the Popular Front, who want an anti-Russian Belarus…. In the future we shall have to give some thought to possible alternatives to Lukashenka. There are no such alternatives now.”
That assessment ignores the shifts and realignments within the Belarusan opposition since last year’s parliamentary elections. This time around, the opposition coalesced around centrist figures, while the Popular Front itself accepted a back seat in the coalition. The intention was to offer a mainstream–in Belarusan terms–alternative to Lukashenka, to depolarize the contest, to capture parts of the nonnationalist and even pro-Russian electorate by emphasizing social issues and to reassure Moscow that it did not face a choice between Lukashenka and the Popular Front.
Official Moscow was not reassured, however. Most of the major political forces there came out for Lukashenka. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev and other politicians endorsed Lukashenka for reelection. Most of these went to Minsk shortly before the balloting day to declare their support. They were joined by Ukrainian Communist leader Petro Symonenko, who went so far as to make campaign appearances in support of Lukashenka. Boris Nemtsov, leader of Russia’s Union of Right Forces, was a rare exception. He endorsed Hancharyk, paid tribute to his courage and asserted that Russia-Belarus relations could “gain a new meaning” if Hancharyk won.
The opposition’s hopes to force Lukashenka into a runoff rested on persuading Russia to remain equidistant. As Tatsyana Pratska, president of the Belarusan Helsinki Committee, regretfully observed, “everything depends on Russia. Whichever candidate gets Russian support becomes president. The idea that we cannot survive without Russia is engraved on our collective subconscious” (AFP, September 5).
The presidential administration may even choose to award second place in the contest to Syarhey Haidukevich, its own stalking horse in the election, an openly pro-Russian candidate whose role was to attack Hancharyk at every step of the campaign (Belarusan Television and radio, Belapan, September 3-9; Interfax, Itar-Tass, September 7-9; Vremya MN, September 7; NTV, September 8).
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