Upcoming Elections in Belarus Highlight Autocratic Political Landscape

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 26

(Source: Gomel State Medical University)

Executive Summary:

  • The upcoming Belarusian elections highlight a political landscape dominated by a few parties that support the existing regime in Minsk amid criticism of limited political alternatives and a lack of international observers.
  • President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s emphasis on generational change raises speculation about succession, while efforts to reinforce vigilance against foreign interference persist.
  • Significant positive change in Belarus’s political system will likely be contingent on a broader decline in confrontation across Europe.

On February 25, Belarus will hold parliamentary elections and elections to regional and local councils (Soviets). As many as 5,411 polling stations have been established across the country. Altogether, 110 members of the House of Representatives and 12,514 members of the Soviets are to be elected (Belta, February 16, 20; Ministry of Communications and Informatization of the Republic of Belarus, accessed February 21). Since the mid-1990s, there have been fifteen political parties in Belarus. Some have disintegrated but continued to exist “on paper.” Others have revealed their presence in public life numerous times, such as the Belarusian Popular Front, a party of Belarusian Westernizers who promote speaking Belarusian and agitating for Western-style economic and political arrangement, and the United Civic Party of social-democratic orientation.

Currently, only four political parties are officially registered in Belarus: Belaya Rus, the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP), Labor and Justice, and the Communist Party. The LDP positions itself as “right-of-center” (LDPB program, accessed February 21). The Belaya Rus party, with the most numerous membership, estimated to be over 200,000 members, positions itself simply as the party of supporters of the President of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and facilitates the “consolidation of civil society” around him (TASS, March 23, 2023; BelayaRusProgram, accessed February 21). The two other parties are markedly left-wing. Fundamental ideological differences between these parties pale beside one common denominator: all four parties survived the crackdown on political opposition following the August 2020 presidential elections and supported the existing political regime. In the words of Oleg Gaidukevich, the LDP leader, in 2020, “they tried to destroy the powers that be unconstitutionally and to carry out a color revolution. Now, the political milieu has also changed because, after the events of 2020, it was cleared of the fifth column. All political parties and public organizations that the West financed for decades were liquidated, and rightly so” (EurasiaExpert, January 26).

Most, if not all, political activists who favor rapprochement with the West and base the economic and political system of Belarus on genuinely liberal and democratic foundations have either emigrated or have been jailed. Human rights watchdogs believe there are currently 1,418 political prisoners in Belarus (Spring96, February 16). It is hard to say to what extent citizens of Belarus who stayed are consolidated around the regime. Available estimates obtained by online surveys conducted by émigré analysts, however, suggest that in late 2022, 61.7 percent of Belarusians trusted their government (Briefing, January 2023). Belarus’s economic growth was at 4.5 percent in 2022 and 3.8 percent in 2023 despite Western sanctions (Ilex.by, December 26; Sularu.com, January). In 2023, the average wage ($714 per month) showed an 11 percent increase compared with the previous year, though it was below the rate of inflation of 12.2 percent (MyFin, January 25, February 12).

The creation ofthe All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, now a constitutional body, will follow elections to the legislature. This is a congregation of 1,200 handpicked bureaucrats and members of parliament. They will function like a parliament as: “the highest representative body of democracy in the Republic of Belarus, determining the strategic directions for the development of society and the state, ensuring the inviolability of the constitutional system, continuity of generations and civil harmony” (President.gov.by, accessed February 21).

Lukashenka recently commented on the effect of generational change. He asserted that the nation should take this change seriously lest they make the same mistakes as Gorbachev, which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Belta, January 26). Given that generational change is a constant, the timing of these comments might correlate with Lukashenka’s own musings about his age and the ultimate inevitability of the end of his political career. Artyom Shraibman, a nonresident scholar of the Carnegie Endowment, observed that a retiring authoritarian leader can never entirely trust his chosen successor. After all, it was arch-conservative Yury Andropov who initiated the enthronement of reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union, and it was Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan who chose his reformist successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (Svaboda, February 8).

Lukashenka is also ensuring that Belarus remains wary of foreign interference. His recent comments about a group of saboteurs and spies that the Belarusian KGB captured in the Lelchytsy district of Gomel Oblast along the border with Ukraine on February 14 and 15 will help sustain and reinforce the spirit of vigilance regarding the “machinations and intrigues” of Belarus’s enemies. According to Lukashenka, along with the members of the group allegedly sent by the Ukrainian Security Service across the border, those apprehended included some Belarusian citizens (Belta, February 16).

Belarusian analysts in exile continue to express their harsh criticism of Belarus’s upcoming elections. Other than a lack of a political alternative, the most criticized aspect is the shortage of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and from Western agencies. Most observers are from the Secretariat of the Commonwealth of Independent States under the guidance of Sergei Lebedev, a veteran of Russian intelligence. Currently, Lebedev is observing elections in Azerbaijan, where the number of political prisoners (about 200) is well below that of Belarus. In Azerbaijan, however, two opposition parties dared to decline participation in the elections because they deemed them undemocratic (Pozirk, February 7).

Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran of Belarusian opposition-minded journalism who authored this criticism, also condemns the upcoming elections into the Coordination Council of the opposition almost as harshly. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s October 2023 promise to stage elections to that council as “an alternative to elections to the pseudo-parliament that the regime is holding” has not panned out. Due to internal fights and procedural complications, these elections will probably occur in May, if not later, and very few people from Belarus will participate, even if they can vote online (Pozirk, February 9).

By all indications, it will take a broader decline in confrontation in Europe for Belarus’s political system to change for the better.