The Upcoming Belarusian Elections and the Missing Role of External Actors

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 174

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka meeting with Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (Source:

On September 26, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrived in New York to take part in the 70th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. His speech is expected on September 29. Upon arrival, Lukashenka met with Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to discuss the resumption of the IMF’s loan program for Belarus. The IMF expressed its willingness to do so in exchange for the implementation of structural reforms within the Belarusian economy. The program of reforms was developed by the Belarusian government in the spring of 2015; the last IMF mission to Minsk (July 8–15) negotiated some changes in that program, including the reduction in the role of the state in the economy. It is expected that the new IMF loan will amount to $3.5 billion, just like the 2009–2010 loan, which, in the words of Lukashenka, helped Belarus cushion the painful effects of the international financial crisis (, September 27).

Earlier, the Committee for Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament conducted hearings on Belarus. It is expected that sanctions imposed on Belarus, including travel sanctions on Lukashenka and many of his associates, will soon be suspended. Apparently, the timing of this suspension is still under discussion. During the hearings, Gunnar Wiegand, the European External Action Service’s director for Russia, the Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, regional cooperation and partnership with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), played the “good cop.” While he suggested that the deplorable situation with human rights and democracy in Belarus “has not changed overnight,” he also stated that the recent release of political prisoners (see EDM, September 4) had eliminated the main reason for imposing the sanctions in the first place. He added, “…we [Europe] would be criticized for not taking advantage of [this] window of opportunity.” Miklós Haraszti, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, played the “bad cop.” He called the prisoners’ release prior to the presidential elections “a soap opera that we have seen many times” (, September 23).

Meanwhile, the electoral campaign in Belarus proceeds onward. Tatyana Korotkevich, the only registered presidential hopeful with Westernizing nationalist credentials, staged a picket in front of the Central Department Store in Minsk, calling for the maintenance of a genuine neutrality for Belarus. The official envoy of the candidate, the retired Colonel Leonid Spatkai, stated that neutrality implies an absence of foreign military bases on Belarusian soil. However, he conceded that a Russian-Belarusian agreement on hosting a Russian airbase in Bobruisk could nonetheless go through; so if that agreement is ultimately reached, it should at least be made under conditions exceptionally beneficial for Belarus (, September 22).

Who will vote for Korotkevich is both an intriguing question and the title of a recent article written by Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty (, September 23). According to Drakakhrust, the Belarusian electorate consists of three categories. The first of these includes opposition-minded people who are ideologically driven and vehemently anti-Lukashenka. This group makes up 20 percent of the electorate. The second category is staunchly pro-Lukashenka; judging by independent pollsters, it currently accounts for about 40 percent of the voters. The rest of the electorate is the so-called “backwater” (boloto). The people belonging to this category are not just those without clear political views. Many of them simply do not embrace an ideological perspective on Belarus’s government; rather they treat it as they would a hired manager. So if the economy and they personally are doing well, then the president is fine; and if not, then he is not good at all.

Belarus’s opposition candidates have always been torn between trying to attract voters from categories one and three. And for the most part, they made a choice in favor of appealing to the former, although some presidential hopefuls have tried to win over the backwater segment. Even Vladimir Neklyaev began his activity in the Speak the Truth civic campaign by actually extoling President Lukashenka’s achievements, while promising to improve upon them. But on the eve of the 2010 presidential election, he changed his stance and declared that “everything will be decided on the square”—meaning through street demonstrations as opposed to at the ballot box. The fascinating experiment staged by Korotkevich is to treat the backwater voters with utmost seriousness. Apparently with this in mind, she almost completely avoided any talk whatsoever about politics in her first TV appearance, focusing instead on the economy. Such a strategy assumes that category one of the electorate would vote for her anyway, as it has nobody else on the ballot to choose from. This strategy may win big, but it could also backfire since nobody knows for sure what is going to be popular with the backwater segment; whereas those traditionally opposition-minded voters may not take part in the election at all. In any case, Korotkevich’s experiment amounts to a useful learning experience, Drakakhrust believes (, September 23).

Whereas Drakakhrust is arguably the intellectual leader of the Belarusian opposition-minded pundits and “talking heads,” Yury Shevtsov plays a similar role on the government side, even without being directly affiliated with it. According to Shevtsov, the incredible calmness of the current presidential election campaign is without a precedent in the country’s brief post-Soviet history. Korotkevich, the candidate of the opposition, embraces centrist views, whereas radicals have radicalized even more but almost entirely lost their clout. Apparently recognizing this, their current leader, Nikolay Statkevich, went on vacation to Greece during the campaign’s heyday. The sole reason for this unusual calm, believes Shevtsov, is that “external actors” have, for the time being, abandoned the idea to try to destabilize Belarus. Hence the continued absence of pre-election street protests that used to be organized by the opposition under the direct supervision of Western politicians and diplomats. For its part, Russia has also not aired in recent months any politically provocative documentaries along the lines of “Godfather,” an anti-Lukashenka film broadcast in Russia in 2010. But although, the most extreme radicals have lost their clout in Belarus, they have become hardened by their direct participation in the war in eastern Ukraine. That experience, some observers fear, could reveal itself unexpectedly, especially on election night (, September 28).

The presidential election is now only two weeks away. And whether the current situation represents a true calm in the Belarusian political system or a lull before the storm, will become apparent shortly.